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10 Signs Your 401(k) Plan Is a Clunker

5. Retail share classes are in the plan when institutional classes are available: I recently reviewed a plan that had 13 mutual funds as investment options. All were retail shares. Every one had institutional shares available. What's the difference? The retail shares have higher management fees. Otherwise they are exactly the same. The only reason to include retail shares when less expensive institutional shares are available is to increase fees and lower returns. This practice is indefensible.

6. The money market fund has high fees: In many plans, the money market fund is the default where assets are placed if the plan participant does not make another choice. The management fees charged by money market funds can really affect your returns. If the money market fund in your plan has an expense ratio higher than 0.25%, it should not be in the plan.

7. The mutual funds in the plan have high fees: Brokers typically populate fund options with high-cost, actively managed funds (where the fund manager attempts to beat a given benchmark). The fees charged by these funds range from 1.5% to 2% (or more). A blend of comparable index funds has fees under 0.50%. The difference comes right out of your returns.

8. Mutual funds in the plan underperform their benchmark: Most actively managed mutual funds underperform their benchmark index. I looked at a plan where more than 70% of the funds failed to equal their benchmark. Why are those funds in the plan when low-cost index funds will equal their benchmark 100% of the time (less low expenses)?

9. Funds drop in and out of the plan: A charade takes place at most companies with 401(k) plans. The investment committee meets periodically with brokers advising the plan to decide which funds will be dropped and which ones will take their place. This makes everyone feel they're doing something useful, but it's a useless activity. Past performance is not an indication of future performance. Poor-performing funds may or may not outperform in the future. Stellar-performing funds typically underperform in the following five years. It also ignores a key issue: If the broker really had the expertise to pick superior funds, why is this exercise necessary at all?

10. Many investment options: Many fund options confuse plan participants. Few participants know how to put together a risk-adjusted portfolio in an asset allocation suitable for them. Instead of offering a boatload of funds, your plan should have a limited number of pre-allocated, globally diversified portfolios of stock and bond index funds, ranging from conservative to high risk. Plan participants should fill out a simple asset-allocation questionnaire to determine their risk level. They should then select the portfolio suitable for them. If all 401(k) plans followed this practice, returns would increase significantly.

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