Retirement plans and fees: Get some satisfaction

Guanella-Jay-EThe balance between value and expense is often a large part of our daily considerations. As a consumer, when we look at the cost of a jar of peanut butter, we consider the quality of the product and the opportunity for satisfaction. The same rationale is true with retirement plans, though satisfaction as it relates to value in a retirement plan product is more difficult to define. At a base level, it could be as simple as answering the question, “Are the participants in the plan satisfied with their projected retirements?” At termination of employment, why does a participant feel the need to move their assets out of the retirement plan that they had previously relied on for several years?

With the new fee disclosure requirements, most plan sponsors are well aware of the costs involved to maintain their plans, including administration and trust/custody fees. These expenses are clearly defined in communications to the plan sponsor and participants. Also included is a listing of fund returns along with operating expense ratios (OERs) for the investments. The OER is the expense charged by the investment to the participant and can vary significantly, not only from fund family to fund family but by similar investments as well.

Savvy investors understand the important role of OER and how different share classes of the same investment can yield different results. Participants in a retirement plan are more likely to experience lower expense ratios than if they invest by themselves in an individual retirement account (IRA). To illustrate the expense, if a plan participant invests $10,000 in a fund with an expense ratio of 0.46%, the cost per year is $46. That same investment at a retail IRA level could have an expense ratio as high as 0.85% or $85 per year. That extra 0.39% in expense directly reduces the return on investment (or satisfaction) for participants. Which raises the question, why are participants so eager to leave the employer’s retirement plan for an IRA?

Perhaps having one investment advisor watch over your all of your retirement funds can be comforting to participants. The number of investment options increase when moving from a retirement plan to a retail product. And the termination of employment can lead to a feeling of separation with the company and retirement plan.

Providing participants detailed information on their post-employment options can help them make informed decisions to maintain retirement satisfaction. It is important for participants to know they may not be required to move their money out of their retirement plans. They may want to consider the expense and features of the plan compared to other investment vehicles and decide where they see the most value for their retirement dollars to maintain that level of satisfaction.