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How to push for better investment options in your 401(k) plan

The first step is to find out who at the company has primary responsibility for the plan. Suggestions for change should be backed by hard data and thoughtful research.

July 15, 2012|By Tom Petruno

If you want a better 401(k) plan, be prepared to take it to the top.

Say you want to add investment options to the plan, or dump poor-performing mutual funds. The first step is to find out who at your company has primary responsibility for the program.

"At small companies the person with the most money in the plan is the CEO," said David Wray, president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America. That means the chief executive is most likely to be the person you'll need to persuade.

Bigger companies often have formal procedures for giving feedback on their 401(k) plans. A company's benefits chief typically is the point person.

What's crucial is that suggestions for change are backed by hard data and thoughtful research, experts say.

"Have something beyond 'I think our plan stinks,'" said Michael Alfred, co-founder of 401(k) plan rating firm BrightScope Inc. in San Diego.

As companies soon begin disclosing more details about the fees incurred by their 401(k) plans, the data are likely to cause more investors to push for changes in the plans.

The government has ordered that the management fees charged by mutual funds must be expressed in a simple format for plan investors to see.

The numbers may surprise company executives as much as employees, experts say, because top execs often aren't clear on how much of a cut of assets the fund companies, record keepers and other 401(k) plan servicers are taking.

"Almost every plan now is trying to figure out if they're high-cost or not," Alfred said.

With the government pressuring companies on plan expenses, this is a chance for investors in the plans to agitate for improvements, including funds that are lower-cost and better-performing. That might include, for example, more low-fee "index" funds that simply track the performance of stock or bond market sectors.

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