For many regular folks, a mutual fund prospectus could seem like hieroglyphics.

Equally mystifying are the details in recent news reports on various accounting debacles and conflicts of interests among equity analysts who work for financial firms with investment banking divisions. Indeed, the way financial data has been presented lately has puzzled even the best of investment professionals. It is little surprise, then, that employees planning for retirement seek impartial advice.

"What employees want is one-on-one counseling," says Edward Ferrigno, vice president of Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America, an association of employers with defined contribution plans -- meaning

a company retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), in which an employee elects to defer some portion of his/her salary. "It's like going to the doctor."

And given the decline in the average assets per participant in 401(k)s during the past calendar year, many employees could stand to put their plans through a checkup. According to Cerulli Associates, a research and consulting firm for financial institutions, the average assets per participant has dropped 11%, from $40,918 in 2000 to $36,390 in 2001. For defined contribution plans in general, the drop has been slightly less: 9.2%, from $41,554 in 2000 to $37,714 in 2001.

In an attempt to pacify employees angry about such declines, an increasing number of companies are giving them access to independent advisory companies. Two examples are mPower and Financial Engines. Such online financial providers attempt to offer the retirement advice high-net-worth investors receive from money managers, but for a lower cost. Fees paid to these online providers aren't linked to the investments they recommend, easing investor concerns about conflicts of interest.

But until recently, the provider's fiduciary responsibility for such advice has been an empty promise. "These online financial providers have little to no assets," explains Peter Starr, managing director of Cerulli Associates. "If a person sues the company for violating its fiduciary responsibility, what assets exist to go after?"

Now, however, employee benefit provider CitiStreet, a joint venture of State Street and

Citigroup

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, plans to use Financial Engines -- and to assume fiduciary responsibility itself. "This change in delivery of the information is giving brick-and-mortar confidence to the advice," says Starr. "It now puts advice in another category: not 'sort of' advice, but actual advice on where and how you should invest your money."

Indeed, the new CitiStreet product offers specific recommendations. Financial Engines uses a quantitative model to predict whether current 401(k) investments will reach the total amount of money desired during retirement. The online advice provider also will integrate into its analysis any other financial assets owned by the employee, as well as those belonging to a spouse. Financial Engines will give buy and sell recommendations on the mutual funds available in a retirement plan. And CitiStreet provides personal advisers whom employees can call to discuss options.

"We thought the addition of advice to our offering would make us stand out more

amid our competitors," says Ed Derman, deputy chief executive officer of the California State Teachers Retirement System

CalSTRS, the first organization to publicly announce its use of CitiStreet's new advisory system. "Advice is a tool more and more people want."

CitiStreet's fees vary according to each customer. For CalSTRS, CitiStreet is charging $15 per participant each year for its basic online advice service, $85 for access to a personal adviser via the telephone, and $99 for recommendations on financial assets other than 401(k)s.

In most cases, the employers absorb the expense for such advice, according to Neal Ringquist, executive vice president of sales and marketing at mPower. In other instances, employees bear the costs.

For its participants, CalSTRS is paying for CitiStreet's basic service and its personal advisers, but leaving the tab for recommendations on other financial assets up to the employee.

In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Lisa Meyer doesn't own or short individual stocks, nor does she invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Meyer welcomes your questions and comments, and invites you to send them to

Lisa Meyer.