When I was 13, I bought my very first computer, an Apple IIe for $2,000, which would be about $4,067 in 2010 money. Last year, I bought my latest Dell laptop computer for about $600.
In 2008, I was reviewing the 401(k) plan of a soon to be defunct mattress retailer that was on an insurance platform that was on their side. A copy of the 1995 contract that actually expired in 2001, charged the plan sponsor 267 basis points in fees. Obviously for a plan that had almost $4 million in assets, that was a lot of money. In 1995 when daily 401(k) plan were the exception and not the norm, 267 basis points was reasonable. In 2008, that was outright theft.
Since 1995, fees for daily recordkeeping plans and the margins in 401(k) administration have fallen in price as technology and economies of scale reduced costs. The advent of revenue sharing fees where mutual fund companies kick back fees to the third party administration (TPA) firm has helped as well. Since TPA firms had no requirement to breakout revenue sharing fees, the true costs of plan administration was actually masked to the plan sponsor and the plan participants.
With the advent of fee disclosure in July 2011 and participant fee disclosure in 2012, the mask of revenue sharing will be taken off and that revenue share subsidy will be exposed as another cost of plan administration that will act as sticker shock to plan sponsors. Hungry financial advisors and competing TPAs will use that opportunity to recruit new plan sponsor clients by promising lower fees with the use of lower fee mutual funds and/pr exchange traded funds (ETFs). This will put the pressure on revenue sharing paying mutual funds, who may take that as an opportunity to lower the amount of revenue sharing payments they would promise to make to appear on the approved 401(k) fund menus of 401(k) platforms and TPAs. Of course, the cutting of the fees would save these mutual fund companies money, but would of course hamper their access to these approved fund lineups used by mutual funds platforms and TPAs.
The cutting of revenue sharing fees would hurt the margins of TPAs that tout these more expensive funds, but it is my belief that fee disclosure regulations would have already put pressure on these margins. If TPAs and 401(k) platforms ditch revenue sharing funds because they no longer pay sizeable revenue sharing/ sub ta fees, this would allow less expensive mutual funds and ETFs to pick up the slack which would save participants money and squeeze TPA firms to lower their fees.
Am I off the mark? Only time will tell.