High Fees in Your 401(k)? They Might be Even Worse in Your IRA


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The talking baby that you’ve seen for years on TV warning you about high fees in 401(k)s has retired. Well, actually he quit in a dispute with a cat as NCAA March Madness tipped off. Probably put his retirement assets into a rollover IRA. Poor baby. He could be ignoring his own good advice and landing in a diaper pail full of high fees.

While employer-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k)s have suffered a fevered PR pitch hyping high expenses, an IRA can be even more fee-bitten. Here’s how.

Mutual funds that are identical in all ways but one

The biggest slice of fees can be accounted for in the difference between the type of mutual funds held in a 401(k) compared to an IRA.

Let’s consider a famous fund that has recently wilted from its former glory as one of the largest mutual funds in the world, the Pimco Total Return fund. It’s commonly held in 401(k) plans and a likely candidate for a rollover to an IRA account. A fixed income fund holding government and corporate bonds, Total Return has at least eight “share class” variations. It’s the same fund -- sold in eight versions with eight different ticker symbols, each identical except for one important distinction: the fee charged.

Each iteration holds the exact same investments, but the expense ratio – the annual operating expenses divided by average annual net assets -- can vary by more than 1% from the cheapest to the most expensive version. That’s a very big spread.

Full price or economy class?

So when you buy the Pimco Total Return fund, you have to find out which facsimile you’re buying. Is it the pricey PTTCX version with the 1.60% expense ratio (a staple of IRA accounts), or the budget-minded institutional version PTTRX (often found in 401(k) plans) with expenses of 0.46%?

And even if you locate the economy class fund -- and a broker who will sell it to you -- there can be a transaction fee built into your purchase. For example, one high-profile discount brokerage firm charges a $76 fee for each purchase of the Total Return fund. Any no-load or low-load fund that does not participate in its pre-selected fund supermarket is charged the same fee for each purchase. Placing your buy with a financial advisor from this firm, instead of purchasing it yourself online, will incur an additional $25 charge.

Plus, each share class can have a different built-in and unseen sales commission for the broker, which isn’t included in the expense ratio, but can greatly increase the cost of a purchase. Institutional shares generally don’t charge an upfront sales fee, but retail funds found in IRAs can have up-front, continuing or back-loaded sales charges.

Many investors don’t realize that if they want to roll over their 401(k) into an IRA and hold the exact same mutual funds, the institutional funds would usually have to be sold and reinvested into retail shares of the same name – but with higher fees.

Don’t exchange one fee for another

These low-priced “institutional” mutual funds are typically purchased by professional money managers for big-money accounts, and because they buy in bulk, they get a discount. Makes sense. But they can also be purchased by individual investors in “wrap” accounts. These portfolios of mutual funds are offered by brokerage firms and investment advisors in “managed” accounts where an advisory fee is charged. You typically pay a fee of somewhere around 1.25% in these accounts, which permits access to the cut-rate institutional mutual funds.

Kind of defeats the purpose of buying institutional mutual funds, doesn’t it?

“Free” IRAs that aren’t free

From lunch and dinner seminars to “educational” workshops and talking baby TV commercials, the financial industry is constantly working to entice you to transfer 401(k) retirement plan assets into “free” IRAs. It’s a promotional ploy that last year caught the attention of FINRA, the U.S. self-regulatory authority of securities firms. The agency issued a notice to investment firms warning them not to mislead investors regarding fees in IRAs.

In fact, all IRAs are subject to fees, whether imbedded in the investments held in the account as we have seen, or in a variety of maintenance charges: to open, maintain or close an account – or for commissions, sales loads and management fees.

When leaving an employer or retiring, the natural assumption seems to be: “it’s time for a rollover to an IRA.” It’s a dogma that has been driven by millions of dollars in marketing. And in many cases, maybe most, that’s the right thing to do. Of course, you could also leave the money in your 401(k) -- where the low-cost institutional mutual funds may be.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Personal Finance , Retirement , Investing Ideas , Mutual Funds

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