The cold, hard truth of 401(k) fee disclosure

By Andy Stonehouse

For the better part of the last eight months, I’ve been hearing about – and writing about – the great expectations attached to the DOL-mandated 401(k) fee disclosures. They created minor mainstream headlines for an industry that, despite its huge resources and massive financial holdings for so many American workers, doesn’t get a lot of mainstream media coverage.

And now the day has come, the Aug. 30 deadline for the first component of participant fee disclosures, and what should arrive in my mail box but my own actual fee disclosure overview, part of my company’s 401(k) plan.

Rather than being the phone book-sized pile of impenetrable paper many hinted might be a reality – prompting the still somewhat unresolved tug-of-war with the Labor Department regarding the eco-friendly notion of all-electronic disclosure statements – it’s a pretty simple document.

Painfully simple, in fact. I know the new-and-improved quarterly statements, officially due Nov. 14, might carry more heft and depth, but this new annual overview left me – after eight months of anxious anticipation – a little underwhelmed.

As you’ve probably found in your own recent drive toward the deadline, the necessary information shouldn’t come as a big shock to any participants who have even a vague interest in the management of their retirement funds.

Which, as has been previously noted, seems to make up the larger percentage of set-it-and-forget-it or “why am I even contributing to this any more if I continue to lose money” participants, nationwide.

Nonetheless, my own personal hard, cold facts – the general plan information, the potential general administrative fees and expenses and the potential individual administrative fees and expenses are pretty concisely laid out.

Nothing’s hidden – not to say that it was before – and the general details are there in a form that’s much easier to wade through than the 900 page disclosures attached to my annual credit card or bank fee statements.

The biggest section of the whole eight-page disclosure is the investment information, a concise chart of the various stocks, bonds and TDFs (who knew I had so many TDFs?) and their performance.

The one-year and five-year rates of return are, as we’ve discussed to death, not great, but the 10-year averages are more positive.

And that’s that for the paperwork. So I called my representative to ask for an interpretation, and a dollar amount. He was pleasant enough, and after a brief recap of the details, he laid it on the line: My fees, for my fund, total $1.06. About the price, with tax, of a Sausage McMuffin at McDonalds.

Really? Yes, really. Not some outlandish and exorbitant price tag that was going to send me screaming to divest and put everything in gold funds, or pharmaceuticals, or Chinese cigarette companies? Yep. A buck and change.

He also had some good news about the account, overall: “You’re not doing too badly. There have been some ups and downs this year but you’re actually on track to make some money.”

Is it time to double down and put more in the fund, I asked?

“Sure,” he said. “It’s up to you.”

And so the moment came and went, as will for the millions who get their statements in the mail, though the vast majority will ignore them like another mailing from their car insurance company or an online gift basket catalog.

Those who do pay attention may now have a more vested interest in consulting with an expert, and that’s where you come in. So I would encourage you to take advantage of that opportunity.



Fairmount Benefits Company

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Radnor, PA 19087

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