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Nearly eight months after taking effect, the federal government's 401(k) fee-disclosure mandate, designed to help workers and their employers better understand the costs of their retirement plans, appears to have lost something in the translation.
The new federal rules call for companies that administer 401(k) plans to show workers and their employers exactly what fees are taken from their investment returns to pay for the operation of the programs - fees that can drain thousands of dollars from their accounts through the years.
But some financial advisers say many have ignored or given up on the new disclosures, which are to be sent out annually and, to some extent, included in quarterly statements. Although some disclosures present the new fee information clearly, others are lengthy, confusing and full of jargon, they say - a big turnoff for the average employee trying to make sense of retirement savings.
The rules have generated dozens of complaints to federal regulators about alleged violations.
"Most people don't read those kinds of things anyway," said Cary Carbonaro, a certified financial planner in Clermont, Fla., with United Capital Financial Advisers. "And if there's anything confusing in it, they'll just toss it in a pile to go in the trash can."
The rules' lackluster effects so far are frustrating personal-finance experts who had hoped they would lead to greater transparency and, in doing so, energize workers' retirement planning. Instead, the disclosures have been problematic for investors while creating more paperwork for employers and plan-management companies, said Jason Chepenik, a certified financial planner and managing partner of Orlando, Fla.-based Chepenik Financial, which manages 401(k) plans.
"We handle plans for more than 25,000 (employee) participants across the country, and we cannot find one person that has asked a question about this fee disclosure," he said. "It's been like a big waste of time so far."
The Labor Department rules require 401(k) companies to disclose their fees for plan-management services such as administration, record-keeping and accounting; until this past August, such costs were "hidden" in the expenses charged by each investment fund in a 401(k) plan. They also require companies to state in dollar terms each fund's expense ratio, so employee-investors can see how much of their investment returns are being surrendered to cover operating expenses.
The agency confirmed this month that regulators are looking into nearly 50 complaints nationwide from employers and financial advisers who have reported violations of the disclosure rules. It said officials are trying to determine whether the financial-services companies involved violated the requirements willfully or by accident.
Citing the agency's confidentiality policy, the agency would not provide details of the complaints. It noted that the number filed so far is small, given that there are nearly 500,000 employer-sponsored 401(k) and 403(b) savings plans nationwide.
"The department is reviewing the new fee disclosures as part of the normal investigative and auditing process," an agency spokesman said in a prepared statement. "Our primary focus is to work with employers and service providers to encourage and bring about voluntary compliance with the new requirements."
If investors think a plan administrator has violated the new rules, they can file a complaint with the U.S. Employee Benefits Security Administration by calling 866-444-3272 or going online to askebsa.dol.gov.
It's no surprise the Labor Department is taking a cautious approach to enforcement of the fee-disclosure rules, given their newness, said Bryant Kirk, chief operating officer of the Newport Group, a Heathrow, Fla.-based company that manages 401(k) plans for small and midsized businesses.
"There will be a self-compliance period, when people are left to correct their own mistakes," he said. "But before long, the Department of Labor will start auditing these things, issuing opinions and interacting with people to create more regulatory enforcement."
Despite the rough edges on the new rule's rollout, it has generated some benefits for employers and plan administrators that, in turn, indirectly benefit employee-investors, financial experts said.
"I'm sure some of these companies made it as confusing as possible," said Joe Nunziata, chairman of FBC Mortgage LLC, an Orlando, Fla.-based mortgage lender that offers its employees a 401(k) plan. "But our company, Nationwide, has been pretty good; they've disclosed the information properly and made the fees very transparent."
Also, with plans' management fees now separated from the fees charged by the individual investment funds inside the plans, an employer can now accurately compare the cost of its plan with others, creating a more-competitive market for plan services.
"In some cases, it's almost like a pricing war out there," said Al Baker, a certified financial planner at Resource Group in Winter Park, Fla. "Fees are getting lower at a lot of the 401(k) plan companies, and there are a lot of financial advisers who are scrambling to find out who the winners are going to be."