The 401(k) retirement plan has come a long way since its humble
beginnings in the early 1980s. Today, roughly 72 million people
have a combined $3 trillion invested in 401(k) plans.
What will the 401(k) plan of the future look like?
100% Fee Transparency
Most 401(k) plans are riddled with so many hidden fees, the typical
401(k) participant isn't aware they're even paying them. And while
401(k) sponsors (employers) have a fiduciary duty to protect their
employees against fangled retirement plan fees, most employers
themselves are pretty clueless. Even worse, some employers are
acting in collusion with 401(k) providers to obscure the true cost
of their company's 401(k) plan.
A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office
(GAO) proves this. The GAO study revealed that revenue sharing,
whereby a mutual fund company shares its fee income with the 401(k)
plan's administrator, is a common practice. The actual compensation
can range from 0.05 percent to 1.25 percent. Why is it a problem?
Because it creates a hidden incentive for the 401(k) service
provider to recommend investment choices with higher fees, some of
which may even include proprietary funds with substandard
Closely related to this are 12b-1 fees, which are another
perfect example of what's wrong with today's generation of 401(k)
plans. How does it work? The 12b-1 fee takes money taken from
401(k) participants and funnels it back to brokers and financial
intermediaries. Shame on the Securities and Exchange Commission
(SEC) for even allowing 12b-1's to be called 'fees' because these
reoccurring costs are really tantamount to sales commissions.
The original intention of 12b-1 fees was to help the mutual fund
industry to grow its business and to pay for that growth through
marketing fees. With around $11 trillion in assets, the mutual fund
industry has matured beyond the point of needing any more
The 401(k) of the future will not have 12b-1 commissions or
other camouflaged costs, but rather, 100% upfront disclosure in
plain English. Put another way, financial professionals will need
to find other ways to get paid.
No More Phony Diversification
Today's generation of 401(k) plans are sold under the misleading
premise that they offer adequate investment diversification. Not
only is this a massive failure by the mutual fund and 401(k)
industry to tell the truth, but it's a regulatory
The main explanation for the 401(k) industry's faulty and
outdated definition of diversification is due to the Employee
Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which the 401(k) industry
has been adhering to. According to ERISA, an adequately diversified
401(k) plan is one that offers exposure to stocks, bonds, and
True diversification in a 401(k) plan is an investment menu that
goes beyond offering exposure to U.S. stocks (NYSEArca: SCHB),
international stocks (NYSEArca: VEA), bonds (NYSEArca: AGG), and
money market funds. True diversification includes the previously
mentioned categories, plus other important areas like commodities
(NYSEArca: GCC), global TIPS (NYSEArca: GTIP), international real
estate (NYSEArca: RWO), and international government bonds
(NYSEArca: BWZ). No 401(k) menu or provider can rightfully claim to
be diversified without exposure to all the major asset classes.
Account Statements that Tell You Something
The chief purpose of a 401(k) plan is to provide you with an
adequate source of retirement income so that when you're grandma's
age, you don't have to eat ALPO for dinner. Yet, when 401(k)
account holders look at their quarterly statements, they have no
clue about how much income their current stash will generate.
The future 401(k) plan will have participant statements that
clearly show how much monthly or annual income that the person's
401(k) sum is capable of generating. Ultimately, this is the bottom
line reason for a 401(k) plan - to have the accumulated sum
generate an adequate level of income that 1) covers a person's
expenses and 2) doesn't prematurely run out.
A recent report from Reish & Reicher titled '401(k) Account
Balances as Monthly Retirement Income' hinted at this future
Innovation, not Bureaucracy
401(k) plans of the future will be shaped by innovation instead of
back room deals between third party administrators (TPA) and mutual
fund companies. People will decide what they want to invest in, not
some bribed TPA.
Although it seems like there's more bureaucracy than innovation
in the 401(k) market right now, hints of a major shift are already
Invest n Retire (
), a Portland, OR-based company, is the sort of open source 401(k)
provider that is radically altering retirement plans for the
better. The company was just awarded a patent on its system for
managing tax-deferred retirement accounts.
Rather being force fed a rigged menu of subpar mutual funds,
INR's technology allows it to use multiple investment products,
including low cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
INR's system is so advanced that it takes contributions to a
person's 401(k) plan and buys underweighted funds in their
portfolio so that the employee's investment mix maintains an
optimal balance. INR calls this breakthrough 'Self-Aligning
Portfolios,' but I like to call it just plain brilliant.
Today's generation of 401(k) plans are built upon outdated legacy
platforms that are one-trick ponies because they only accommodate
mutual funds. It's a method of business that has worked well for
the 401(k) industry in the past, but won't work in the future.
In contrast, the next generation of 401(k) plans are smartly
designed systems that use multiple investment products, offer 100%
feetransparency, and genuine diversification.
401(k) providers will have to embrace these changes or be forced
into extinction. Why? Because the retirement plans market demands