Tag Archives: fees

Final fiduciary rules: Frustrations and the unknown

Tedesco-KaraOn June 8, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) final fiduciary rules became effective, but these new rules are not actually applicable until April 10, 2017. The final rules outline what advisers, financial institutions, and employers need to do to adhere to them. Daunting? Yes. Impossible? Maybe, but some believe the fiduciary rules have been a long time coming. The new rules require advisers and financial institutions to comply with and uphold the fiduciary standards surrounding ERISA when advising clients for a fee. This is significant, as it has the potential to impact how some advisers help their clients with retirement planning. Some advisers may decide to stop helping.

As participants become more and more responsible for their own retirement savings, employers are finding they need to turn to their retirement plan experts for help. A plan adviser who gives fiduciary advice receives compensation for the recommendation he or she makes, and usually the recommendation is based on the specific needs of the participant. The advice is given so that an action will be taken. The final rules clearly state this expert is a fiduciary and the recommendation made has to be in the best interest of the participant and not the pocketbook of the employer and or adviser.

Why is this so important? Because millions of participant dollars have been rolled into IRAs that have high fees and expenses associated with them. Participants don’t understand the fees, they don’t understand their investments, and often they lack the proper tools to help them make educated decisions. It bears asking the question, should an adviser make a recommendation to roll or transfer account balances to another plan or IRA, when a participant might be better off staying put? The answer could be yes, and employers may find that terminated employees are staying with them because it is a better financial decision.

How do advisers and employers feel about this? Many advisers are frustrated they will have to comply with the best interest contract exemption. It has several requirements, but it means advisers may need to modify or fine tune their current practices to satisfy the rules. Plan sponsors will have to take another look at their advisers and service providers and understand their fiduciary responsibilities. It’s important they confirm that any rollover assistance is administrative in nature and cannot be perceived as advice from non-fiduciary human resources (HR) staff or service providers. However, plan sponsors can now feel good knowing that the general education they offer to participants about plans and investments is acceptable; it does not mean they are providing investment advice or taking on additional fiduciary responsibility.

With all of this said, could the election results change, delay, or repeal the final fiduciary rules? There is speculation this could happen, which makes the financial services industry happy, but for those pushing for reform, very unhappy.

Goodbye rollovers, hello “stay-overs”

Moen-AlexNo surprise here—Baby Boomers are retiring. But as they retire, there is a new trend in town, the “stay-over.” The stay-over approach represents a shift in thinking about how employees will handle their retirement savings investments. Instead of rolling money out of employer plans into IRAs, the stay-over approach encourages retirees to keep their money in their current company-sponsored plans.

Plan sponsors, and their plan advisors, are now competing to keep retirees’ money in employer plans. The reason? As that extremely large workforce exits, sponsors are worried about their ability to negotiate fees with their outside fund managers and maintain lower overall fees for plan participants. Plan sponsors are now forced to weigh traditional concerns related to administration and compliance costs against fee negotiations. A recent Wall Street Journal article says, “Workers pay about 0.45% of assets in fees to outside money managers when they remain in the firm’s 401(k) plan; by comparison, experts estimate they would pay fees of more than 1.5% in IRAs.” Increased plan assets create economies of scale, which in turn reduces the level of fees for all participants in the plan. This movement is also in line with the overarching goal of encouraging retirees’ savings, focusing on keeping money in the plan, and educating employees about their options. Baby Boomer assets in defined contribution/401(k) plans currently total $4 trillion dollars, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, and 2013 was the first year that plan level withdrawals exceeded contributions. This rollover versus stay-over debate is just beginning to launch.

Employees benefit by keeping their balances in the plan as well. Fees paid by participants have a huge impact on the growth of investments over time, thus participants can benefit from the lower fees. Retirees face pressure from outside financial advisors who will try to convince them that keeping money in employer plans adds a layer of difficulty to investment changes and accessing funds. On the contrary, though, investing can be easier for ex-employees to manage because they are more familiar with the fund offerings and fewer choices are less overwhelming. Usually plan investment options are selected and monitored by independent investment advisors who work with the plan fiduciaries—this translates into professional unbiased advisory services, which benefits all participants. A plan feature to consider, which will aid and encourage workers to keep money in the plan, is ad hoc withdrawals for retirees, allowing participants to access their accounts the same way they would in an IRA, and take money as needed. This is a balancing act, however, as the retiree still needs to be aware of the risks of removing money and should have a financial plan in place for retirement.

Employers and plan sponsors should think big. Rather than designing retirement savings plans for the length of time the employee is with the company, plans should represent a tool for lifetime retirement savings for all workers.

Employers helping former employees deal with rollover fees

Many defined contribution plan participants are incurring excessive fees when they roll over their account balances into their IRAs. Sponsors can help former employees maintain their savings by retaining the account balances within their qualified plans. In this article, Milliman consultant Doug Conkel discusses what plan sponsors are doing to help their former employees make better decisions with their plan balances.

Here is an excerpt:

Plan design thoughts

Like other transformations within the defined contribution (DC) market, the genesis of these changes is linked to creating a defined contribution plan with some attributes passed down from the “pension plan era.” Participants and sponsors alike are considering changes that shift the plan design discussion from retirement accumulation topics to the “de-accumulation” or payout phase. So what plan design changes are they making?

Partial lump-sum distributions. Many sponsors have modified their plans such that former participants can request a partial lump-sum distribution of their account balances. This enables former participants to satisfy a one-time expense while leaving a portion of their account balances in the plan.

Installments. Years ago, many sponsors simplified their distribution options by removing installments, based on the conclusion that “a participant can set up installments outside the plan (usually an IRA or annuity).” However, now some sponsors have come to realize the issues noted above with outside accounts and some participants are requesting in-plan installments. Some sponsors are again electing to liberalize the distribution options by allowing former participants to elect installment payments from the plan, which gives participants flexibility and allows them to keep their accounts in the plan….

Education and communication

Guidance on comparing fees. A plan that is run in an unbiased environment is able to provide guidance to participants to help them understand the fees they pay under the current plan provisions and how they might compare those fees to individual retail arrangements. The participant fee disclosure rules introduced a few years ago provide participants with the information they need to access their current plan’s total fees. The plan’s annual notice provides the investment expense ratios from which participants can calculate a weighted expense ratio using their personal account. Plus, using their quarterly statements, a participant can also determine the amount of direct expenses (if any) being deducted from the account. These two key pieces of information yield the total cost of a participant’s account within the qualified plan. If participants can obtain the same information about proposed IRAs or new employers’ retirement plans, they should be able to perform an apples-to-apples comparison of the fees. A best practice in the future would be to provide some guidance to former plan participants to assist them in making this comparison so they can then make informed decisions.

ERISA fee litigation: Is my plan at risk?

Skow-KevinSome plan sponsors may have wondered, upon reading about the recent $140 million settlement in the Haddock v. Nationwide case and the $1.3 billion settlement in the Lockheed Martin case, if their plans could be susceptible to an ERISA case over excessive fees. Here are a few things to consider in light of these recent settlement announcements:

Vendor transparency. Understanding fees should not be difficult—as long as you have a vendor or advisor that is transparent in the total revenue it expects to receive and as long as you know the expense of the investment products you have available for participants to invest in.

Service provider expenses. Think of anyone who may do work for you—an attorney, a contractor, a cleaning person. They bill you at an hourly rate. That comes to an annual amount. The same idea should be true within your retirement plan: You want to know who is working for you and what you are paying them, and you especially want to know whether it is a flat annual fee, a per-head fee, or a percentage of your plan’s assets. After all, you wouldn’t agree to hire attorneys and then give them access to your bank account to pay what they saw fit. And sometimes, with a better view of total revenue, it becomes evident that a “cheaper” provider may not mean a better provider when you are then able to evaluate the services and level of service you are receiving.

Investment expenses. Investment expenses must be included in your understanding of plan fees. Your investment products within the plan have fees that are required to be disclosed. For example: Fund A charges 76 bps and shares back 25 bps (or 0.76% with a 0.25% paid back to the plan). Do the math and apply their fee to the assets you have in their product—this is their projected revenue for the year—less any revenue sharing if they pay this.

Example Investment Expense Calculation:

Sample Investment Expense - Skow blog

Note, this fee is not deducted from your account balance—it is taken out of what would otherwise be your return. And if you lose money, you still pay this on top of it and so do all of your participants.

Revenue sharing. Revenue sharing should be easy to understand. It should be disclosed to you and should be going back to your plan in the form of an ERISA budget and used for the benefit of plan participants. We help our clients understand this by calculating the expenses for them and forecasting the fees and shared revenue, which may move the client to consider another share class that does not pay revenue sharing (or keeping a class that does because the net effect of the shared amount is financially advantageous). If revenue sharing exists, as it does in most plans to some extent, the discussion should then be about what to do with it. Should you allocate back to those participants in the plan that generated the revenue in the first place—or use it to pay hard-dollar expenses that are allowed under the plan? See my colleague’s recent series of articles with his insight on this issue.

Year-end balances. A note to the wise: Having expensive funds that generate large sums of revenue sharing to pay for these expenses in a given plan year—but that leave a balance carryover to the next plan year—is an issue that will come up in an audit (if it hasn’t already).

Total cost. After understanding the fees, plan sponsors should address how costs may be affected by participation, plan design, usage, or fund allocation.

Answers. Perhaps most importantly, if someone were to call you and ask what exactly he is paying for when participating in this plan, you would have an answer that could help him make an important decision when it becomes time to retire.

For example: In the chart above, this $30 million plan has a weighted expense ratio of 54 bps. Let’s assume the total administration expense (all service providers: recordkeeper, trust company, advisor, auditor) is $80,000 (or ~27 bps) and those fees are paid for on a pro rata basis by all plan participants.

This plan’s total annual expense would be estimated as follows:

Investment expense: .54%
+ Vendor expenses: .27%
(-) Revenue sharing: (.22%)
_____________________
Total: .59%

The size of the recent settlements lends perspective on how big of an issue fees can become for a plan sponsor. Sponsors that attend to the principles outlined in this blog—and work with their vendors to build transparency around these issues—can avoid becoming a statistic.

The Supreme Court, Tibble, fees, and the statute of limitations

Smith-SuzanneEarlier this month, the U. S. Supreme Court decided that it will review a case relating to retirement plan fees. Although it is a case about fees, the issue before the Supreme Court is really about ERISA’s six-year statute of limitations.

Background about the case. Plan participant Glenn Tibble brought a lawsuit against his employer, Edison International, and the company’s benefits and investment committees as fiduciaries and administrators of his defined contribution (DC) plan. Tibble claims the plan fiduciaries managed the plan imprudently by selecting retail mutual funds as retirement plan investments when institutional shares were available at a much lower cost to participants.

The lower courts found that the fiduciaries were imprudent in selecting retail-class shares and failing to investigate alternative institutional-class mutual funds.

The problem for Tibble is that some of the retail-class funds were added to the retirement plan more than six years before Tibble filed the lawsuit.

The courts have held that although the fiduciaries were imprudent with the selection of the retail-class shares, Tibble’s claim with respect to funds selected more than six years before the lawsuit is barred by ERISA’s six-year statute of limitations.

Current issue for the Supreme Court review. Now the Supreme Court has agreed to review the statute of limitations issue.

Tibble’s argument, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Labor, is that there is a continuing duty to monitor the plan investments. As a result, Tibble thinks his claim should not be time-barred under the theory that there is a restart of the six-year period with the ongoing failure to monitor the plan’s investments. This is a frightening thought for employers!

Prior court decisions have sided with the fiduciaries and found that the six-year period runs from the initial selection of the investment. While there is a duty to monitor the plan’s investments, the courts have been reluctant to permit a new limitations period for a continuing violation. The Ninth Circuit said it would lead to an “unworkable result” where present fiduciaries could be liable for decisions made by their predecessors decades before.

So what are the takeaways for plan fiduciaries? On the fee issues, if you are selecting retail type mutual funds, you need to consider alternative institutional-class mutual funds and document your decision.

With respect to the statute of limitations, we should have the Supreme Court decision by the end of June 2015. For plan fiduciaries, the decision will be an important ruling on the meaning of ERISA’s six-year statute of limitations and the future liability for plan sponsors.

Tibble vs. Edison: What will it mean for plan sponsors and fiduciaries?

Conkel-DouglasThe U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the Tibble vs. Edison case, the first case in front of the Supreme Court dealing with excess fees within a qualified defined contribution (DC) plan, e.g., a 401(k) plan. In this case the plaintiff contends there was a fiduciary breach of duty by Edison because the plan continued to use retail share class funds when lower-cost share classes became available to the plan as it grew. However, the focus of the ruling may not focus on the excess fee component but more on the six-year statute of limitations under ERISA (the U.S. law that regulates qualified retirement plans and fiduciary responsibilities). The statute of limitation under ERISA is designed to prevent fiduciaries from never-ending risks arising from historical decisions. Congress specifically added this limitation to try to minimize the burden of a 401(k) plan to plan sponsors. For this reason, the scope of the ruling may be limited to the statute of limitations rather than specifics on the fee issue. However, this ruling will be significant in light of the $4.2 trillion in 401(k) plan retirement assets.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s ruling and comments could have a large impact on future litigation concerning participant grievance against plan sponsors—we will have to wait and see. Regardless of the ruling, this increased attention will hopefully promote more education and development of best practices when it comes to plan sponsors truly understanding their fee arrangements within their qualified plans. As an active relationship manager ensuring that my clients completely understand their “total” fee structure, there has been a focused effort on my part toward that end the last several years. I have written a couple of white papers discussing elements of qualified plan fees, which often are overlooked or not discussed in detail at the fiduciary/advisor/provider level:

Fees: What everyone is NOT talking about!

Fees: What no one is talking about, round 2

One of the fee elements I discuss in detail is the administrative fees (revenue sharing) embedded in the plan’s investment options. It often feels as if sponsors focus on implicit administration fees when usually 70% or more of the plan’s total cost comes from the expense ratios of the plan’s investment options. One important best practice is to ensure that any revenue sharing embedded in a fund’s expense ratio is used to benefit the participants invested in that fund (not at the plan level but to benefit the participants who actually pay that revenue-sharing amount via the expense ratio). This is referred to as “fee-leveling” and while it is becoming a best practice there are still a large number of sponsors who don’t understand the issue and simply don’t know the solutions.

Assuming that a plan levels fees by giving the participants in a fund the benefit of that fund’s revenue sharing, then once an investment option is chosen for a plan’s fund lineup selecting the share class of that fund becomes an easy choice. The sponsor simply needs to select the share class that provides the lowest net cost to the participant. In the example below, assume that a plan sponsor levels fees by taking any revenue sharing paid by an investment option and crediting that back to the participants in that fund as a revenue-sharing expense reimbursement (a credit).

Figure 1: Fund A, Various Share Classes

Expense Ratio Revenue Sharing Net Cost to Participant
Share Class A 0.75% 0.30% 0.45%
Share Class I 0.50% 0% 0.50%

In the example above, for this plan at its current provider, the lowest net cost to participants (once the revenue sharing is allocated back to participants in this fund) would be the Share Class A. This is not always the result, depending on the fund family and share classes. Sometimes, there is no difference in net cost so the conclusion would be to go with the zero revenue-sharing class so the plan doesn’t have to do a revenue-sharing credit allocation.

As this case progresses we will post more comments and updates, but, for now, I encourage sponsors to study up on their plan’s fee arrangements, fee-leveling, and other best practices within the industry. Sponsors should not rely too much on their current providers or advisors if some of the topics discussed above have never been mentioned in a retirement committee meeting, as they might lack the insight required to do a complete evaluation.