The Trouble with 401(k) Plans

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The 401(k) plan is now the primary retirement plan for employees in the private sector and Ted Benna isn’t happy.  Benna is regarded as the “father” of the 401(k) plan but now he calls his child a “monster.”

There are several problems modern with 401(k) type plans.

  1. They are too complicated. The typical 401(k) plan has dozens of investment options. These are often included to satisfy government regulatory demands for broad diversification.  For the plan sponsor, who has a fiduciary responsibility, more is better.  However, for the typical worker, this just creates confusion.  He or she is not an expert in portfolio construction.  Investment choices are often made when an employee gets a new job and there are other things that are more pressing than creating the perfect portfolio.  Which leads to the second problem.
  1. Employees are given too little information. Along with a list of funds available to the employee, the primary information provided is the past performance of the funds in the plan.  However, we are constantly reminded that past performance is no guarantee of future results.  But if past performance is the main thing that the employee goes by, he or she will often invest in high-flying funds that are likely to expose them to the highest risk, setting them up for losses when the market turns.
  1. There are no in-house financial experts available to employees. Employee benefits departments are not equipped to provide guidance to their employees; that’s not their function.  In fact, they are discouraged from providing any information beyond the list of investment options and on-line links to mutual fund prospectuses.  Doing more exposes the company to liability if the employee becomes unhappy.

What’s the answer?  Until there are major revisions to 401(k) plans, it’s up to the employee to get help.  One answer is to meet with a financial advisor – an RIA – who is able and willing to accept the responsibility of providing advice and creating an appropriate portfolio using the options available in the plan.  There will probably be a fee associated with this advice, but the result should be a portfolio that reflects the employee’s financial goals and risk tolerance.

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