Are you a financial advisor with total fee transparency? Then get ready for your share of three trillion dollars!* The largest opportunity in the history of our profession is upon us.  As an industry, advisors will have more AUM growth over the next handful of years than any time in history.  This revenue growth will be driven by opportunities presented in the 401(k) industry.

Congress and the Department of Labor (DOL) are finally forcing fee transparency in 401(k)s.  Their goal is to better prepare employees for retirement and to protect their retirement savings.  Unfortunately, too many of the defined contribution plans that workers are dependent upon for their retirement income are poorly managed and entirely too costly.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) requires plan sponsors to act as fiduciaries and operate the plan in the best interests of the participants, including ensuring that the fees are reasonable for the services provided.  However, most plan sponsors have neither the knowledge nor tools to carry out this fiduciary obligation and often cannot ferret out the fees as they are often hidden or "baked in".

In addition, most plan sponsors are not fully aware of what their fiduciary obligation to plan participants actually means.  Equally troubling, most of them mistakenly believe their existing broker is a fiduciary to the plan.  These two misconceptions expose the plan sponsor to potential litigation.

The way the 401(k) industry has typically worked thus far is that most or all of the fees associated with running a 401(k) plan are borne by the individual participants.  However, these fees are not required to be disclosed to the participant, and rarely are, even if requested by a diligent participant.  In fact, most plan sponsor prospects I have worked with cannot find out for themselves the fees being charged to their participants. It is shocking that we have a system where the person paying the fee has no say in what the fee is and cannot see the fee to determine if it is appropriate given the services provided.

To help both plan sponsors and participants, Congress passed the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA), which mandated, among other things, fee disclosure to plan participants.  The 404 (a)(5) participant fee disclosure rules are set to take effect on or around May 31, 2012.  This rule mandates that the fees taken out of the participants assets be disclosed to the participant on the quarterly statement in dollars.  Once participants, many of whom believe their plan is free, start seeing all the fees being taken out of their pocket, they will pressure plan sponsors for improvements.

I understand that most people do not regularly read their 401(k) statement.  But only a few people in each company need to read it and begin asking questions.  Even without prodding by employees, the HR professional, business owner, or plan sponsor, may see the fees and start the review process before other participants raise a red flag.  Questions regarding expensive fees will be directed at brokers and highly priced insurance contracts.  

The broker distribution channel, which has dominated the defined contribution marketplace, will come under fire.  Historically, many of them have told plan sponsors that their plan is free.  These brokers are now going to field some tough questions from employers.

In addition, insurance companies, who have historically been the primary back-end delivery vehicle for 401(k)s, are going to come under fee scrutiny. These entrenched players are facing significant challenges while adjusting their internal organization, infrastructure and cost structure.  This has many players taking a piece of the pie while delivering little to no value to the end client.  Given the current litigation, concern for future litigation, their existing structure, and expected fee compression, some of the large firms are questioning if they want to continue to be in this business going forward.

The end result will be that the individual participant will see fees drop, service improve, and their retirement cash flow enhanced - and that is long overdue.