You and Your 401K are Not Alone

July 8, 2009 at 4:00 am 2 comments

You have choices in how you manage your 401k.

You have choices when it comes to managing your 401k.

A large majority of individual investors watched their 401k retirement accounts crater throughout 2008 and the beginning of 2009. For some, prudently managing these accounts, while attempting to decipher historic, unimaginable events, proved to be a difficult challenge. Fortunately for investors there are alternatives beyond managing a narrow 401k menu of options by yourself.

One option to consider is the establishment of a Self Directed 401k account, sometimes called a Self Directed Brokerage Account (SDBA). This is an option offered by a minority of plan sponsors (employers) to their employees, so make sure to ask your human resources department if you are interested in exploring this selection. By opening a separate Self Directed 401k account at a third party brokerage firm the investor should have access to a broader set of investment options relative to traditional 401k offerings. The retirement plan documents may however limit investment choices to certain investment products, in part due to litigation concerns created by potentially poor plan participant decisions.  Increased trading and administrative charges are other potential costs to mull over.

Opening up one of these self directed accounts also avails a 401k investor to work with an outside advisor who can assist with managing the external brokerage account. Of course, nothing in life comes for free, so the individual will be paying the advisor for these services rather than managing the account solo.

Instead of creating a whole new external Self Directed account, 401k investors can also hire companies for personal 401k management advice in their existing accounts. One such firm, Financial Engines, made famous by its academic all-star founder Bill Sharpe, provides advice to investing participants for a fee, based on the dollar value of the account.

Financial Engines claims to work with more than 750 large employers (including 112 of the FORTUNE 500 and 8 of the FORTUNE 20) and 8 of the largest retirement plan providers serving the retirement market. The problem with services like these (including Guided Choice, also a brainchild of a finance guru – Harry Markowitz)  is that no matter how great the advice may be, the investor is stuck with the limited investment options provided by the employer on the 401k company menu.

Other players in the financial industry are swirling around to advise participants on a piece of this $3 trillion 401k U.S. retirement asset market (ICI 2007 estimate), including some brokerage and mutual fund companies, and even independent financial planners. Also, don’t forget if you ever leave an employer, you have the ability to roll over your 401k account into a personal IRA (Individual Retirement Account) – an account you fully control with a buffet of options.

Regardless of the money you may have lost or the amount of confusion you feel, realize that you are not alone (if you choose not to be). Make sure to contact the appropriate human resource professional in charge of retirement benefits, and discover your 401k options.

Entry filed under: Financial Planning. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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