A Better Way To Do the 401(k)
Even if you narrow your selection to 3(38) investment managers, there are characteristics that separate one investment manager from another. By raising the bar on these advisor qualities, you will enjoy a more effective 401(k) plan for you and your employees while also fulfilling your fiduciary obligations under ERISA. In our view, these represent minimum standards an employer should require in selecting an advisor. These standards provide a framework for detecting the difference between "advisers" that merely sell products and true retirement experts that deliver successful retirement plan outcomes.
Align Wealh Management specializes in working exclusively with small business retirement plans with less than 100 employees. By limiting our practice to small business owners, we are able to focus more on what is important to the owner and the valuable employees of the business.
Independence/Objectivity – No Commissions or Kickbacks
The investment advisor to a retirement plan should be free from any real or perceived conflicts of interest, with no allegiance to any entity except its client - the plan sponsor and it's participants. An important way to substantiate this level of commitment is to look at the adviser's fee structure. Is the firm “fee-only,” with its sole source of income the fees you pay? Or does it accept commissions, kickbacks, revenue sharing, or other forms of compensation thereby creating dangerous conflicts of interest? Firms with the preferred, fee-only model will be happy to disclose all fees in a straightforward format so that you know exactly what you are getting and what you are paying for for your retirement plan.
Don't you find it odd that a 401(K) plan is one of the only products that a US consumer buys without knowing it's cost? Well, Align is out to change that medieval system. Every 90 days, each Align client receives a clear & concise report disclosing (in Plain English) the true cost of their retirement plan.
Prudent Investments – Investment Policies
It’s still important that your chosen investment manager be well-positioned to represent your employees’ best interests with its investment activities. Your plan advisor should provide a prudent, legally sound, academically oriented, and cost-efficient investment process. This process should be designed to protect both you and your plan participants. One way to help substantiate this capability is to ensure that your investment manager delivers a written Investment Policy Statement describing and documenting your prudent investment process.
Customer Service Standards – Investment Advisory Agreement
It almost goes without saying that upfront and ongoing excellent customer service is critical to your plan’s success. And yet, particularly if you’re exploring a new relationship, it may be difficult to separate the talk from the walk. It can help if the firm is willing to put the commitment in writing. A firm with the level of customer service you deserve should be agreeable to enter into a legally binding investment advisory agreement with you that acknowledges the firm's responsibilities in a clear and concise way, reviewed annually for potential updates.
Excellent Education: Investor Behavior
The advisor to a plan should provide a customized investment education program to plan participants in accordance with Interpretive Bulletin 96-1; Participant Investment Education; Final Rule, issued by the Department of Labor. So, yes, an investor education component is required by law. But it also can be critical to successful retirement outcomes for your employees.
Studies have demonstrated that individual investors are often their own worst enemies. Investors who form their strategy and model their portfolio according to their own goals, risk tolerance and time horizons – and then stick to that strategy and portfolio over the long-term – stand the best chance of enjoying successful retirement outcomes. Unfortunately, investors are all too often tempted by exuberance during bull markets and by fear during bear markets, rather than staying the course. As a result, they often end up under-performing the very funds in which they’ve invested.
By offering your plan participants the education and understanding needed to make sensible decisions for their retirement account, avoiding the return-damaging tendency to over-trade, you may well be offering your employees the most important benefit of all. And, you can monitor the success of your investment manager’s educational program by determining whether it focuses on the investment behavior of plan participants as described above.
Credentialed Expertise and Hands-On Experience
The investment advisor to a retirement plan should have “book smarts.” Qualified retirement plans are complex and the rules are always changing. The advisor’s education, training and credentials should be directly related to retirement plan investment and management. An advisor should be able to articulate and demonstrate how its expertise is a benefit to a plan sponsor and each plan participant. One (among other) respected credentials is that of the Certified Financial Planner® or CFP® practitioner.
The advisor to a retirement plan should also have “street smarts.” Inquire whether the advisor has consulted with businesses and organizations in the area of qualified retirement plans, and if so, for how long. Avoid relationships with those who seem fixated on selling additional products and services to you or your participants, or on soliciting non-retirement business. Seek a relationship with an advisor who can offer seasoned, practical experience working with investors on a daily basis. Your advisor should act as an ERISA Section 3(38) advisor and provide your participants with a broad menu of low-cost, effectively diversified portfolios, so employees can participate according to their own goals as well as the tenets of sound investing. Such an approach helps address both participants’ best interests and your fiduciary obligations.
Client Focused. Period.