IMHO: Out of Proportion

May 11, 2011 ( - Without question the retirement plan industry has prospered from the long-standing practice of relying heavily – and in some situations, completely - on asset-based fees. 


Now, you can certainly argue that that has resulted in plans paying for services they would not otherwise have engaged, and that, in some cases, that has led to plans paying more than they might if they had been more cognizant of the dollars expended.  Indeed, one can argue that the imbedding of those fees inside the fund structure has made it easy, perhaps too easy, for the industry to collect its tolls without drawing the kind of scrutiny they were entitled to.

On the other hand, that structure has made it easier for the industry to provide a broad-based level of sophisticated services to plans of all sizes, and has doubtless made it possible for plans to contemplate hiring an adviser that, regardless of the need and/or benefit, would otherwise have been discouraged by an explicit charge for those services.

That said, there are some issues attendant with the current asset-based fee structure that, IMHO, bear discussion:

Asset-based fees go up – pretty much all the time.

For most of the existence of the 401(k), the markets have been fairly good, and as they say, a rising tide lifts all boats.  In this particular case, rising markets has also meant rising fees.  Proportionately rising fees, of course, but rising fees nonetheless.  That, in turn, has meant that those who make their living off asset-based fees have seen some pretty nice pay increases over time – without necessarily having to do anything more or different to “earn” them.  Even in bad markets, the steady flow of contributions has cushioned the blow that might otherwise have tamped down those fees.

Asset-based fees go down when the work – and risks – go up.

One of the great ironies of asset-based fees is that they do sometimes go down, and at the most “inconvenient” times.  One need look back only as far as the fourth quarter of 2008 to remember that precipitous decline in asset values – and asset-value-based fees – at the very same time that many noted a steep increase in the “care and feeding” of plan sponsors and participants shaken by what was happening to their retirement plans (not to mention their plans for retirement).  Of course, it would probably be viewed as unseemly (at best) to raise fees DURING such times – but that is when the work, and the risks, are generally rising. 

The bigger your balance, the more you pay. 

Admittedly, when you’re talking about fees based on assets, it makes sense that the more assets you have, the more fees you pay.  Perhaps that makes a modicum of sense when you are talking about things like investment management (even then, it seems to me that those with large balances are carrying an ironically disproportionate, albeit proportionate amount of the fees).  As “industry insiders”, we all know this – indeed, some go so far as to make a beneficial good out of it; the “rich” underwriting the costs of the less rich, if you will. 

On the other hand, it’s not just the rich that have larger balances – frequently those are the balances of lower-income workers who have, nonetheless, been long-time diligent savers.  So, said another way, it’s older, longer-tenured workers are underwriting the costs of the folks who have just joined the plan. 

Different funds “share” differently

We all know that different types (and brands) of mutual funds charge different fees.  What is less obvious to many plan sponsors is that different types (and brands) of mutual funds provide different amounts of revenue sharing.  It is not atypical for a plan sponsor to sit down with a recordkeeper, to figure out what the recordkeeping charges will be, to determine what the aggregate amount of the revenue-sharing rebates will be, and then to determine how to manage the difference.  But if some funds provide higher levels of revenue-sharing, then the participants investing in those funds are, effectively, shouldering a larger proportion of the administrative costs of the plan.

There are administrative ways to “level” these fee allocations, but many plan sponsors aren’t even aware that this issue has crept in. 

Out of “sight” IS out of mind.

To me the biggest issue with those “imbedded” asset-based fees is that you never really see how much actual money you’re paying.  Oh, it’s not like the fees aren’t “disclosed”, and it’s not as though it’s rocket science to figure it out, at least at a high level.  But most plan sponsors are lured into what I consider to be the faux comparisons of basis points, rather than actually stopping to figure out what 100 basis points times the assets in a particular fund actually adds up to – and who gets how much for what.

Our industry has gotten comfortable with a fee system structure that tends to raise, not lower fees over time, a system that apportions fees on a basis that often has little to do with the costs of providing the services it supports, and one that, in the process, tends to obscure the real costs of the services they ostensibly underwrite. 

The current structure may have been “convenient” – but just because it’s “proportionate”, doesn’t mean it’s fair.