Pat yourself on the back if you’re leaving a job and have questions about your 401k. If you do, at some point you took the time to establish a 401k account at work. By doing so, a portion of your pay was directed into a tax-deferred vehicle which allowed you to accumulate funds, presumably for retirement. You didn’t have to save through the 401k, but you did because you either understood its benefits, or heard it was a good idea. A 401k rollover refers to moving a 401k plan from a former or current employer into either an IRA or another qualified plan. IRA stands for “individual retirement account” and has similar rules to the 401k. You are most likely not required to consolidate your retirement accounts into an IRA but many people choose to do so for a variety of reasons. If you contribute to several 401k plans in your lifetime, you may find yourself doing a rollover more than once. Let me explain further some reasons why one might decide to do this.
Your first inclination may be to cash out your existing 401k funds. Think twice before taking this option. You’re most likely going to get penalized if you take a withdrawal from your funds prior to age 59½. Assuming you were contributing to a traditional 401k plan (and not a Roth 401k) you’d be responsible for paying the tax on the money which you put into your plan plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty. There are a few exceptions to the penalty, but they are few and far between and usually the result of a severe hardship need. Part of the reason IRS rules are strict regarding early withdrawals is that they are strongly discouraged. Most people will need the money in their 401k to be a supplement to other income sources during retirement.
Something else to consider is the convenience and ease of management that comes along with consolidating your accounts. If you receive statements from multiple fund companies, you might be less inclined to review each one and simply add them to your “financial stuff” file, which you may not review often enough. For some people, consolidating accounts will improve the ability to manage investment activity. It may lead to potentially beneficial financial practices such as rebalancing your portfolio and updating your asset allocation more frequently. Because your risk tolerance may change at various stages of your life, it’s important to know which risks are associated with the investments in your 401k. The largest potential advantage, in my opinion, of rolling your 401k into an IRA is reducing your expenses. Not all 401k and IRA plans have high internal expenses, but many do. Further, while the majority of 401k rollovers are into mutual funds, you may have the option of rolling your plan into a self-directed brokerage IRA. Assuming you can work out a reasonable fee schedule with your advisor, using low-cost products such as index and exchange-traded funds, may be the way to go. The impact of these high fees is often overlooked by investors, and eventually can lead to disappointment or regret about how a portfolio was handled. This is ironic in that fees and expenses are among the only aspects of your investment accounts which you can actually control. You can’t make the Dow Jones move up on a Tuesday just because you’d like to have a big day in the market. The seemingly random movement of investments is affected by a multitude of factors, many of which are macroeconomic in nature and beyond the realm of your control. Thus, your focus should be on your personal risk tolerance, how your funds are invested, and any costs which might reduce your investment return.
Let me give a hypothetical example of how high fees can put a strain on your investment performance. Imagine two investors, both looking for growth in their portfolios without taking on too much risk. One employee decides to leave his 401k with a former employer upon switching jobs, invested in sub-accounts through a variable annuity platform. The other employee rolled his 401k over to a fee-based brokerage IRA. The annuity owner would continue to pay mortality and expense risk charges (M&E) along with internal expenses on the mutual funds. According to the National Association for Variable Annuities, the average total expenses for variable annuities are about 2.32%.* Yes, that’s about $2,320 per year on a $100,000 account. The other investor, working with a fee-based brokerage account, has the 401k in an index fund, with an expense ratio of .18% per year.** That’s about $180 per year. Needless to say, the annuity owner in this example would be sacrificing a substantial chunk of their total return to various fees, expenses, and sales charges. The index fund investor, assuming they were paying only transaction costs and a nominal fee to their advisor, would stand to keep a lot more of their investment returns.
In light of this, vocalizing your questions about fees, expenses, and sales charges should not be uncomfortable at all: we are talking about your retirement funds, aren’t we?
One other item worth thinking about when considering a rollover to an IRA is the potential for your former employer to become distressed, merge with another company, or any other situation which you couldn’t really anticipate. This returns to the idea of convenience, control, and ease of management. By consolidating your accounts to an independent third party, you will have an easier time monitoring them. If your former employer changes their 401k plan or merges with a new one, your account could be transferred to a platform which you don’t like as much. Investing money in a company 401k plan is an excellent way to save money. In fact, many advisors will recommend that their clients save the maximum amount possible through a retirement plan prior to opening up a new mutual fund or brokerage account. This is usually advice given with taxes in mind. Why pay capital gains tax or ordinary income tax on money you won’t need until the future? Leave it in your retirement plan, let it grow, and plan for your future!
If you have questions about your 401k plan and would like to speak to an advisor, please feel free to give me a call.
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Securities and certain investment advisory services offered through: First Allied Securities, Inc., a registered Broker/Dealer. Member: FINRA/SIPC. Premier Financial Advisors, Inc. is a Registered Investment Advisor. First Allied Securities & Premier Financial Advisors are not affiliated entities. *National Association for Variable Annuities “The Real Cost of Variable Annuities” June, 2004.