Providers Seek to Set a Positive Tone Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

From big hiring plans to targeted fee cuts, retirement plan service providers are doing their best to help plan sponsor clients and intermediaries navigate this crisis.

Fidelity Investments has announced plans to hire approximately 2,000 people this year, including advisers, to strengthen its customer service capabilities at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is dramatically impacting the daily lives of practically all Americans.

Like other providers, Fidelity says its clients need more help than ever to navigate the pandemic.

“We have seen unprecedented engagement from our individual clients as well as 401(k), 403(b), defined benefit [DB] and stock plan participants, all of whom are turning to Fidelity to help them navigate this challenging environment,” says Kathy Murphy, president of personal investing at Fidelity.

A Fidelity spokesperson observes that between February 24 and March 31, participant call volumes increased by 25% from the same period a year earlier. Also in that period, activity on Fidelity’s participant website rose by 15%.

Leading up to this period, Murphy says, Fidelity had actually seen significant business growth from investors opening new accounts in 2020.

“To ensure we continue to provide strong support to clients, we are stepping up and hiring advisers and other financial professionals to continue helping them navigate their financial lives,” she says. “The vast majority of the roles will be financial consultants, licensed representatives and customer service representatives throughout the United States.”

Fidelity’s leadership in fact already had plans to do significant hiring this year, but given that the needs of its customers have increased, the firm is expediting the hiring process.

Context for Fidelity’s actions comes from the Alight Solutions 401(k) Index, which tracks the trading activity of 401(k) plan investors. As the markets plummeted at the end of February, 401(k) investors’ trades spiked, marking the final week of the month one of the busiest five-day stretches in the 20 year history of the index. During the month, 0.046% of 401(k) balances were traded daily, the highest level since August 2011. In particular, the net trading activity on February 28 was 15.8-times the average daily level, which surpassed the previous high of 11.8-times the average, set in February 2018.

The last week of February had more net trading activity than all of the activity in the fourth quarter of 2019. Sixteen of the 19 trading days in the month favored fixed-income funds. Asset classes with the most trading inflows in February were bond funds, taking in 47% of the flows, valued at $687 million, followed by stable value funds (41% and $597 million) and money market funds (11% and $160 million).

Meanwhile, Empower Retirement has announced that it will not be laying off any workers.

“We announced that we will not layoff any associates in 2020 for reasons related to the COVID-19 outbreak,” Edmund F. Murphy, president and CEO of Empower Retirement, tells PLANADVISER. “Empower is a growing company and we know that growth will continue. As the world heals from the crisis, employers will re-open their doors and a sense of normalcy will eventually returns to our nation. When that happens, we need to have the whole team engaged to serve these clients.”

Murphy says the firm’s client-facing associates, in particular, are keenly aware of the stress under which some employers are operating.

“This is ultimately a people business,” he continues. “Empower serves a very large segment of employers across the country and of all sizes. Since the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing market volatility, these teams have been in very close contact with clients—maybe more than ever. We believe this announcement is going offer those clients some reassurance that we will continue to be there for them.”

Charles Schwab, for its part, has announced agreements with Intuit, eMoney Advisor and Envestnet | Yodlee to use Schwab’s application programming (API) interface connections.

Schwab says the use of APIs are a best practice in the industry that enables clients to authorize third parties to download requested account information on their behalf in an encrypted form, without storing their usernames and passwords. In turn, clients will have greater control over and better transparency into what data they share and with whom they share their data.

As part of its efforts to support plan sponsors and participants during this crisis, Schwab Retirement Plan Services has also announced it is waiving all plan amendment fees related to CARES Act provisions, and also waiving all participant loan and distribution fees from April 15, 2020 through December 31, 2020.