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Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

Are Plan Advisors Overpaid? Ted Benna Says Yes

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The “Father of 401(k)s,” whose brainchild revolutionized retirement planning, has another gleam in his eye. Ted Benna wants five changes made to 401(k) plans, which would mean more workers participating in these programs and employees saving more for retirement. What does he want less of? High 401(k) fees.

For a start, Benna, 76, is worked up about advisors’ fees for helping employers pick funds as if they’re executing original work. He says that with half a million plans in existence, they’re only repeating what’s been done before.

In 1979, Benna, then a benefits consultant, created the first 401(k). He used the IRS Tax Code Section 401(k) — which was to become effective on Jan. 1, 1980 — as the basis for redesigning a bank’s retirement program. He augmented the 401(k) provision with tax deferrals for employees and matching contributions by the bank.

To celebrate the birth of his creation four decades ago, Benna releases a new book, “401(k) – Forty Years Later” (Xulon Press), this month.

The trailblazer’s take on 401(k) investments: Participants should be placed automatically into low-cost structured portfolios, but those who prefer making their own investing decisions should be free to do so.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

Investment Advisor: In 2001, you wanted participants to have “unlimited choice and control” in choosing 401(k) investments. What are your thoughts 17 years later? Ted Benna: At that time I was probably frustrated that participants weren’t being given enough opportunity and thinking, why shouldn’t they have as much flexibility as when they’re investing their own [private] retirement plan? Logically, that still makes sense.

I’ve updated that thinking and defined the process to be something wiser. [In the interim] I’ve restructured companies’ plans so that participants are automatically put into structured investment portfolios using Vanguard Target Retirement Funds, which are extremely low cost. But for those employees who like to make their own decisions, there’s an open window to go out and do that without restrictions.

What do you think about 401(k) plan fees? They’re unnecessarily expensive. When we started 401(k)s, the employer paid all the expenses except the investment costs. But in the early 1980s, the fees got bundled — all of them paid by participants. It got worse when investment advice, or managed accounts, [entered the picture], where another layer of fees was stirred into the mix and raised costs. Particularly in the smaller-plan market, 2% to 3-1/2% was not unusual.

What happened next? As we began to add funds, wirehouses, insurance brokers and agents woke up to the fact that there was significant money in this field. So they morphed into investment advisors hired to help pick and monitor the funds.

Wasn’t that a positive? The advisors are getting paid each time they go through the process with an employer to help pick funds as if they’re doing an original piece of work. There are more than half a million 401(k) plans, so that’s happened over half a million times. The fund menus aren’t that much different. But advisors are getting paid as if they’re doing an original piece of work. That’s just bizarre, extremely inefficient and much too expensive.

What should the advisor’s role be concerning 401(k)s? They need to get away from asset-driven compensation and be paid a fee for service, the same as accountants or attorneys, who don’t get paid a percentage of corporate [client] assets. Their role should shift to helping people focus on how to succeed at retiring successfully, not on investment return. Building a smarter investment mix is pretty much of a commodity now. The focus should be on goals: “I want to retire successful. Help me do that.” [So] instead of teaching clients small-cap, large-cap, value vs. growth and that stuff, help participants find ways to save more to do a better job of financial management and focus on the stream of income they’ll [need] for their retirement.

What changes would you like to see regarding 401(k)s? No. 1 would be requiring all employers with a [certain] minimum number of employees to offer a payroll-deduction retirement program. That’s the most effective way for people to save.

All employers [should] use auto-enrollment for signing up employees. Mandatory auto-enrollment has been supported legislatively and has been growing in popularity. I would also have them do auto-escalation, once a year bumping up the amount [participants] save. But employees would have the opportunity to opt out of that.

[Also, there’s] too much of the savings escape — leakage — when people change jobs or when plans are terminated. So I would mandate that you have to keep [the savings] locked up for retirement either in the employee’s next 401(k), an IRA or other plan.

[Finally,] when you retire, I would eliminate lump-sum distribution, other than maybe having access to 10% to pay off debts. Except for that, you’d have to take the money as a stream of income during your life expectancy [time].

What’s the likelihood that any of those changes would be made? It [would] happen only if someone introduced a piece of legislation that had a chance of passing through Congress and getting signed by the president. These aren’t really controversial things politically. Either side of the aisle could potentially see that they make sense.

Is the 401(k) plan threatened today by state plans, small-employer plans and federal thrift plans?

Potentially. I have both positive and negative views of what the states are doing to offer plans. The Oregon program they’re setting up is going to cost participants over 1%! I told the Pennsylvania Treasury office, when they asked me about a state plan, “Why would you invest the time and money to set up a program when small-business employers have the opportunity to establish a program that’s already out there and that will have a lower cost to participants?” Small employers just don’t know about attractive alternatives. The primary reason they don’t know is that the financial community won’t make a lot of money off them. Very simple.

What about federal thrift plans? That’s one thing to consider — open to any worker or 401(k) participant. They would put the private sector in competition with the government.

In your upcoming book, you say that retirees who follow traditional investment advice assume too much risk. Please elaborate. The significant problem with that type of portfolio is that if you get hit with another 2008 [financial crisis] and you’re in one of those funds designed for someone 65 years old, you’ll lose [a large part] of your nest egg the first year you’re retired. We don’t know when the next 2008 is going to be. So you can’t afford that risk. You can’t take that kind of hit without being in serious trouble. You need to really guard your nest egg during your retirement years. Are you forecasting another 2008?

The next one will be worse. It’s a scary time. In this country, we’re in worse condition financially than we were pre-2008. In 2008, the states got a big bailout from the feds to help them work their way out of the crisis. Today, the federal government isn’t in a position to do that.

When did you become interested in finance and investing? I grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, one of six kids. My father gave us a cow, and [my siblings and I] sold the milk it produced. So with that money I bought government bonds when I was very young. I’m still trying to keep that string going.

Have you ever tried to retire? No. On a plane flight not long ago, the chatty lady beside me asked if I was retired. I started chuckling and said, “My business has been helping employers and employees retire, but I can’t quite picture total retirement for myself yet.”

Jane Wollman Rusoff is a contributing editor who specializes in interviews with thought leaders. An author and prolific journalist, she is the founder of


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