Disclosure standard sought on retirement plans

April 08, 2007|By Jonathan Peterson | Jonathan Peterson,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Workers saving for retirement often are hobbled by a lack of clear information on their investments and the fees they are charged to manage them.

These fees can eat away tens of thousands of dollars over time.

Now, amid mounting evidence that murky accounting could undermine the financial security of retirees, federal regulators are seeking to toughen disclosure rules and devise a single standard for a wide variety of investments and retirement plans.

Saying current disclosures often are "missing the mark by a country mile," Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox said his agency will advocate new rules that would force mutual funds, insurance companies and others to more clearly detail the cost and performance of investment funds and retirement plans.

In an interview, Cox said companies that manage funds and retirement plans should be required to report "one simple number that captures fees and expenses." As traditional pensions disappear, more workers are relying on 401(k) plans and IRAs. But fees can jeopardize the financial security of retirees.

These costs are often hidden now - either buried in the fine print of a fund prospectus, or simply deducted from accounts without ever showing up as a line-item expense.

"It's our top regulatory priority," Cox said, who wants to make it easier to compare funds. "There are always technical concerns raised by someone, but the truth is that apples-to-apples comparisons are quite useful for consumers. The same should be possible for our retirement savings."

Mutual funds, for example, provide information about fund fees and trading costs in different parts of the prospectus but don't add them up. Annuities sold by insurance companies, meanwhile, are typically tied to the performance of an underlying mutual fund - but the return of that fund is often not clearly reported, critics say.

Still, some see easy-to-read disclosures as a stiff challenge, given the complexity of retirement plans. "It's a good concept, giving people simple, easily comparable information," said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America. "The question is whether they'll come up with a number that is really meaningful."

There also is no single regulator. The SEC oversees mutual funds, but it does not regulate retirement plans offered by insurance companies, banks and other firms that administer retirement plans. To implement new standards that apply across the board, Cox conceded he would need the support of other agencies.

"I think it's going to require a good bit of creativity and extensive collaboration across the government," he said.

The Department of Labor, which has broad authority over employer-sponsored retirement plans including 401(k) plans, has been pursuing its own disclosure initiative and said it supports the broad effort.

"We will be working closely with the SEC to ensure that our different requirements under the different laws are complementary," the Labor Department said.

At the top levels of the SEC, the view is that far-reaching changes in the pension landscape require the effort. Self-directed retirement plans such as 401(k)s are usually linked to the performance of the financial markets, making the decisions of investors - and the bite of fees - crucial.

"If the government expects retirees to manage their own accounts, they need to know how their investments are doing, and right now many don't know how they are doing," said SEC Commissioner Roel Campos.

Campos said such information might be boiled down to a one-page summary. "It's a win-win for investors," he said. "It's a win-win for the system."

The initiative will be rolled out in phases. In the coming months, the SEC hopes to hold roundtables of experts and publish a concept paper outlining the issue, paving the way for a formal rule proposal later this year.

Some observers maintain that stricter requirements are most needed for plans run by insurers and others who are not under the direct scrutiny of the SEC.

"I'm very surprised there hasn't been more focus on these kinds of investment products," said Brent Glading, managing director of the Glading Group, a Montclair, N.J., firm that analyzes retirement plans for employers.

Lobbyists for the insurance, banking and mutual fund industries all said they support clear disclosures for the public.

At the same time, they said cost is not the only factor that affects the appeal of a retirement plan, and urged the public also to consider other matters, such as the choices a plan offers and its suitability to an individual's needs.

The American Council of Life Insurers "supports meaningful disclosure of plan fees and expenses - disclosures that do not overwhelm plan sponsors and participants but provides them with the critical information they want and need," council President Frank Keating said in a statement after a recent House hearing on the matter.

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