Retirement Meditation #30: How do the service providers to my retirement plan get paid? (part II)

Insights | Retirement Meditation #30: How do the service providers to my retirement plan get paid? (part II)

Author: Paul A. Carl, CHSA, CPFA Vice President, Retirement Plan Consulting, Registered Representative

Previous Retirement Meditations identified retirement plan service providers and discussed direct fees. This Retirement Meditation looks further at payments to service providers, focusing on the indirect aka less transparent.

A plan sponsor searching for a new retirement advisor identified its 401(k) plan service providers. When the advisor asked about fees paid, the plan sponsor replied, “The only fee is $800 paid annually to the TPA.” The plan sponsor’s response made the advisor’s quote of $15,000 appear ridiculous, yet the advisor’s calculations and supporting data clearly demonstrated $7,500 in annual savings if some changes were made.
Here’s a summary of how indirect (or less transparent) fees may be involved.

  • Recordkeeper – Recordkeepers often reduce their explicit fee pricing if some proprietary service or investment option is utilized. For example, a recordkeeper may reduce its recordkeeping fee if its fixed account or stable asset fund is used for the plan’s cash equivalent option, or in the event of a conversion using proprietary target date funds. Some recordkeepers have a low-cost solution available by offering a “limited” investment universe (which may mean making 3,000 investment options available instead of 10,000). Others have service offerings ranging from managed accounts to customized participant planning. Each proprietary service or product often results in some type of “discount” from stated, explicit pricing.
  • Third party administrator – Why do some TPA’s quote lower base and per head fees than others? Often, it’s based on how the TPA treats revenue, commonly called “TPA offset,” it receives from the recordkeeper. TPA’s quoting higher base and per head fees may use TPA offset to arrive at a net, lower fee to be paid by the plan or plan sponsor. Other TPAs quoting lower base and per head fees will keep some or all of the TPA offset to gross up their total collection of revenue in servicing a plan. 
  • Investment advisor – The most common form of indirect or non-transparent fees to advisors comes in the form of 12b-1 fees. These are extra charges inside of the mutual fund investment option making same fund different share classes more or less expensive.  Some advisors will instruct a recordkeeper to add extra basis points fees to its pricing, basis points that will ultimately be paid to the advisor. Some advisors will quote a flat fee rate at the plan level and charge additional fees for managing models inside the plan that are paid by the participants investing in the models.

Best practices call for plan fiduciaries to know who their providers are, what services are included, how their providers get paid, and how much they receive. Plan fiduciaries should use this knowledge to periodically benchmark to the market. Generally, no plan sponsor is under any obligation to simply go with the lowest cost without evaluating all of the factors.

What’s the total revenue your providers receive to service your retirement plan?

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