Companies override workers' 401(k) selections

After years of data showing that workers routinely make major mistakes when saving for their own retirements, employers are beginning to take control again.

By Ben Steverman

Jun 13, 2014 @ 8:45 am EST

Most programmers have no idea how to suture a wound. Nurses don't make their living from puff pastry. Chefs aren't relied on for their Javascript expertise. And chances are, nearly all of them are lousy investors.

For that reason, the hottest trend in 401(k) plans is making investing easier for employees. More plans automatically enroll workers in target date funds or other professionally managed, diversified options. Plans may also automatically increase contribution rates each year. Employees can opt out, but few do.

Now, spurred by data showing that amateur investors get amateur returns, many retirement plans are going a step further. On the assumption that many workers invest all wrong, some employers are overriding their workers' existing selections. Unless employees object, companies are re-enrolling them in new funds, usually in target date funds with risk profiles suited to their age.

The process, known as re-enrollment, is still rare. But it's catching on with "leading edge" employers, said Jean Young of the Vanguard Center for Retirement Research. Two-thirds of plans joining Vanguard's Retirement Plan Access, a 401(k) option designed for smaller plans, are re-enrolling workers into new funds, she said. They're persuaded by data showing that many older workers take too much risk, sometimes putting all their money in stocks, and that younger workers may take too little risk by avoiding stocks entirely.

How do employees react when employers swoop in and take over? "We haven't seen anyone get angry," said Robyn Credico of consulting firm Towers Watson. Employees get ample notice. They can always opt out of re-enrollment, and choose their own fund lineup.

That might make sense for workers who keep outside investments and pensions in mind when making their 401(k) selections. But there's plenty of evidence that workers really don't know what they're doing when it comes to their 401(k)s. Odds are they're not going to object when someone shows them how to do it better, and may not even notice.

Still, overriding employees' retirement plan choices — however well-intentioned a move — can seem heavy-handed. That's why the vast majority of companies that re-enroll only do so when they switch retirement plan providers. "Those are really easy opportunities to change peoples' behavior," Ms. Credico said. If it means improving investment returns, a heavy hand may be welcome.

Most Popular

Affluence Influencers