The Conflicts of Interest Around 401(k)s


A new study in the Journal of Finance has found that conflicts of interest in 401(k) plans can lead to serious losses for individual investors. More specifically, the 2,500 funds surveyed were less likely to eliminate underperforming funds that were their own rather than another provider’s fund. This can be very costly to retirement savers. Clemens Sialm, a professor of finance at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the study’s authors, explained that the bottom 10% of funds continued to underperform by about 4% if kept on the menu of funds available to investors.

With all of the attention lately focused on reducing these conflicts of interest where financial managers invest your money in their own funds (among individual financial advisors rather than institutional), it is surprising to see the bias getting coverage on an institutional level. As of June 2015, $4.7 trillion were invested in 401(k) accounts, plus another $2.1 trillion in non-401(k) defined-contribution plans. As John Oliver recently detailed, these conflicts of interest can cost millions over the course of a single retirement plan’s life. (For related reading, see: Financial Failings of NBA Legend Antoine Walker.)

Why the Conflicts Exist

The reason for the existence of these conflicts of interest is simple. Managers are prioritizing the profits of their institution over the success of the retirement plans they oversee. And there is no question that it is a raw deal for the investor. We’ve previously covered how many actively managed funds don’t even beat the market in the first place, and this study confirms that failing funds aren’t even taken off the menu of options. Imagine if your local restaurant kept undercooking their chicken and everyone was getting sick, but they refused to change the recipe.
Many employees at big asset management firms are now suing their own companies to liberate their own retirement plans from management. These people know it’s a scam, and God forbid that their own money gets caught up in it, but by and large they are OK with selling you inefficient funds. (For related reading, see: 6 Questions to Ask a Financial Advisor and Do You Need to Change Your Financial Advisor?)

These current events—and the study—indicate that conflicts of interest are pervasive in all aspects of the retirement planning industry, whether it’s a 401(k) through your employer or via traditional financial advisors. Dealing with this reality requires vigilance on your part. To return to the analogy of the undercooked chicken, it would be an easy case to deal with since everyone could tell that the chicken was making them sick. But what allows traditional asset companies to get away with conflicts of interest is that many people are simply too busy to monitor their accounts—that is, to find out if they are sick or not. If the undercooked chicken gave you an illness that was hard to detect, it would be much easier for the restaurant to get away with it.

Luckily, the tide is beginning to turn, and you can impact change, even with your 401(k). You should become an advocate for your own money. Contact your HR department and ask to see the performance of the menu of funds. See who’s managing it, how the menu has changed and evaluate the extent of conflicts of interest.

Ultimately, independent, conflict-free advice and management is the best cure for the industry’s problem. (For related reading, see: Why Investors Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy.)

This article was originally published on


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