Friday, March 4, 2011

The DOL asks the Tough Questions about Your 401K

Hearings began concerning your 401(k) and the Department of Labor proposal to change the rules that currently apply to brokers. Now it’s okay to not know that there were hearings taking place at the DOL. It’s even okay that you may not have known that the DOL is even concerned with brokers. And if you didn’t know the role brokers play in your retirement plan – thinking of course that they were only traders of securities on an individual level – that’s fine too. But what the DOL is proposing is both significant and insignificant and worth noting nonetheless.
So I thought I’d give you a brief overview of what is happening, why some are enthusiastic about the change and others much less so. The DOL wants brokers and investmentconsultants to comply with the fiduciary standard of care as outlined in ERISA. This standard of care is worth noting and probably something you thought was already part of the whole package in your plan. For the vast majority of us, the 401(k) is benign tool, important but so nuanced in so many ways as to be opaque. We use it and hope for the best. (Not saying that’s the right approach but for most of us, it’s true.)
But there are people like me and institutions like the DOL who think that you should know otherwise. So we encourage you to listen to the background noise. This noise, currently being conducted as hearings has had a steady stream of industry professionals testify that they like the proposed rule changes and that they don’t.
The rules that the DOL would like to enact consist of the following: offering ERISA covered advice. This sounds simple enough but the reasons so many firms are fighting the rule changes is in large part due to the cost, which many have claimed would be passed on to the clients and then to the end-user of the plans, us.
Along with disclosure of conflicts of interest, Helen Kearney of Reuters reported recently “The standard would limit brokers’ ability to recommend their firms’ proprietary investment products to employers and prohibit them from collecting commissions from product sponsors.” Those objecting most vehemently to the rules are the smaller firms that do not offer compliance departments as part of the services they provide. And it is also quite possible that their clients don’t want to pay for that extra level of protection.
To offer fiduciary care comes with a cost. To act as such, the investment adviser/broker essentially stands with the company should their be any problems with the plan. The proposal would require that these brokers tell the company upfront that there may be conflicts of interest and the products they are selling them are the products their firm has instructed them to sell. This might not be the best analogy to use, but it is similar to buying a store brand which tends to be cheaper and a national brand, which tends to cost more. The product itself might be the same in many respects, but the differences, albeit small are there.
The biggest fear these firms have is rejection. If clients walk away, then what? That might be more ghost in the machine thinking but for some brokers who peddle in-house products, believe in commissions and don’t necessarily want to shout this fact from the mountain tops, they are balking at the notion.
Small companies usually deal with smaller brokerage houses in their 401(k). In these cases, the fees they receive are smaller than a Wells Fargo or Merrill Lynch might charge its clients. Those smaller brokers would be jeopardizing their fee base, received in addition to their charges for services are as part of the products they recommend, even if those products are the right ones for the client. So they might be forced in light of the DOL  rules to increase the fees they charge to these small businesses.
But these folks shouldn’t fear the worst. If they are doing their jobs and that, by definition is tailoring their products to the client, suggesting that if they include them in their plans, they will more likely than not, increase plan participation, they should have no worries about losing clients. And that, after all of the dust settles, is what they are supposed to be doing.
Smaller companies often use third party administrators to help with the heavy lifting and the legal issues. They can in many instances help the client choose which funds might be best.
So many brokers do not, under the proposed DOL rules, need to accept the fiduciary standard of care to stay in business. But you can bet that this will be the selling point the largest firms will begin advertising they have to offer.
According to Brian Graff, executive director and CEO of the American Society of Pension Professionals & Actuaries: “players in the retirement industry who are more formally regulated with extensive compliance departments will comply with the rules, and those less formally regulated who know there is no practical enforcement of the rules, will choose not to comply.” It looks as if it boils down to your plan’s decision over whether to buy the store brand or the national brand. Do get the same thing or do you get what you pay for?

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