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Avoiding 401-Chaos.

Which elements of 401(k) plans matter most to participants?

Anybody who's ever been told to "eat your spinach" knows there's a difference between what a kid wants and what parents believe is healthy. Likewise, when employees are offered varying features of 401(k) plans, their perceptions of their best interests may diverge from the opinions of the sponsors who select the plans.

While participants may regard 401(k) plans as savings accounts with loan access, the government established the system to encourage saving for retirement. Looking after participants' best interests -- which may or may not coincide with their preferences -- is a fiduciary responsibility of the plan sponsors. The challenge is compounded by the range of investor profiles in any given group, not to mention across the spectrum of industries and compensation levels. Moreover, participants are split among those who regard their plans as long-term investment safety nets, and those who would rather manage a portfolio more aggressively. As investing becomes the national pastime, the latter group may fall prey to classic mistakes: inadequate diversification and risk management controls; an overly short-term focus; attempts at market timing. In selecting a plan, sponsors should bear in mind which features will affect the participants, and how.

The first rule of thumb, according to Kenny Lee Adams, a San Francisco-based consultant to plan sponsors, is legal compliance. "Avoid any conflict of interest. For heaven's sake, don't choose your brother-in-law to run the plan!" Laura Van Domelen, a principal at Milliman & Robertson, agrees. As an example of non-compliance, she cites the technicalities of deferral percentage tests. While the IRS will usually permit an offender to fix the transgression, in extreme cases of abuse, the entire plan may be disqualified. Play by the rules to avoid sinking the ship.

Investment Options

As the number of mutual funds proliferates, how wide a choice of investment vehicles do participants want or need? Despite the bewildering array, most funds break down into a few main categories. Typical classifications provided by most plans are large-cap U.S. equity, index, bond and so-called lifestyle (pre-mixed/asset allocation) funds, and employer stock. Global and emerging market funds are growing more popular, as are individual brokerage, self-directed options. The trustees, or plan sponsors, define an investment policy, based on parameters like risk or types of return, and often rely on investment managers to implement it. "It usually comes down to a strategy of name brand vs. costs," says Michael Sternklar, who runs the benefits outsourcing group for PricewaterhouseCoopers from Fort Lee, N.J. "Some people prefer familiar mutual funds with powerful name recognition, whereas other go for a bargain basement approach, such as indexing."

Research by Hewitt Associates indicates U.S. employers are boosting their 401(k) plan offerings and providing more investment education. According to Hewitt's 1999 survey to nearly 500 employers nationwide with a combined total of 3.3 million participants and $295 billion in assets, employers are offering more investment options than ever before. Nearly twice as many employer-sponsored plans (42 percent) offer 10 or more options than in 1997 (23 percent). On average, plans offer participants 11 investment options, up from an average of eight options in 1997.

Ian Sheridan, vice president of marketing and new business development at ADP's Retirement Service Group, explains that his firm may enable companies of between 1,000 people and 5,000 people to select from 36 funds, although "typically you won't see more than 10 funds at any size corporation."

Finally, individual brokerage options continue to grow "modestly," reaching 7 percent of funds last year, according to Hewitt. Although the more highly compensated participants, such as law firms, tend to demand a greater say in their investments, brokerage accounts may prove "a nightmare from a record-keeping standpoint," warns Van Domelen. Motivations for self-directed investing range from the use (among the well heeled) of a personal financial manager, to a yen for day trading, momentum investing or just old-fashioned stock picking. Again, an investor's ultimate best interests may not be served by the leeway to follow the latest hot stock or trend.

Reporting and Administration

"When it comes to information, we try to provide efficiencies across all deliverables, regardless of company size," says ADP's Sheridan. He's describing all the channels of account communication, which include statements (balances), call centers (telephone contact with human beings and menu options) and the Internet. A central benefits department with easy access is also crucial for employees who are terminating. They need correct and timely information for taking distributions or rolling over accounts. Whichever route participants follow, they deserve timeliness, accuracy and content. Most questions and transactions are still conducted by phone or over the web, a sign of a widespread aversion to paper forms. "It really matters whether the line operators are well trained and understand the questions," says Stemklar.

Yet despite paperphobia, statements continue to be the main source of account information. Although 95 percent of plans distribute statements quarterly, actual receipt time can vary between two weeks and six weeks. And different folks seek different strokes in the level of detail. Conscientious types want to check every transaction, while others would just as soon skim to the bottom line, often via a reader-friendly pie chart.

While Internet use is growing, it won't replace all 401(k) reporting, thanks to regulatory requirements. For instance, plan sponsors are responsible for issuing annual printed forms and paper confirmations. And the Internet offers different levels of transactional capability. These start with daily access to account balances, and the capacity to make investments online. "Withdrawals are less common today," explains Diane Talbot, vice president of retirement services at Business Logic, a Chicago-based e-finance solutions provider. The Department of Labor recently issued guidelines on electronic processing, and "whenever money is taken out of a trust, somebody is on the hook for overseeing the legitimacy" of the transaction, she adds. Loans, at least, are secured.

Learning the ABCs

Why am I saving at all? How much do I need to save? How should my age and risk-tolerance profile affect my savings decisions? These are the types of questions plan sponsors answer, along with a host of others on tools for financial decision-making, such as risk/return ratios and investment options. In general, a plan sponsor that both provides education and invests in prudent, reasonable vehicles fulfils its fiduciary responsibilities. Clearly, the wider the universe of potential investment choices on offer, the more educational resources are needed to achieve an acceptable standard.

Sponsors present investment education in a variety of media. Seminars and written materials are most popular, while online, web-based tools are rapidly gaining ground. (Please, no more paper!) In addition, plans teach financial lessons through one-on-one counseling, videoconferencing, help lines and interactive modeling software. Content ranges from the most basic principles of Financial Planning 101 ("What is risk?") to more sophisticated explanations of the performance and objectives of the funds offered.

When 401(k) plans first were conceived, the government recognized the appeal of allowing access to funds in the form of loans and hardship withdrawals as an inducement to promote more savings. Although permitted withdrawals add a comfort level for participants, they also revisit the old issue of spinach vs. candy -- that is, what is most beneficial in the long run.

"Plans don't want to operate as savings and loan institutions," Van Domelen explains. "Therefore they restrict the availability of loans to some degree." However, almost all do offer some form of loan provision, with about a quarter of them permitting two concurrent loans to be outstanding. Generally, borrowers receive their funds within a couple of weeks from the time of their request; it rarely takes longer than a month. Nevertheless, she warns that most participants would be better advised to borrow the same sum from a bank. If they borrow from the plan, they lose their tax benefit, and end up repaying the loans with after-tax funds.

Costs and Contributions

Free lunches are hard to come by, but 401(k) plans offer some bites. Almost all employers continue to pay all the expenses incurred by the plan, with the exception of investment management fees. Expense categories include education, administration, audits and legal fees. Gradually, as plans increase in size, participants are being hit with a larger share of the bill. But don't lose sleep, says Sternklar. When the money sums are so huge, expenses can be thinly spread. Because many fees are easily tucked away, the Department of Labor insists on disclosure of all administrative costs. Surprise, surprise -- about half the plans disclose the full details only on specific request.

Employers should be aware of all the above features in different plans. Yet it appears that the only single element employees deeply care about is the level of employer contribution. The most common employer 401(k) match is 50 cents per dollar, according to Hewitt, but 19 percent provide a dollar per dollar match, up 5 percent since 1997. Hewitt also finds participation rates in plans with matching or discretionary employer contributions "are higher on average than plans where there is no employer contribution, and that all other key features and characteristics appear to have little influence on participation rates."

Aside from participation levels, how can an employer assess how satisfied its employees are with its 401(k)? The simple answer is to ask the HR department, which will be the first place to hear complaints. By considering all the main elements -- investment choices, servicing, information and costs -- employers should be able to select a plan that offers the benefits of balanced, long-term investing.

Vanessa Drucker is a New York-based business writer. 401(k) Plans and the Internet

Only a decade ago, 401(k) plan sponsors began using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems to provide account information and facilitate transactions. But IVR technology is rapidly becoming obsolete; the Internet is now the preferred method of providing participants with access to their accounts And no wonder.

* IVR systems are inflexible, generally requiring people to move through them in a specified sequence; retracing steps is difficult. It's easy to navigate in any sequence on the Internet.

* With IVR, you often must listen to menu options of no interest. On the Internet, you can go directly to the item you want.

* On the Internet, it's easy for couples or families to view information and make choices together. This isn't practical via IVR.

* On the Internet, confirmations can be printed out immediately, and corrections are easy to make. With an IVR system, printouts must be mailed or faxed.

* People have unlimited time to make elections on the Internet, but must make decisions rapidly on an IVR system.

* Far more data and plan information can be made available over the Internet than through an IVR system.

* IVR requires a dedicated, toll-free telephone number. Your company can offer Internet access through the same provider it uses for other business purposes.

Point and Click

Given the advantages of Internet services, including lower cost, no employer can afford to use IVR technology exclusively. So more employees can enjoy Internet efficiencies; a company can provide kiosks or other public access to computer terminals. And larger employers can offer a dedicated intranet, the database of which can be linked to other human resources databases and to an IVR system. This set-up will accommodate the phase-out of the IVR.

Expect a 401(k) vendor to permit the following activities as part of its service:

O Automatic account look-up capability by investment fund and money type. Also historical transaction information, such as prior withdrawals, loans, investment switches, etc.

O Move assets among funds and change future investment elections.

O Change the contribution rate in the payroll deduction system.

O Print various administrative forms. Also print or order information about the plan.

O Project account balances and retirement income, factoring in assumptions about future investment returns, salary increase rates, retirement ages, etc.

O Provide information on the plan's investment funds, strategies, performance ratings.

O Make loan applications and view the payment schedules for varying amounts. Also apply for a hardship withdrawal, although approval will require review by a plan representative.

O Link with other sites to provide more details about funds, other employer benefit plans and other information directly or indirectly related to the employee's 401(k) participation.

-- Source: USI Consulting Group US Insights newsletter.
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Author:Drucker, Vanessa
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:2054
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