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Looking Before You ‘Leap’

IRA Rollover

As new rules about rollover disclosures kick in, a new report highlights an often unacknowledged risk of rollovers—high(er) fees.

That’s right—a new report from Pew Trusts seems to have stirred up a new awareness of that issue—all this attention just as PTE 2020-02 brings the written requirement of why a rollover is in the best interests of participants into play.

That difference shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever compared the fees in their 401(k) to an IRA. Most 401(k)s benefit from institutional pricing, and if the menu of available investment options isn’t quite as broad as that in an IRA, they benefit from the selection and monitoring by ERISA fiduciaries. Yes, IRAs are just that—individual retirement accounts—smaller, generally speaking with more options—and yes, much more likely to be charged retail mutual fund fees—more expensive. In that sense the report—though it’s garnered headlines of late—doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know, if we’d only stop to acknowledge it. 

However, sure as I am willing to accept the conclusions based on both personal experience and professional acumen, I am a tad skeptical in the results of the analysis. The title is truer than one might expect. The title of the report speaks volumes as it says: “Small Differences in Mutual Fund Fees Can Cut Billions From Americans' Retirement Savings.” Because, after all, it surely could—but does it?

The report that is garnering so much attention now claims that, in the aggregate, the amount of retirement savings lost in such rollovers potentially reaches tens of billions of dollars. Citing data from the Investment Company Institute, the report notes that in 2018 alone, investors rolled $516.7 billion from employer retirement plans into traditional IRAs. They go on to assert that an analysis of fee differentials suggests that over a hypothetical retirement period of 25 years, those retail investors could see an aggregate reduction in savings of about $45.5 billion—just from that single year of rollovers.

Math ‘Problems’

The analysis—based on data from Survivor-Bias-Free U.S. Mutual Fund Database, Center for Research in Security Prices—though it relies on medians and averages for its fee conclusions—and, based on those, it asserts that annual expenses for median retail shares (ostensibly what you’d have access to in an IRA) were 0.34 percentage points higher than those for institutional shares (again, ostensibly what you’d have access to via your typical 401(k). Similar projections are presented for hybrid, and for what the analysis purports to be the smallest median fee difference. Having chosen these points of reference, the analysis simply does the math.[i]

Rollover Rationales

Regardless of the size of the differential—what role, if any, do fees play in these rollover decisions? Suffice it to say—not much. 

At least according to another report[ii] published last September by Pew, based on a survey of 1,125 older workers and recent retirees ages 55 to 75 between May 12 and June 5, 2020—roughly half currently and the rest working full time, though all had at least $30,000 in retirement savings. The survey asked participants a series of questions about whom they had consulted in deciding what to do with their retirement savings and how they planned to handle their savings (in the case of those still working), or what they had done with their savings (in the case of retirees).

Now, there are many reasons underlying the distribution decision—fees, convenience, investment options—but when the workers weighed in they said they were most motivated to stay in their current plan because they preferred the investment options—a reason cited by 50% of respondents as the most important reason, and mentioned by nearly three-quarters (73%) as at least one reason why they intend to leave their savings in their current plan when they retire. Not surprisingly—since those surveyed had at least $30,000 in savings—more than half felt that staying in their current plan would be convenient.

On the other hand, only about 3 in 10 were motivated to plan on keeping their savings in their current plan because they thought it would have lower fees than other options, and a mere 15% said lower fees in their current plan was the most important reason for planning to leave their savings where they are.

‘Control’ Voice

Near-retirees planning to roll their savings into an IRA at retirement were similarly motivated by convenience and investment options, according to the report. However, the strongest motivating factor for those respondents was the ability to have greater control over their investments, with more than 6 in 10 (63%) saying that was one reason that they planned to roll their workplace savings into an IRA, while for nearly 4 in 10 it was the most important reason. Roughly a quarter said that investment performance was behind their plan to move their savings into an IRA when they retired, and the same number actually said it was because the IRA had lower fees. 

Control was most important among retirees as well; about 18% of retirees cited lower fees as a reason for rolling over their savings, slightly less than the 25% of near retirees who cited fees as a reason—more specifically that the IRA had lower fees than their current plan. Only 4% of retirees said it was the most important reason, nearly identical to the 3% of near retirees who said the same.

Said another way, fees were not a major consideration in the rollover decision—and when it did manifest itself as a reason, it was because the IRA fees were believed to be lower than their current plan. Which, again, in view of certain market realities, suggests that those workers didn’t appreciate/understand the fees paid in their 401(k).  

The reality is, a small difference in mutual fund fees can cut billions from Americans’ savings—an impact that, unfortunately, many of those contemplating a rollover may not realize[iii] or prioritize in their decisions. 

That said, while those new disclosures documenting why a rollover is in the participants’ best interest may not solve the problem—they should make it easier for advisors to help them better understand what they may be giving up.  And perhaps all of this attention to this important issue will help participants who aren't working with an advisor to "look" before they simply leap...

[i] While the comparisons are certainly “directionally” accurate assuming the math is correct, the size and scope of the impact surely suffer from the imprecision of the markers employed. But considering the sheer size of the rollover market (it now outpaces that of the 401(k), it’s surely a significant amount.

[ii] Pew Survey Explores Consumer Trend to Roll Over Workplace Savings Into IRA Plans

[iii] The Pew report notes that “although few said that they would continue a rollover into an IRA with higher fees than their workplace plan, previous research by Pew has shown that many people struggle to fully understand their investment fees. Just 25% of workers in an earlier Pew survey said that they had read and understood the fee disclosure of their retirement account.