Seven isn’t just a lucky number for rolling the dice in Vegas; it’s also a solid measure of key trends in retirement planning to watch in the coming year. Here’s what a handful of industry observers believe should be on the proverbial radar for HR and benefit professionals.

Fiduciary framework

[Image credit: Bloomberg]
[Image credit: Bloomberg]

Between compliance with fee-disclosure requirements and a growing number of class-action lawsuits on 401(k) plan fees, many plan sponsors have sought more fiduciary partners to help them implement defined contribution plans. The observation comes from Josh Cohen, managing director, defined contribution at Russell Investments. In light of this litigation, he warns that choosing the lowest possible price may not necessarily be the best value or choice for helping improve retirement readiness.

Trisha Brambley, CEO of Retirement Playbook, says it’s critical to vet the team of prospective advisers and the intellectual capital they offer. Her firm offers employers a trademarked service that’s akin to a request for information that simplifies and speeds the competitive bidding process.

While the incoming Trump administration could delay, materially modify or altogether repeal the Department of Labor’s final fiduciary rule, it cannot reverse a “new awareness around the harm that’s created by conflicted advisers and brokers,” cautions David Ramirez, a co-founder of ForUsAll who heads the startup’s investment management. He expects plan sponsors who are managing at least $2 million in their 401(k) to continue asking sophisticated questions about the fiduciary roles his firm and other service providers assume and how they’re compensated. Ramirez points to a marketplace that’s demanding greater transparency, accountability and alignment of goals and incentives irrespective of what the DOL may require.

One way to improve the nation’s retirement readiness is by “fixing all of the broken 401(k) plans with between $2 million and $20 million in assets” that are paying too much in fees, doing too much administrative work or taking on too much liability, according to Ramirez. “In 2014, nearly three out of four companies failed their 401(k) audit and faced fines,” he notes, adding that last year the DOL flagged about four of 10 audits for having material deficiencies with the number being as high as two-thirds in some segments.

While litigation over high fees and the DOL’s fiduciary rule may not have a significant impact on small and mid-market plans, they’re spotlighting the need to make more careful decisions that are in the best interest of plan participants. That’s the sense of Fred Barstein, founder and executive director of the Retirement Adviser University, which is offered in collaboration with the UCLA Anderson School of Management Executive Education. He predicts there will be less revenue sharing in the institutional funds arena and better vetting of recordkeepers, money managers and plan advisers in terms of their fees and level of experience.


Default-driven plan design

Noting that it’s been 10 years since passage of the Pension Protection Act, Cohen says default-driven plan design continues to have a major impact on retirement planning. The trend is fueled by qualified default investment alternative options that encourage appropriate investment of employee assets in vehicles that will maximize long-term savings. He predicts “further customization” of off-the-shelf target date funds at the individual level based on each participant’s own unique situation and experiences. Moreover, he sees more use of a robo-adviser type framework built around managed accounts, while participants with a complex financial picture will seek a more tailored solution that fits their needs.

Financial wellness

Financial wellness cuts across virtually any demographic, Cohen notes. The point is to help balance household budgets with retirement-saving goals, “whether it involves millennials dealing with student debt or middle-aged parents dealing with college tuition, a mortgage or credit card debt,” he explains. He sees the use of more creative ideas, tools and support, such as encouraging young employees to pay off student loans by making a matching contribution to their 401(k).

For employers, a key to reaching millennials on financial wellness is through text messages over all other means of communication, suggests Ramirez, whose firm is able to get 18- to 24-year-olds saving 6.7% on average and 25 to 29-year-olds 7.3%. As part of that strategy, he says it’s important to set realistic goals, such as new entrants into the workforce deferring 6% of their salary before increasing that amount with rising earnings. The idea is to establish a culture that turns millennials into super savers.

“We’re seeing employers help their employees with just setting a basic budget,” says Rob Austin, director of retirement research for Aon Hewitt. “It can also move into things like saving for other life stages.”

Aon Hewitt recently released a report on financial wellness showing that 28% of all workers have student loans. While researchers noted that roughly half of millennials were saddled with this debt, the margin was cut in half for Gen Xers (about 25%) workers and halved again for baby boomers (about 12.5%). The employer response has been somewhat tepid, according to Austin. For example, just 3% of companies help employees pay for student loans, about 5% help consolidate those loans and 15% offer a 529 plan.

Financial wellness is being expanded and embedded into retirement programs to serve a growing need for more holistic information, observes Brambley. “A lot of people don’t even know how to manage a credit card, let alone figure out how to scrape up a few extra bucks to put in their 401(k) plan,” she says.

Also read: How financial wellness efforts can boost retirement readiness

401(k) plan fees

Ted Benna, a thought leader in the retirement planning community commonly referred to as the “father of 401(k),” found earlier in the year “a very high level of indifference” among plan sponsors about the prices they pay for recordkeeping, investment management services and related costs. He says this was the case even at companies with “pretty outrageously high fees,” which proved to be a big shock for him.

Also read: 401(k) fee litigation finds new targets

The discovery coincided with the start of his latest advisory venture, which was designed to help shepherd sponsors through the 401(k) fee minefield with objective information to determine that the fees they were paying were reasonable and, thus, in the best interest of participants. But Benna didn’t see much demand for the service he envisioned, so he’s now in the throes of writing his fifth book, whose working title is “Escaping the Coming Retirement Crisis Revisited.”

Litigation over high fees has at least raised awareness among plan sponsors about the need for reasonable prices, along with sound investment offerings, as regulators step up their scrutiny of fiduciary duties, Austin says. While not necessarily related, he has noticed that nearly as many employers are now charging their administrative fees as a flat dollar amount vs. those that historically charge a percentage of one’s account balance. “If you have a $100,000 balance, and I have a $1,000 balance, you and I have access to the same tools and same funds,” he reasons. “So why would you pay 100 times what I’m paying just because your balance is higher?”

Greater automation

With increasing automation on the horizon, Ramirez notes that 401(k) plans are moving into cloud-based technology that will streamline core business processes and avoid careless errors.

For instance, that means no longer having to manually sync the 401(k) with payroll when employees change their deferral rate or download the payroll report to a 401(k) plan recordkeeper. “That’s 1990s technology,” he quips. “Signing up for the 401(k) can be as easy as posting a picture on Instagram or sending a tweet.”

Apart from vastly reducing the administrative burden, he says it also allows makes it easier for plan participants to enroll, increase deferrals, receive better advice based on algorithmic formulas and improve communications. The upshot is that when all these pieces of the puzzle are in place, ForUsAll has found that participants in the plans it manages save on average 8% of their pay across all industries and demographics.

Barstein believes there’s still going to be a lot of movement toward auto-enrollment and escalation, as well as the use of professionally managed investments like target-date funds, which he predicts will become more customized. “We’re starting to see where participants in one plan can choose a conservative, aggressive, or moderate version of a target date,” he says of efforts to improve an employee’s financial wellness.

Streamlined investments

Brambley sees a movement toward investment menu consolidation. She remembers how it was customary for employers to offer three to four distinctively different investment funds in the early years of 401(k) plans, which later gave way to about 20 such offerings on average. The push is now to weed out any duplication of so-called graveyard funds because she says “there’s some fiduciary risk to continue to offer them when they no longer meet the criteria on their investment policy statement.”

Cohen agrees that plan sponsors continue to see the benefit of streamlining the menu of options for a more manageable load. As part of that movement, he sees the adoption of “white labeling” of investment options that replaces opaque, retail-branded fund names with accurate generic descriptions. For example, they would reflect asset classes (i.e., the Bond Fund or the Stock Fund). The thinking is that this approach will generate more meaningful or practical value for participants whose knowledge of basic financial principles is limited.

Confining the selection of investments to a handful of funds in distinctly different asset classes will invariably make the process much easier for participants, Brambley suggests. This enables plan sponsors to wield “more negotiating power” on pricing because they have funds collecting under various asset-class headings, she explains.

Recordkeeper consolidation

Recordkeeper consolidation is going to continue, according to Barstein, who sees organizations that lack technology, scale and the support of their parent company will not survive marketplace change.

The most noteworthy activity will involve big-name mergers as opposed to scores of recordkeepers leaving or merging, he believes.

“If I was a plan sponsor, I’d be concerned because nobody really wants to go through a conversion,” Barstein says. “I’m sure JP Morgan forced a lot of their clients to either consider changing when they went through the acquisition by Empower.”

Bruce Shutan is a Los Angeles freelance writer.

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