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En Route: 401(k) Fee Disclosures

Here's something for the estimated 72 million 401(k) participants to look forward to at the end of this month.

On August 30, the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration participant fee disclosure rule, dubbed ERISA 404(a)(5), will go into effect.

At that point, participants will get a first-hand look at all of the fees charged directly against their investments (such as sales loads), annual operating expenses (with expense ratios), and an explanation of any fees or expenses for legal, accounting, and record-keeping services. Also, participants will get breakdowns of any fees and expenses that may be charged to or deducted from their individual accounts based on the actions taken by that participant, such as taking out loans against their holdings.

In addition to the plan-related information that must be furnished up front and annually, participants must receive statements, at least quarterly, showing the dollar amount of the plan-related fees and expenses (whether "administrative" or "individual") actually charged to or deducted from their individual accounts, along with a description of the services for which the charge or deduction was made.

According to the Labor Department, the anticipated cost of the rule is $425 million in 2010 dollars, arising from legal compliance review, time spent consolidating information for participants, creating and updating Web sites, preparing and distributing annual and quarterly disclosures, and material and postage costs to distribute the disclosures.

However, it said that the new rule will reduce the amount of time participants spend collecting fee and expense information and organizing the information in a format that allows key information to be compared; estimating that this time savings to total nearly 54 million hours valued at nearly $2 billion, also in 2010 dollars.

"Over the ten-year period 2012-2021, Employee Benefits Security Administration estimates that the present value of the benefits provided by the final rule will be approximately $14.9 billion and the present value of the costs will be approximately $2.7 billion," noted the Labor Department in its Fact Sheet dated February 2012.

Vanguard Institutional Investor Group managing director Chris McIsaac said that while his firm lauds Labor "for its efforts to create clear and consistent standards for fee disclosure," it has been providing this type of fee disclosure for years. Joshua Grandy, a spokesman for the firm, noted that there are three pieces to the new participant fee disclosure regulation: an annual participant fee disclosure notice and notices to announce certain plan changes, as warranted, a quarterly participant statement, and a website for additional investment information.

"On behalf of our plan sponsors, Vanguard will produce the annual notice, which will contain plan-related information, including administrative and individual expenses, as well as investment information in a comparative chart," Grandy said. "We will now also be displaying a breakdown of the fees that apply individually to each participant (e.g., fees for administrative expenses, loans or hardship withdrawals, if applicable)."

In addition, Grandy said the firm will be enhancing its Website to show the plan's funds, performance and expense ratios, and other information in accordance with the regulation.

The new participant fee disclosure rules follows Labor's mandated plan sponsor fee disclosure rule, titled 408(b)(2), which went into effect on July 1. This requires plan service providers to make fee disclosures to their plan sponsor clients.

A plan sponsor client manager, who asked to remain anonymous because her company has a policy against talking to the media, said that she expects to field questions from her participants once they get their statements. "You're going to have a subset of associates who are going to look at this and dig into it and really review it. There's going to be those who just file it away," she said. "I am prepared to answer a lot of questions and depending on how deep they get into it, some may be referred to outside financial advisers and then some may be referred to Prudential for more detailed information."

So did Labor get this one right or is this just the tip of the iceberg as far as transparency goes?

Anne Arvia, president of retirement plans for Nationwide Financial, which acts as a record-keeper and fund provider, said: "Full disclosure doesn't necessarily equate to full comprehension or understanding by sponsors or participants."

Tom Gonnella, who leads the corporate development department for Lincoln Trust Company, a provider of open architecture 401(k) services for the small to mid-plan market, echoes Arvia's sentiments: "The challenge is going to be, especially for participants, they still have to do the math. If you look at these disclosures, it just shows a percentage per $1,000 and a dollar amount per $1,000 for investment expenses. But nobody's doing the math for them."

Instead, Gonnella's firm offers a Personalized Expense Ratio service to plans under its watch whereby it will automatically calculate investment expenses and show the actual fees paid, both for the individual participant and in total for the entire plan.

While the new fee disclosure rule is still a work in progress, David Wray, president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America, said that the rules "will have long-term benefits in that we're going to see fewer articles about 401(k)s being a fee rip-off."