Even with fee disclosure rules in place, it is hard for plan sponsors to discern the fairness of the fee structures in their retirement plans.

The TIAA Institute has taken issue with the fairness of per capita administrative service fees. In a recent report, the Institute says that plan sponsors need to look harder at the fee structures of their plans because what may seem fair might actually be penalizing the lowest paid or shortest term workers.

“When people started charging per head fees, people claimed it was fair. It doesn’t meet an economic standard of fairness. It is simple and transparent but definitely not fair,” says David Richardson, senior economist with the TIAA Institute and author of a recent research paper on assessing fee fairness.

It is up to plan sponsors to “do that classical weighing of efficiency vs. fairness and what it means. A per head fee is transparent but it is not a fair thing to do. … These per head fees are a clever way to charge expensive fees to younger, shorter tenure workers. I find it worrisome,” he says.

This has always been an issue but all of the fees were wrapped up in an all-inclusive fee that paid for investment, administrative and other services. Once the government began requiring an unbundling of fees, “we started seeing all of these things,” he says.

Historically, fees were charged on a percentage of assets basis, which was fair, he says.

He uses Social Security as an example of why a per-head fee is not equitable. Currently, Social Security charges administrative costs as a percentage of income taken in. If it decided to charge all 325 million people in the Social Security Administration system a flat $50 fee, “every man, woman and child, firm or disabled, would be charged the same because we are providing that service,” Richardson says. “I don’t think anybody would consider that to be fair but that is what flat fee advocates are claiming in a retirement plan.”

He doesn’t believe fee issues will go away anytime soon, saying that he believes the overwhelming majority of vendors in the market are honest but many of the regulations are geared to those who may not be.

“So, the government has to be proactive, not reactive on this. The tendency is to say if people have more information, they are better informed. That is not necessarily true,” he says. “A lot of people have a hard time understanding that information. It is tough. When they are saying we need more and more disclosure, more and more information is not just helpful. Sometimes it is just noise to people.”

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“The tendency is to say if people have more information, they are better informed. That is not necessarily true.”

So when deciding how to assess the effectiveness of a plan administrative fee structure, TIAA Institute says plan sponsors must follow four standards: adequacy, meaning that total fees collected must cover the cost of features and services provided to plan participants; transparency, meaning that everyone can easily find information about the fee structure and how the fees are used to cover the cost of plan features and services; administrative ease, meaning the fee structure is not too complicated or costly for either the plan sponsors or plan vendors; and fairness, which ensures that administrative fee structures must provide horizontal and vertical equity.

Horizontal equity means that “participants with similar levels of assets pay similar levels of fees”; and vertical equity means that “participants with higher levels of assets pay at least the same proportion in fees as those with lower asset balances,” according to TIAA Institute.

The Institute says that an administrative fee structure charging a flat pro rata fee can meet all four standards.

“This fee structure will be transparent, can easily satisfy adequacy, and is simple to administer. The pro rata fee will be fair because similar participants pay the same level of fees and higher asset participants pay the same proportion of fees as low asset participants,” TIAA Institute finds.

“Our goal is to help plan sponsors make the best decision for their plan and their plan participants,” Richardson says.

He also cautions ERISA plans to keep these four standards in mind because not doing so could violate the “spirit of non-discrimination rules,” he adds. “It tilts benefits in favor of key and highly paid employees.”
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