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Why Benchmark your 401k

What is 401(k) benchmarking and why should you do it?

Simply stated, 401k benchmarking is the process of reviewing and evaluating your company retirement plan. It involves taking a look at what you are offering your employees today and deciding if it’s appropriate or needs some updating. There are four main areas to focus on when assessing your retirement plan: 

  1. Plan Design
  2. Service Providers
  3. Funds
  4. Fees

Each aspect of your plan requires a slightly different set of questions and documented responses. To go into detail about each section, we will break this into a two-part series, beginning with Plan Design and Service Providers; but don’t worry, we will discuss Funds and Fees in a separate article. Below we are going to share some best practice questions to help you get started on your benchmarking analysis.

Plan design

When you think about it, plan design is your plan’s framework; it is like the chassis of the vehicle.  Do you think all car frames are the same? Probably not. They vary depending on the type of the vehicle (pickup truck, SUV, cargo van, 18-wheeler, or sports car). The same is true for your retirement plan, the frame (or plan design) must be able to support your end goal. When it comes to 401(k) plan design, some important considerations include:

  • Who is eligible to join the plan?
    • Age?
    • Length of employment?
    • Are employees automatically enrolled?
  • What type of accounts can employees use for savings?
    • Pre-tax
    • Roth
  • Is there a company contribution to employees?
    • Which employees?
    • How is the company sharing the money?
      • Required?
      • Not required?
      • Encouraged, based on employee savings?
    • If an employee leaves, what happens to their account?
      • What is the vesting schedule?
      • If their account is under a $1,000, does the employee receive an automatic distribution?
      • If their account is between $1 – 5k, is it automatically rolled into an IRA?
      • If the account is over $5k, what procedures are in place to keep track of the former employee?
    • What about the required Form 5500 tests?
      • Did we pass?
        • Great! But, could we be more efficient?
      • Did we fail?
        • Next time, how can we avoid corrective distributions?
      • How can use the 401(k) plan be used to reward, retain, and recruit top employee talent?

Once the plan design is aligned to meet the needs of the company and provide a competitive offering to employees, the chassis is set.  But don’t worry, no matter what your plan design framework is like today, it can always be updated – it just may take some professional retooling.

Service providers

Staying with the car analogy, your recordkeeper is like the make or name brand of the car.  Is it a Honda, BMW, Lexus, Toyota, Ford, Audi, Chevy, Porsche, or another vehicle brand?  We are saying it’s the brand because most of the time when an employer is asked, “where is your plan?” they respond with the name of the recordkeeper.  For example, “where is your plan?” “It’s at John Hancock.”  “It’s at Voya.”  “It’s at Fidelity” just to name a few recordkeeper examples.

Just as car manufacturers produce different models of vehicles, the same is true of recordkeepers.  Just because two employers have two retirement plans with John Hancock does not mean that they are the same.  Instead, they could have different platforms, investments, costs, service models, advisors, plan design and more.  The same recordkeeper name does not mean the same plan.  Which is why, it is important for employers to ask questions and find out more information about what is available.

Questions to ask:

  • What products and platforms do you offer?
  • Are there price breaks or concessions based on our plan size?
  • What services are we paying for? Could you provide a list?
  • Have you made any technological enhancements to your service?
    • Uploading contribution files
    • Seamless payroll integration
    • Online account access
    • Cybersecurity, encryption, and fraud prevention
  • What other interesting advancements has your firm made that we should be aware of?

This is not a complete list of questions to ask your recordkeeper; however, it is a start.  The important thing to remember is that if you don’t like the responses – just like shopping for a new car – you can always walk down to the next lot and see what else is available.

Overall, the goal of an employer-sponsored retirement vehicle is to get your employees into a suitable car with appropriate features that give them the gas and ability to drive towards a successful retirement destination.

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance or tax/legal advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax advisor for guidance on your specific situation.

Would You Work for Free?

Would You Work for Free?

Recently, I was on a call with a new prospect, a CPA, discussing his 401k plan.  During our call, we got to the subject of the fees he is currently paying for his 401k plan.

After some back and forth, Mr. CPA told me that he was not paying anything for his 401k plan. When I mentioned, that he may not have a direct bill but the fees are lumped in with the investments, which is typical in older plans, he got angry and ended the call saying: “We’ve been down this road before and we pay NOTHING for our 401k plan.”

This call got me flustered, and I was genuinely upset after hanging up, or rather, getting hung up on!

Given how much attention the 401k industry has paid to fees since Fee Disclosure was introduced in 2012, I thought that we had moved past fees.  I thought employers had at least been given enough information to know that they are paying someone something for their 401k plan.

If a CPA could fall for this sales pitch, Houston, we still have a problem.

So, this begs the question, would you work for free?

I think the obvious answer to that is, No! No one would work for free, nor should they. There are a lot of moving parts to a 401k and the thought that a company would take custody of your money, keep track of your individual employee’s accounts, create a website and mail statements for free doesn’t make sense.

The point is, there are at least 3 different entities that are being paid for from your 401k Plan. They are: The Recordkeeper, The Investment Management Company, and The Advisor.  In some arrangements you will also have a Third-Party Administrator who can get paid from the plan.

I can assure you that none of these parties work for free.  If you don’t receive a bill directly from any of these parties, that means that they are receiving fee’s directly from your plan assets.  This is a process called revenue sharing, and it is the way that plans historically paid for their 401k’s.

A Primer on Revenue Sharing

 Today, most plans are paid for by the revenue from funds in an ERISA bucket or Plan Expense Account or by moving to a more transparent process we call “zero-revenue” which strips out the fee payments from the investments and bills either the company or participants directly for plan related services.  Either way, fees that come from plan assets, need to be accounted for.

All fees aren't bad

Fee’s aren’t inherently bad, but high fees are. Sometimes, you do get what you pay for and there are no rules that say you need to pay the lowest fees possible, but as a sponsor of a 401k or 403b plan, it is your fiduciary duty to understand who is receiving fees from your plan and to ensure that those fees are reasonable for the services that they are providing.

All of these fees can be found on your Fee Disclosure statement that you can get from your provider.  I encourage you to take some time to look at those statements and work with someone who can make sense of the fees and whether you are paying a reasonable amount for services. 

If it sounds too good to be true it may be

The phrase “Too good to be true” should come to mind anytime someone says that they are giving you anything for free.  As a rule of thumb, if someone says that your 401k plan is “Free” they probably don’t want you to take a closer look. 

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