In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed changes that would eliminate third-party incentive payments, such as 12b-1 fees, that may encourage broker-dealers to sell high-fee mutual funds to Individual Retirement Account (IRA) customers. The investment industry argues that eliminating these fees could force broker-dealers to charge directly for advice, which could result in less advice being provided and customers making poor investment decisions. This paper examines the tradeoff between lower fees and investor mistakes due to forgoing advice. The analysis draws on existing pricing and cost evidence from the United States and on the experience of ongoing reforms in the United Kingdom aimed at lowering fees and improving investment advice. An educated guess suggests that the elimination of 12b-1 fees would reduce IRA customer costs by 4 basis points. If broker-dealers responded by moving customers away from high-cost, actively-managed funds into low-cost index funds, IRA customers could save another 7 basis points. Additional savings might be possible to the extent that actively-managed funds underperform their relevant indices. It is unlikely that broker-dealers would change their business model with respect to the provision of advice as a result of the loss of 12b-1 fees. The paper also uses an inter-temporal optimization model to quantify the potential benefits and costs of reform in the United States. The results of the optimization exercise point to relatively modest potential benefits, but even more modest costs under plausible assumptions. Given the size of the policy problem, several more extensive reforms should be considered to ensure that retirement saving in tax-advantaged accounts is invested more effectively. These ideas include: making it easier to retain accumulated assets in the 401(k) system; 2) making the rollover from a 401(k) to an IRA an ERISA-covered event; 3) extending ERISA to all rollover IRAs; and 4) instituting changes to further control fees in both 401(k)s and rollover IRAs.
Full paper available in The Journal of Retirement