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House 401(k) Fee Disclosure May Not Get Beyond Floor Vote

Unlike its predecessor, the bill does not mandate that plans include at least one low-cost index fund.

April 17, 2008
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Related Topics: Finance/Taxes, Benefit Design and Communication, Retirement/Pensions, Latest News
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Under a bill approved along party lines by the House Education and Labor Committee on April 16, retirement plans would have to provide greater transparency on the fees that they charge participants.

A vote on the House floor later this year may be the end of the road for the bill until 2009. Yet, the House Ways and Means Committee also could offer its own version of the bill. Very little is happening in the Senate on this issue. A similar Senate measure only has one co-sponsor, as the legislative days in the congressional session dwindle.

The House labor panel bill would require 401(k) sponsors to list fees in four categories—administrative, investment management, transaction and other areas. The bill also would require 401(k) plans to provide information on the historical risk, returns and fees on each investment option.

Unlike its predecessor, the bill does not mandate that plans include at least one low-cost index fund. But an amendment adopted by the committee would make liability protection for plans contingent upon their offering an index fund.

Republicans and most industry groups oppose the bill because they say that it would force plans to break out separate fees for services that are bundled under one price. They assert it could encourage workers to make bad investment choices by focusing on fees rather than returns.

Rep. George Miller, D-California and chairman of the labor committee, said the bill will help workers better understand hidden fees that drain their retirement nest egg. He cited a Government Accountability Office study showing that a 1 percent increase in fees would decrease retirement income by 20 percent over 20 years.

“The purpose of this legislation is to take these hard-earned savings away from the special interests and return them to their rightful place—the retirement accounts of American workers,” Miller said. “We’re trying to give people more confidence in their 401(k) plans.”

Although Miller has streamlined the fee reporting categories since the bill was first introduced last year, the changes weren’t enough to satisfy critics.

“This bill may focus more on information quantity than quality,” said Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-California and the committee’s highest-ranking Republican. “If that is the case, we may be doing more harm than good by overwhelming workers with cumbersome or incomprehensible information.”

Industry lobbyists maintained that for all practical purposes the revised bill still contained an index-fund mandate that limits flexibility.

“The marketplace is continuously evolving, our members are continuously innovating and developing new products,” said Daniel Crowley, chief government affairs officer at the Investment Company Institute, a Washington organization representing financial services. “It would be inappropriate to freeze in statute any particular investment option. There is no single investment that is right for all investors all the time.”

Analogies infused the debate. McKeon compared the fee disclosure requirement to forcing car manufacturers to list separately the prices for a transmission and brakes.

Rep. Robert Andrews, D-New Jersey and author of the liability amendment, likened the fee disclosures to the difference between buying a soda, hamburger and fries individually or in a package.

Opponents turned that parallel back on Andrews. “The Happy Meal is the epitome of the bundled product,” Crowley said

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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