In recent weeks there has been new talk about introducing stronger investor protections and providing increased opportunities within the area of retirement savings. One of the biggest areas of concern has been a new focus on how individual investors fare in their employer-sponsored 401(k) plans.
Surprisingly, under current law there is no legal obligation for a 401(k) plan provider to put the interests of plan participants before their own. This type of duty is known as a “fiduciary” duty, and without this protection retirement savers may be fighting an uphill battle in trying to build their nest eggs.
Perhaps the biggest conflict is the limited choices that you are provided with a 401(k). For example, you might assume that the 401(k) provider selects the available investments based on their quality or suitability for the 401(k) plan participants. But in fact, in most cases, the fund company provides a fee to the 401(k) provider in order to be listed. And in many cases, the fund company can charge additional fees to the plan participants (often in the form of so-called “12b‑1” fees).
These types of fees, which relate to marketing and preferential treatment within the fund, do not benefit the 401(k) plan participants in any way, and essentially represent an extra charge that lowers their overall return. This is permitted under current law because 401(k) plan providers do not owe a legal “fiduciary” duty to the plan participants.
In contrast, a self-directed IRA custodian such as Quest Trust Company cannot market any specific investment funds or opportunities to the account holders. Self-directed IRA account owners make all the investment choices, and have the widest possible range of investment opportunities available to them. Rather than being limited to a handful of mutual fund choices (with the potentially inflated fees we discussed above), a self-directed IRA account holder can choose whatever fund or other investment asset is legally permitted under the IRS regulations.
You’re only given one choice when it comes to 401(k) plans – the one that your employer offers, or none at all.
Within the plan that your employer chooses to provide, you’re likely to note a significant limitation in your investment choices. For example, you may only have a single choice when it comes to a particular type of neutral fund or investment philosophy. And forget about being able to select individual stocks yourself; that won’t be available in an employer-provided 401(k).
A self-directed IRA is better because you have the maximum freedom in choosing where you want your retirement funds to be invested.
Finally, with a 401(k) plan, you are essentially locked into the choices and account custodian that your employer provides. There’s no incentive for your plan provider to offer the best service or even to offer a range of fee options, because they know you can’t take your 401(k) business elsewhere. The plan they provide is your only 401(k) option, and you generally can’t move your funds to a different retirement investment vehicle.
But when you do change jobs, you’ll certainly want to use that as an opportunity to roll any 401(k) account you have into a new self-directed IRA.