January 4, 2012 / 6:26 PM / 8 years ago

Exclusive: Labor dept may delay 401(k) fee disclosure

(Reuters) - Companies with 401(k) plans and their employees may have to wait a little longer to find out what they are paying for their plans.

Morning commuters in New York in a file photo. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The Labor Department may push back the April 1 deadline that 401(k) plan providers were given to comply with new rules about fee disclosures, according to several people who had spoken to officials at the department.

One reason for the delay is that the release of the final rule, on how providers will be required to disclose their fees to employers, has been delayed for months, and isn’t expected to be published until the end of January. The rule will apply to all service providers, including recordkeepers, financial advisers and fund companies that work with 401(k) plans.

The Labor Department has a “high degree of confidence” that it can issue the rule by the end of January, according to a person familiar with the matter, adding that the department was sympathetic to the industry’s concerns about the short deadline for complying with the rule and wanted to avoid “a chaotic adjustment period.”

For 401(k) plan sponsors and participants, the delay means waiting three more months to find out what they are paying for their plans. The point of the disclosures is so that employers and ultimately employees know exactly what it is they are paying for when they sign up for their 401(k) plans.

Critics argue that it isn’t transparent what fees employers and plan participants are paying because much of it is buried in prospectuses and similar documents. As it stands, companies that offer 401(k) plans as retirement savings vehicles for employees are supposed to have access to fee information by April 1. Participants would get fee disclosures by June 1.

But for 401(k) plan providers, a delay of a few months would provide time to clarify exactly what they need to do to comply with the regulation, officials at industry lobbying groups said.

“We are very happy to work with the Department of Labor on expanded fee disclosure, but we need to know what it is we are complying with,” said Lisa Bleier, managing director of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which represents hundreds of broker-dealers, banks and asset managers.

SIFMA wrote a letter to the Department of Labor on December 2 requesting a 12-to-18-month extension on the deadline from when the rule is finalized.

The Labor Department came out with the current version of the rule in July 2010 and gave providers 12 months to comply. After industry opposition, the agency extended the deadline to April 2012. With the final version of the rule still awaiting release, plan providers say they won’t have enough time to comply.

“The DOL needs to give us some breathing room,” said David Tittsworth, executive director of the Investment Adviser Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. “Every day that goes by that you don’t have the new rule, it becomes more compelling to extend that time frame.”

Of particular concern for providers is whether the final rule will require them to provide a summary disclosure of all fees associated with the plan, on top of the actual fee disclosures. If so, providers also want guidance on the format that disclosure needs to take, said Craig Hoffman, general counsel for the Association of Pension Professionals and Actuaries.

“We are not opposed to the idea..., but we need sufficient time to implement it,” he said. ASPPA, in conjunction with the Council of Independent 401(k) Recordkeepers wrote a letter to the Department of Labor on December 19 asking for at least 12 months after the rule is finalized to comply with it.

“ I would not be surprised if they came forward with an extension,” Hoffman said.

A Labor Department spokesman declined to comment.

A delay would also give plan providers more time before they face pressure to cut fees in the face of heightened competition as costs are put in the spotlight.

But sources familiar with the discussions at the Labor Department said providers should not expect a long delay on the deadline to comply with fee disclosures.

“The (department) is definitely flexible, but they do want it to happen this year,” said one person who had spoken to Labor Department officials.

Editing by Jennifer Merritt and Bernadette Baum

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