After the testimony had been presented, Congressman Rob Andrews (D-New Jersey) asked witness Lew Minsky, an attorney testifying on behalf of the ERISA Industry Committee, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America, and other organizations, what would be the problem with a specific fee disclosure to participants—a breakdown of recordkeeping, money management, and “other.’ To which Mr. Minsky replied, “I’m not sure that anything is inherently wrong with it. It’s the devil in the details….’
The Right Questions
Details matter in such things, of course—not only in legislation, but also in the reality of what 401(k) plans are paying for what they are getting. Unfortunately, it frequently comes down not just to asking the questions, but to asking the right questions. Jon Chambers, an investment consultant and Principal at Schultz, Collins, Lawson, Chambers, Inc., told the committee about a situation where his firm had been engaged in a mapping study for a large 401(k) plan. In the process, they also conducted a fee reasonableness review for the plan sponsor. “The plan sponsor thought the plan fees must be reasonable, because as they reviewed each investment option, each investment option had reasonable fees,’ Chambers recounted.
But the reasonableness review found that the total fees generated by the bundled arrangement currently in place were approximately $1 million higher than “necessary’ under an unbundled arrangement, according to Chambers. In that case, what hadn’t been communicated (or inquired about) was the availability of a share class more appropriate for the asset size of the plan.
I hear stories like that from advisers all the time, of course. And while I don’t believe that most plan sponsors are being taken advantage of, I am nonetheless concerned that many are. How could they not be, what with the labyrinth that many must go through to simply discover what the different fee types are, much less how much they are, and who that money flows to for what services (and, IMHO, in too many cases, for WHAT services is the better question)?
There are devils in the details of all this, of course—not the least of which is how we help participants who don’t know the difference between a stock and a bond appreciate the nuances of revenue-sharing—but we are long past the point of debating whether more disclosure is needed. And if the hearing last week established nothing beyond that, it was well worth the effort.
More information about last week’s hearing is available at Fee Disclosure Proposal Draws Industry Criticism at House Committee Hearing. You can watch last week’s hearing online HERE.