The tricky business of finding a 401(k) advisorNews added by Benefits Pro on August 19, 2014

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Joined: September 07, 2011

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By Nick Thornton

Whether it’s because they’re looking to save on fees or because they don’t like their advisor’s fashion sense, plan sponsors searching for a new advisor today have no shortage of options, and that can be a problem.

“There are so many advisors to plan sponsors these days, how can plan sponsors realistically be expected to make the right choice?” asks Trisha Brambly, founder of a New Hope, Pennsylvania, firm that helps employers do just that.

According to Fidelity, 84 percent of sponsors relied on advisors in 2013, up 9 percent from the previous year. Still, about 175,000 defined contribution plans do not use an advisory firm, Brambly says. Moreover, about 17 percent of plans with assets over $50 million don’t have an advisory firm in place.

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder more than 300,000 people call themselves retirement plan advisors today. Sponsors need help on all sorts of questions including plan design, regulatory issues and cost.

That’s why Brambly started Retirement Playbook three years ago. The consultancy does one thing — weed through the growing list of advisors hoping to tap the lucrative 401(k) market so that sponsors can pick the right one, and know what they’re getting, and what they’re paying for.

She isn’t responsible for picking investment line-ups or meeting face-to-face with enrollees. But she once was. Brambly started her own advisory to plan sponsors in the 1990s and sold it a few years ago. She’s been working with sponsors throughout her career, and was involved in the creation of some of the original 401(k) plans. She even served a stint on ERISA’s Advisory Council.

Her war stories illustrate a good point.

“I once advised a sponsor with a $200 million plan. I remember walking into the CFO’s office one day and asking what the plan was paying its third-party administrator — I knew it was way too much, and knew the enrollees could be saving and investing more of their money,” recalled Brambly.

The CFO looked at her, and, without hesitation, said, “It’s free.”

Of course, it wasn’t. It’s one thing when an enrollee is in the dark about the fees they pay for their 401(k). But when the CFO of a large company hasn’t bothered to understand a plan’s costs, well, that’s just kind of scary.

Things have changed over the years, in many ways for the better, says Brambly.

You couldn’t get executives interested in fees five or 10 years ago. In some cases, she said, there were conflicts of interest in the C-suite — some big plans had banking relationships with larger financial services company, and were happy to take a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to managing 401(k) plans.

The Great Recession and the birth of a new area of tort law targeting fees have greatly reshaped the landscape. But that doesn’t mean the road for sponsors isn’t still perilous.

“There are always conflicts of interest. Just because the ones that existed 20 years ago don’t exist today doesn’t mean advisors and sponsors aren’t often conflicted in how to best serve participants,” said Brambly.

For one, advisors who still get paid on the funds they recommend can often compromise the best interests of participants.

“No one fund company has the best funds in every class,” says Brambly.

Today’s hyper fee-consciousness among executives, regulators and enrollees has helped drive advisor fees down. But that’s created its own set of problems, according to Brambly.

“Sometimes very low fees raise the question of quality,” she said. “Do the lowest-fee advisories have the staff to service the sponsor? Are they actively engaged with fund managers, talking to them, really getting into the analysis of the line-ups they set? Or are they just downloading a Morningstar report?”

Retirement Playbook has developed a list of topics and questions for sponsors as they consider replacing or adding an advisor. The top five items on that list:
1. All advisors are not fiduciaries. If your advisor is qualified to serve as a co-fiduciary, get it in writing.

2. Advisors are either specialists or generalists, though most plans don’t use a specialist. Specialists can help ensure your plan reflects best practices, is on the lookout for the latest trends and ideas, and help sponsors get the most out of their vendors.

3. Does the advisor get special bonuses based on how much business they place with certain firms or funds? Does the firm have preferred vendors because they receive additional compensation?

4. Make sure all fees are reasonable including the plan advisor's fees. If the advisors' fees are taken from plan assets, be sure that the fees are reasonable in context of the services provided.

5. Understand how the plan pays fees. New, more stringent retirement plan fee disclosure rules make attention to this detail mandatory. Advisors may charge a percentage of assets or a flat fee through an ERISA expense budget or as an add-on.

There is a flip side to this equation, of course.

Jamie Greenleaf, a general partner and lead advisor at Red Bank, New Jersey-based Cafaro Greenleaf, says that as sponsors have grown more fee-conscious, her firm has had to become more selective about the sponsors it partners with as a fiduciary.

“We won’t work with a client that only understands a plan’s value in terms of cost,” said Greenleaf. “And that can be difficult. No one wants to walk away from business.”

To get the best result, she says, sponsors should be willing to collaborate, to be on the same page as the advisor at the outset, and to stay there as time goes on.

That’s not easy, she says.

“It’s like life in general,” she says. “Some sponsors are very passionate about building the best plan possible for their employees, and then there are others that are disengaged, for a lot reasons.”

“As a fiduciary we have to do what’s in the best interest of sponsors and enrollees,” she continued. “A lot of sponsors simply don’t understand what that takes. Look at how many operate under the notion that fund providers are fiduciaries? Sometimes it takes filing a lawsuit to find out they’re not.”

Finally, “cheaper isn’t always better. If reducing costs means avoiding known value-adds that serve the participants’ best interests, then you have a whole new set of liabilities,” she said.

Also read: Quiz tests sponsors’ fiduciary savvy

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