November 10, 2011

Few Takers for 401(k) Advice

Majority say they want access to advice in retirement plans, one quarter actually follow through

In volatile markets, demand should soar for professional financial advice, but few employees are taking advantage of recent rule changes that encourage plan sponsors to offer just that.

“More 401(k) plans are offering participants specific investment advice and even automatic account management to make investing decisions easier," Karen Blumenthal writes in The Wall Street Journal. “That should be a good thing: Survey after survey shows that formal advice leads investors to increase their savings, diversify their holdings and continue holding stocks even when the market takes a plunge.”

But Blumenthal writes that only about a quarter of the people who have access to advice through their retirement plans actually take advantage of it. She adds most of those who do use advisory services neglect to provide the personal details that would make the advice more valuable.

“For many years, 401(k) and similar plans offered mostly education and ‘guidance,’ such as brochures, seminars and worksheets that gave employees generic suggestions about how to manage their accounts,” she writes. “Providing advice goes much further, offering specific recommendations about how much to invest in specific funds in your plan. It also carries a fiduciary responsibility, or a requirement to put investors' interests first. Because of that, most advice services are offered by a company other than the investment firm that provides the 401(k) plan's fund offerings.”

She quotes a recent survey of 820 profit-sharing and 401(k) plans by the nonprofit Plan Sponsor Council of America that found that “58% offered investment advice in 2010, most commonly online services, one-on-one counseling and telephone hot lines. That was up from 47% of firms surveyed in 2005. Just over a third of the plans offered professional account management, up from 24% in 2005.”

Consultants and advice providers say more retirement plans are offering such services in part because recent market volatility has left many people unsure of what to do.

"When times are tough, there's a bigger demand for advice," Chris Lyon, a partner at Rocaton Investment Advisors, told Blumenthal.

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