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Why the industry needs to accept some blame for 'flaws' in PBS Frontline's 'Retirement Gamble'

The PBS report was slanted, simplistic and went in for shock value, say critics, but some in the industry say too-high fees are in fact the root of the problem

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 – 3:09 AM by Kelly O'Mara
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Martin Smith: We never considered this investigative in the sense that it wasn't information that was already out there.

Brooke’s Note: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean…you know the rest. I think there’s an ironical phrasing that can be used, too, for the people who are more shocked, shocked by the “shock” value of PBS Frontline than by anything that it revealed. How about: Just because a journalist achieves shock value doesn’t mean that the subject matter isn’t pretty darn shocking. Yes, those of us who really know the business know it could have been much, much better — and there was at least one overreach. The documentary was being done by a person, Martin Smith, who is — by his own frank admission — keeping a small production company going past retirement age because he doesn’t have enough to retire on. In other words, one behind-the-eight-ball baby boomer artsy type takes on the mutual fund and 401(k) business. You can see the glass as half empty on that; I see it half full. Smith had the courage to show that aspect of ourselves that we hide more than our sexual quirks — money issues. Sure, he could have balanced the PBS piece by showing how well Mitt Romney is prospering with his retirement account. But really, would that have proven the efficacy of our free enterprise retirement system? The financial services industry has long made it a point to confuse the hell out of consumers so that they buy their crap and pay their exhorbitant prices. Then when one of the confused consumers has the brass to challenge all those obfuscations, he is called a hack for being confused … by all those obfuscations. I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time working up good animus against the journalist.

After months of work and research, the Public Broadcasting Service aired the Frontline report, “The Retirement Gamble” at the end of April, billing it as a special look into Americans preparing financially for retirement and focusing particularly on the problems with popular 401(k) products.

The hour-long show has sparked criticism from advisors and 401(k) providers who were quick to hurl accusations that the show was inaccurate, shallow, and too heavily placed the blame for its shortcomings at the feet of Wall Street.

Articles, blog posts, and commentary argued that “The Retirement Gamble” focused on the wrong issues, primarily fees, and made 401(k) plans out to be fundamentally flawed. The show, critics say, didn’t put enough emphasis on the individual’s need to save and didn’t dive into the challenges faced by plan sponsors. See: The PBS 'Frontline’ 401(k) documentary names suspects but leaves out major culprits of the theft of the American retirement.

One critic, Phil Chiricotti, president of the Center for Due Diligence, says objective and balanced coverage of 401(k) plans is impossible to get from mainstream media because many of its number have already have decided the 401(k) is bad for the consumer. This attitude played out in the PBS special too, he says. “If a fiduciary standard applied to the media and our policymakers, they would all be in jail,” says Chiricotti.

First-person journalism

The award-winning producer and director of the film, Martin Smith, previously helmed other documentaries for “Frontline” including Money, Power & Wall Street; The Untouchables; The Madoff Affair; College, Inc.; and Dot Con.

Smith runs his own small business — a four-employee production company — that provides 401(k) plans to its employees. During the PBS special, Smith confesses that he doesn’t even understand his own 401(k) plan and didn’t realize that he had picked a poor option for his company in his role as plan sponsor.

“You only get one shot at retirement,” says Smith.

If a smart journalist, looking for as much information as possible about retirement plans and interviewing dozens of plan participants, plan sponsors, and academics, still can’t understand his own retirement plan, then it may be that those doing the explaining aren’t doing a very good job. Some of the blame for inaccuracies and missing information in the documentary is reflective of confusion and missing information in the industry.

“I do think it is the fault of the industry,” says Tim Welsh, president and founder of Nexus Strategy LLC. “Most people take 401(k)s as a given, yet there isn’t a lot of education on the inner workings of the process.”

Blaming your tools

Chris Carosa: They made the conscious decision to shock people.
Chris Carosa: They made the conscious
decision to shock people.

Many of Smith’s critics argued that the “Frontline” piece mistakenly focused too heavily on fees, overemphasizing them as the main problem with 401(k) products and making too extreme a case for lower fees at any cost. In fact, the SEC has said that consumers should not simply opt for the lowest-fee products, but for products that offer the best return on the fees. See: Which three of DOL’s new 401(k) rules represent the biggest land mines for financial advisors and plan sponsors.

“It’s like cholesterol,” says Chris Carosa, author of the book “401(k) Fiduciary Solutions: Expert Guidance for 401(k) Plan Sponsors on how to Effectively and Safely Manage Plan Compliance and Investments” (Pandamensional Solutions, 2012), who also wrote extensively about the PBS special for Fiduciary News. “There’s good and there’s bad kinds.”

The PBS special used information provided by John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group Inc., that pegged average fees at 2% and argued that at 2% a consumer would lose two-thirds of his or her retirement nest egg. The study that calculation was based on been widely debunked, however, with 401(k) fees typically closer to 1%, which weakened the show’s overall point, Carosa pointed out in a four-part series on the special titled The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and Final Word

At least some of the people professing to be appalled about the focus on fees were likely upset because they were exactly the kind of advisors who were charging outrageous hidden fees in 401(k) plans, says Rick Meigs, president of 401khelpcenter.com LLC. There were legitimate complaints that the special painted the 401(k) as inherently flawed, but that’s the fault of bad practitioners, not 401(k)s themselves, says Meigs.

“It’s like blaming the car because of a DUI,” he says.

Shock value

By focusing on the effect of fees and the hidden costs inside 401(k) plans, “The Retirement Gamble” went for a fairly simple message: Wall Street may be screwing you. That meant that the special couldn’t dive into other detailed issues regarding plan sponsors, disclosures, investment vehicles or other options for consumers.

Smith says they simply didn’t have time.

“Did we cover everything about retirement in 53 minutes? Of course not,” says Smith. The producers had to pick and choose what they included and they chose to go for what they felt were the most important and straightforward aspects of retirement planning.

But, many felt that they put the all the blame on big bad Wall Street.

Rick Meigs: It's like blaming the car because of a DUI.
Rick Meigs: It’s like blaming the
car because of a DUI.

“They made the conscious decision to shock people,” says Carosa.

Already out there

Little of the information in the documentary was news to most people in the industry — though it may have been new to plenty of consumers.

And, if some of “The Retirement Gamble” looked familiar, that’s because it was. “It was basically a rehash of “Can You Afford to Retire?” a special Frontline aired six years ago,” says Scott Pritchard, managing director of Advisors Access, a turnkey 401(k) program. That 2006 program was written by Hedrick Smith and Rick Young.

It’s a point Martin Smith concedes. “It’s a perennial topic for Frontline,” he says. This is the third show Frontline has done on the topic. “We never considered this investigative in the sense that it wasn’t information that was already out there.”

But, he argues that the information bears repeating and packaging as long as people continue not to understand the ins and outs of their retirement plans. And, lots of people don’t.

“It just deserves continued attention,” he says. And, while no sequel or follow-up is planned, it is certainly a topic that Frontline will continue to cover, Smith says.

Smith feels that the goal of this special was simply to remind the public about these issues. To that end, letting people know that their plans come with built-in fees is useful. And, while 2% was a figure multiple of the producers’ sources cited as the median fee paid by users, the math of losing gains still holds true at 1% or 1.5% or 0.5%, according to Smith.

“To a lot of people even 2% seems like a small fee,” he says.

He’s not wrong. Hidden fees can be buried or seem tiny in comparison to projected returns, easily hurting consumers trying to secure a safe retirement.

“I think PBS focused on the right thing,” says Steve Lockshin, chairman of Convergent Wealth Advisors LLC and co-founder of Advizent, an abortive enterprise that sought to brand RIAs with a seal of approval. “Fees are the foundation of the problem.”

Steve Lockshin: Fees are the foundation of the problem.
Steve Lockshin: Fees are the foundation
of the problem.

Telling the right story

401(k) experts will tell you that hidden fees, kickbacks and non-fiduciary salespeople signing participants up for retirement plans that don’t serve their best interests are all part of a bigger problem — not that anyone outside the industry wants to hear about those details. Most consumers’ “eyes start to glaze over,” says Smith, when you talk about retirement, much less if you delve into the nuances of fiduciary standards. See: Why gathering big-time 401(k) assets — and charging regular fees — is well within reach for most experienced RIAs.

Studies have shown that the word “fiduciary” actually has negative connotations for most consumers, who assume it’s a bad thing, Lockshin points out, making it hard for people to differentiate between those financial advisors who have their best interests in mind and those who don’t — and further complicating the topic. See: How 10 top groups define 'fiduciary’.

But whose fault is it if the important information can’t be presented in an understandable manner?

Partially, advisors are doing themselves a disservice by making things more complicated than they need to be. Why talk about revenue sharing and 12(b)-1 fees if it’s not going to mean anything to the consumer? Retirement, at its heart, is actually very simple, say Meigs. See: How the new 12(b)-1 fee restrictions could transform the financial advisory industry.

“It’s not complex at all. 401(k)s are easy to understand,” he says. When people feel like they can’t or don’t understand, often the real thing they don’t understand is money management and their economic situation. Meigs says they’re trying to do an advisor’s difficult and confusing job all on their own.

At that point, the onus of trying to connect with these consumers and help them understand the intricacies of retirement may be on the advisor. And advisors have been trying to adequately explain what they do, how RIAs differ from brokers (especially when it comes to retirement planning), and how people should prepare for retirement. See: A refresher on how an advisor should approach the needs of clients as they near retirement.

“What is the story we can tell?” asks Carosa. Frontline was just one in a series of efforts to find the eureka moment that will make people understand the situation, he says.

“Nobody’s found it yet.”

“It’s an issue of trying to bail the ocean,” says Lockshin of the problems of explanation.

A matter of labels

In the special, Smith talks about his own 401(k) and his role as a plan sponsor. He says he realized his plan was charging him hidden fees and not doing the best for him or his employees only after examining it as part of the PBS special.

He’s not alone. Lockshin says he was livid when he found out that the bank, which manages his firm, had him on an S&P 500 index option that charges 55 basis points — something he could get from Vanguard for 5 basis points.

Lockshin believes that if those who who make commissions or have a conflict of interest were called simply brokers and those who didn’t were advisors, it would be easier for consumers to know what kinds of products they were being offered and to make simple judgments. See: RIAs and B-Ds don’t mix, says Duane Thompson at MarketCounsel Summit 2011.

Spurring debates

It’s unlikely that such a regulation will happen soon or that there will be any sweeping changes in the wake of the “Frontline” piece, even though changes to disclosures and fiduciary standards have been in the works for years.

“The president didn’t call me,” jokes Smith. The Labor Department did, however, feature the program on its website (the PBS program can be viewed on the PBS “Frontline” website in its entirety). Smith says his goal was simply to make a documentary that informed people and, then, maybe a few more consumers will ask their own questions.

That may have worked. Meigs says he got a number of questions and has heard from plenty of advisors who also got questions from their clients in the wake of the special.

Smith says that he’s been more aware since doing the piece, though he reportedly hasn’t changed the flawed 401(k) plan that he mentions in the special. He did double-check a fund’s marketing piece just the other day, he says, to try and find the fee disclosures, and was led in dead-end circles that never clearly laid out what the fund would cost him.

“I think it was reasonably well-done TV. Exposés like that are good,” says Meigs.

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Pat Mulvey

Pat Mulvey

May 16, 2013 — 1:50 PM

It comes down to how and how much people are compensated. If I am compensated for my perceived 'advice’ via the placement of product then my advice is conflicted. I believe that is the brokerage model. If I am compensated for my 'advice’ via a fee- then my advice would not be conflicted…it may not be any good but it is not conflicted. The sponsor can decide whether my advice has value or not. When the 'advice’ is wrapped in product placement- the sponsor does not have clarity regarding how much one is paid for advice versus products. If a sponsor seeks an independent advisor/ consultant to provide un conflicted advice they have to write a check…not positive but I believe that is an expense the sponsor incurs and is not charged back to the participants. In the case of the 'advice’ imbedded in product placement there is no check to write…it comes out in the wash. It’s up to the sponsor, big or small. Let me ask you this- if you were to build a house and hire a contractor (similar to an advisor)- wouldn’t you want to know how much the contractor is paid for their services? Or, would you rather they have their fee imbedded in the overall cost? My preference would be to know how much he is paid.

There are a number of RIA/consulting firms, as Stephen points out, which advise to billions of dollars based on providing independent advice. I would also agree with Stephen based on my understanding that many advisors would like to participate in this business. One of the difficulties for the typical RIA is to establish the institutional resources, education base, brand etc. to effectively market to and service the middle market institutional business. So Elmer- I agree with you that the typical RIA may need some help like education, research, execution support. To that I would say…'watch this space’.

Lou Day

Lou Day

May 16, 2013 — 2:36 PM

Only in the retail investment business is it expected that help should be provided with the “difficulties” of being truly independent. Almost everyone in the industry, RIAs and Brokers alike have their hands out for resources that are provided and paid for by a broker-dealer. Are the Schwab, TD and Fidelity platforms unbiased in any way? But they thrive on the promoting their “independence” and “open architecture” and most are happy to jump on the bandwagon and take whatever software and other perks that are offered.
There is only one way to be an independent operation that has total control of a value proposition, you write a check and pay for the resources you need with your own money. That is what determines an independent business owner, more people in this industry should try it, they would find it very freeing and well worth the money.

Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

May 15, 2013 — 8:23 PM

There is plenty of room for improvement in an agency formate where the broker or agent is employed by a distributor/vendor and simply sells a product rather than acting as an advisor, who has an obligation to act in the consumer’s best interest.

Everyone would agree that brokers and agents would like to be advisors acting in an advisory capacity—when in truth they have a fiduciary obligation to act in their employers best interest, not the consumer’s.

As long as the industry at large is insular to the best interest of the investing public and does not acknowledge or support the fiduciary standing of brokers/agents, we have not even begun to scratch the surface for shocking revelations as those in the “Retirement Gamble.”

The trade press would be well served to highlight issues counter to the best interest of the investing public, which are beyond the control of the broker/agent, which are in the broker/agent’s best interest and that of their clients.

This takes courage and leadership not voluntarily forth comming from the industry.There are plenty of principled brokers and asgents who would welcome that advocacy.


Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

July 5, 2013 — 10:23 PM


The dispassionate evidence to which everyone can agreebased on facts and “problem analysis” is straight forward. Retail investors must be hald to the same standards and consumer protections afforded to other investors as required by the “equal protection under the law under the US Constitution. This requires a change from the” current state.”

The brokerage industry argues that terrible unintended consequences will result which is absurd as change is required in the consumers best interest. These consequences are not unintented but very specifically intended in the consumer’s best interest. Anything less than the industry’s full support for fiduciary standing is the industry putting its interest ahead of that of the consumers. This is indisputable.

Thus, the trust and confidence of the investing public is put into play and the industry is on the wrong side of the calculus.

Pretty simple “problem solving” if you ask the investing public. Right?


Elmer Rich III

Elmer Rich III

July 4, 2013 — 11:34 PM

OK, lots of blame, fingering pointing, name calling, demonizing, moral judgements and pitches for simplistic solutions are standard fare in the media. That we already know.

These are global and demographic challenges unprecedented in human history – let alone the industry. No firm(s) or individual(s) have solved any of these challenges. Yes, efforts are being made but usually haphazardly – which is normal.

If any one firm or individual has any answers many government and firms would love to hear about the evidence and data proving them out.

How about some professional, dispassionate, evidence based problem analysis and problem-solving? “I have a dream….” lol, it won’t happen. Carry on.

Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

May 15, 2013 — 10:05 PM

A very small number of RIAs (even smaller number of brokers) and a larger number of agents specialize in the retirement space. It is a specialization with the RIAs have a significant edge as they are not selling a product like agents and brokers but are providing a service in accord to fiduciary duty..

The point of the “Retirement Gamle” is advice products are very expensive and afford no ongoing accoutability or responsibility as required of fiduciary services. This is the difference between an IAR and an RIA.

The “Retirement Gamble” points out the cost of advice products, but not yet the differences in accountability and ongoing services. Thus the opportunity for RIAs who can control their professional standing, value proposition and margins., unlike agents and brokers..


Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

May 16, 2013 — 3:08 PM

Well Said Lou,

But there are large scale firms like Savant which afford the enabling resources to support expert fiduciary standing. To join you have to have significant assets, but with eSavant further leveraging the Savant value proposition lowering their minimum, it is not too far down the road that advisors will have a conscious choice to act in the consumer’s best interest at a lower cost than commission sales and make as much as 50% more with the same asset base.

That is what will move the market, not Wall Strret suddenly getting religon.


Kate McBride

Kate McBride

May 15, 2013 — 7:16 PM

The Frontline piece brings up very important points and is aimed at a public that has, more often than not, at best been misinformed, at worst been deliberately misled. It was dramatic, and needed to be, because outside of the investment echo chamber, there has been so much misinformation aimed squarely at regular investors. Fees are one main problem, as are the conflicts of interest that go hand in hand with high fees.

In a discussion last week, a colleague mentioned that since the FSA’s ban on commissions went into effect in the UK in 2012, average costs to investors have already come down 50bps. The effect that would have on US retirement savers is staggering. The SEC had been looking at a similar ban on commissions, although that didn’t make it into Dodd Frank. (But the SEC still does have the authority to eliminate forms of compensation that are deemed harmful to investors.) But for retirement accounts, of course, DOL is the regulator, and ERISA is the standard.

The impact of fees and fiduciary advice to retirement investors is another reason to watch for the DOL-EBSA’s re-proposal of who must be a fiduciary under ERISA — not redefining fiduciary duty, but rather who is deemed a fiduciary. Fee reasonableness and avoiding conflicts (and managing unavoidable conflicts in the investors favor) are important components of fiduciary duty.

Frontline served investors by bringing up many important questions. It may not have gone far enough in outlining answers or the strengths on the RIA side of the equation — but the questions and discussion it started are very important.

Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

May 16, 2013 — 12:47 PM

Education is important but isn’t it just a matter of actually making fiduciary standing self evident.

When a consumer deals with a fiducuary and the effort and care required to make a recommendation in the context of all the client’s holdings—it is pretty clear the clients previous brokers did not or could not do any of this.

By simply asking questions about the prospective clients existing holdings and explaining how those holding translate as a portfolio—there is an enlightenment of of what an advisor is supposed to do. This is in contrast to a broker making a series of disjointed unrelated transactions with no accountability or ongoing responsibility to determine whether value is added. It is pretty clear at the consumer level who is acting in the consumer’s best interest. This is why top advisors do not even have a brokerage liscense, so thery can avoid any appearance of conflict.

The real world proof that Elmer seeks to determine whether fiduciary standing is actually in the clients best interest is the easiest test of all prove.

Simply ask the consumer:(1) do you prefer your advisor to be accountable for their recommendations? (2) Do you prefer your advisor to look after your holdings as a whole on a ongoing basis to take afvantage of their knowledge and understanding of you needs and the changing nature of the capital markets? (3) Do you want your advisor to always act in yiour best interest rather than that of their brokerage firm or a product vendor? (4) Is the cost of investments important to you.? (5) Is the tax efficiency of your holdings important to you? (6) Is risk important to you? All of these things are overarching fiduciary duties which trigger fiduciary responsibility and liability and are not possible in abrokerage format. For that reason it is a violation of internal compliance protocol for a broker to acknowledge they render advice or have any on going fiduciary responsibilities on all their recommendations.

Tell me a consumer who doesn’t see a difference; Far superior counsel at a lower cost than commission sales.That is all that is needed to be said.

It is crystal clear to the consumer that the the brokerage industry has self selected to serve its best interest and is not intersted in the least in the best interest iof the investing public. This is why the trust and confidence of the investing public has been lost and why the SEC is trying to restore trust. Our major financial institutions have simply failed us. It is not the broker that has failed it is their supporting institutions to include regulators who have for too long let the industry have its way assuming the industry’s interests were the same as the consumer.

Now through programs like the “Retirement Gamble” it is becomming clear in terms investors understand—the industry is largely insular to their best interests under the auspices of regulators who by Gongressional charter are supposed to protect the public trust.

Very sad. Sorry Elmer is on the wrong side of the arguement since he claims to be such a long standing supporter of fiduciary duty.


Pat Mulvey

Pat Mulvey

May 16, 2013 — 12:11 PM

“Tell me how I get paid and I will tell you how I behave”



May 15, 2013 — 6:35 PM

Is there any evidence anyone actually watched the Frontline special? I’m having trouble finding any Nielsen-style ratings information.

pat Mulvey

pat Mulvey

May 15, 2013 — 9:17 PM

This is great! It doesn’t matter if you are big or small, the same responsibility exist. The big folks have advantages like they can afford a big time consultant or afford a settlement. The smaller plans have a more difficult time…but they have the same liability. What I don’t understand is why don’t plan sponsors seek some independent help- an independent advisor/ consultant who is not tied to product pushing for review, monitoring etc. Yes, there is a fee associated which might be painful particularly for smaller businesses, but consider it an insurance premium. There is reasonably priced help available. We know darn well if one receives advice from someone selling them something- the advice will, at best, be biased.

Kate McBride

Kate McBride

May 15, 2013 — 8:36 PM

Well said, Stephen.

Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

May 16, 2013 — 12:57 PM


It boils down to a question of trust and the consumer being taken avantage of. There are actually advisors who work in the consumer’s best interest. They have built very large businesses some with 50 to 500 billion. That is a capital “B”..

Every advisor wants to emulate these folks and have found it is not possible in a brokerage format. Is that the broker’s fault or the broker/dealer’s?


Elmer Rich III

Elmer Rich III

May 16, 2013 — 12:51 PM

If anyone takes these issues seriously, then the problems need to be carefully studied. Solutions need to be developed from the studies and then tested before wide spread use. However, that will not happen.

Instead we have lots of opinions. As always, the sharpest opinions get the most press.

If just personal opinions and ignoring verified information, study and testing worked — clients wouldn’t need advisors, or doctors, or accountants or professional help of any kind. And, in fact, very few people either use. or follow the recommendations of, professionals.

Kate McBride

Kate McBride

May 15, 2013 — 8:35 PM

Good points, Lou and Brooke.

The fact is that even small plan sponsors are fiduciaries and ignorance, confusion and naivete, feigned or real, are no release from the fiduciary duty they have. If plan sponsors fail to fulfill their fiduciary duties on behalf of participant they can be held PERSONALLY liable, according to the DOL. If they are not capable they must bring in experts who are and do that through a diligent and documented process. Anyone who has a group annuity contract has probably not brought in an expert, but rather a salesperson.

Certainly plan sponsors who have brought in group annuity contracts or other high cost, low benefit options are extremely vulnerable to lawsuit by participants and they need to seek immediate help from an expert who can help them fulfill their duty by assisting them in understanding and fulfilling their fiduciary obligations — starting with better solutions for the Plan.

The sad truth here is that small business owners who have these egregiously high fee plans are hurting themselves the most, because they are likely the largest of the plan’s participants.

Elmer Rich III

Elmer Rich III

May 15, 2013 — 9:23 PM

Reality check – How many FAs and even RIAs:

1. Have any experience with retirement plans?

2. Currently have more than 1-2 plans as clients?

3. Have any training or study of plan matters?

Believe these stats are available. There simply aren’t enough.

larry elford

larry elford

May 15, 2013 — 11:51 PM
The title misrepresentation (salesman-advisor-broker) game along with the less than suitable or appropriate investment choices that result when a salesperson passes themselves off as an investment professional are approaching fraud. Clients should know that they can and should be taking steps to get their money back from such intentional deceit of the consumer…...many clients are doing exactly this, but it is a closely guarded secret within the investment community: http://youtu.be/KH6XMXlfdBw

I am a recovering broker (in Canada) who has pointed my life in the direction of helping those who need help, and not preying upon them as a professional. I saw much too much of that while I was in the industry.

Cheers and best

Larry Elford
Alberta Canada

Brooke Southall

Brooke Southall

May 15, 2013 — 6:38 PM


I think you are on solid ground with all your points. I know so many people personally who spend as if a big benevolent force will save them in retirement. Plan sponsors are clearly the ones on the hook legally.

But I also think it’s worth stepping back and realizing what 'plan sponsor’ translates to
in plain English: harried, overwhelmed, overstimulated small business owner whose primary
fiduciary duty is meeting payroll and surviving to fight another day.

Your average plan sponsor is an accidental fiduciary, probably, and under duress almost certainly. None of them went into business to become a plan sponsor.

In other words, it’s arguable that plan sponsor are the widows and orphans of the institutional investing world and laws, disclosures and mores around selling to them need to reflect that.

Or are plan sponsors feigning naivete, confusion and oblivousness? (I made up that word.)

As a small business owner, I am perhaps biased.


larry elford

larry elford

May 16, 2013 — 6:54 AM

Elmer III says “OK, you can call it fraud – but what’s the alternative to the system as we have it now?”

I would suggest “not” fraudulently misleading clients….....for starters. Telling them UP FRONT whether you are a commission or fee based “broker” or an “advisor” giving them advice that is in their best interests. An inability to comprehend this demonstrates a real failure to grasp what the job entails.

Some of the comments made following show a clear lack of awareness of the differences between the broker-role vs the advisor role, fiduciary duties, client’s best interests etc. Much more education needed.

Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

July 4, 2013 — 4:10 PM


Great points. The differentiating poit between brokerage advisory firms is brokers have no control over their value proposition, cost, margins and professional standing afford asdmonistration but no management. Advisors are held to professional standing and accordingly professionally managed to an expert fiduciary standard unwelcome in a brokerage format.

The significance of this professional management distinction is that it explains why all industry innovation is comming from the advisory side and why advisors compete very favorably on the basis of value proposition, cost, margins and professional standing relative to brokers withas much as a 50% incresae in advisor compensation at a lower cost to the consumer with a preemptive consumer value proposition.

So, it really does not matter what the brokerage industry self selects to thwart counter to the consumer’s best interest, it is simply the orchestration of crital mass around a truely expert and authenticated fiduciary support infrastucture that safely brings scale and expert standing to every advisor who wishes to act in their client’s best interest. This is easily achieved through an (a) expert authenticated prudent investmernt process (asset/liability study, investment polict, portfolio construction, monitioring and management) which makes it safe to acknowledge fiduciary status, (b) advanced technology which supports (i) continuous comprehensive cousel, (ii) transparency, (iii) more modern approaches to portfolio construction which streamlines cost, which is required for fiduciary standing, (c) work flow management tied to a functional didision of labor (advisor, CIO, CAO) which makes advice sacalable, easy to execute and manage as a low cost high margin business at the advisor level, and© conflict of interest management mitigation going far beyond disclosure which simply perpetuates conflicts.

This sort of innovation will come from large scale RIAs not roll-ups which simply perpetuate the brokerage approach to advisory services which trats advice as a product that is sold not an expert process that is managed in the consumer’s best interest.

Think in the context of Savant, CapTrust, and other private large scale RIAs that are now acting in a fiduciary capacity and casn prove it.

There are not many of these large scale RIAs but they have none of the inpediments of a brokerage format that cripples roll-ups in advancing fiduciary standing.

Brian, get to know these firma as they are delineated by expert professional management, and business accumen, know how and ability to execute uncommon in a brokerage setting.

This is the future of advisory services and professional standing which will restore the trust and confidence of the investing public.


Elmer Rich III

Elmer Rich III

July 6, 2013 — 5:16 PM

Not sure how the word“simple” applies to anything to do with professional investing – especially of people’s life savings.

Stephen Winks

Stephen Winks

July 7, 2013 — 5:01 PM


You are correct about simplicity.

It is simple only for those that know what they are doing.

This is a particulaly insightful observation on brokerage, which does not acknowledge or support advice.


Brian Hamburger

Brian Hamburger

July 3, 2013 — 9:55 PM

Blam it on the DVR.
I watched this program the other night and must say, I was amazed at the lack of accountability that all parties shared for the problem. To begin with, the reporting was irresponsible at best. The program was a poorly shrouded attempt to advocate for low expense, passive investing and gave short shrift to arguments for active management and higher fees, when justified of course. The statistics used were not rooted in fact and had no effect beyond panic and shock value.
The investors interviewed largely admitted that they had no interest in planning for their retirement until the performance of their accounts reached alarming levels. It seemed to me be akin to going to the car dealer, giving them $30,000 and telling them to deliver to me whatever vehicle they choose then complaining a number of years later that you should have been given a compact car because of the bad gas mileage your SUV attained. One investor seemed to be unaware that there was a possibility for a decline in their account (you mean my car is not always going to have this mirror shine and new car smell?) while another had no idea that she had purchased an illiquid annuity. Presumably the teacher who bought the annuity had the additional protection of a union who vetted the composition of the retirement plan.
The journalist interviewed all of the wrong people at investment firms, except for Jack Bogle. They were “financial advisors” who were trained to sell a product, not dispense advice. In short, the program missed an opportunity to warn investors that they usually get what they pay for and if they spent the same amount of time in understanding their retirement options as they do in buying a new care, everything would probably be alright.

Pat Mulvey

Pat Mulvey

May 15, 2013 — 3:56 PM

It all starts with the plan sponsor- they are the fiduciary to the participants. We have been witnessing the end of the corporate DB era for quite awhile as companies 'shifted’ the financial liability of retirement to the DC participants. For CFOs it was risk management- I don’t want some huge potential liability via a DB plan so I will terminate it (in some form) and shift the exposure to the participant. That’s kind of what happened.

The problem is that the plan sponsor is the fiduciary to the participant. It is their responsibility to provide adequate education, adequate options etc. to the participant. Four of five years ago I did some work for a roughly $10B 401k plan who had not had their manager lineup, investment structure, record keeper, etc. reviewed by an independent advisor/ consultant in over 8 years. So, whether it is fees, lousy structure, bad QDIA’s or whatever- it starts with the sponsor…and the sponsor may have thought they washed their hands of any liability but they haven’t. That’s a big problem and a big opportunity for advisors.

One other thought- one of the reasons for folks not being able to retire is they haven’t participated early or often enough. Even with matching contributions employee participation at some companies (retail in particular) is very low particularly with younger employees.

There are a whole bunch of things wrong in the retirement space –

Kate McBeide

Kate McBeide

May 16, 2013 — 2:45 AM

Seriously, Elmer? “It is impossible to sell anyone anything they aren’t asking for and agree to. Are unrealistic client demands at fault?” You must be kidding.

What you say there is just not true. That happens to countless “customers” every day. And we are talking 401ks here, with captive participants DEPENDING on plan sponsors with a vast range of investment savvy who all too often end up duped by slick agents or brokers whose duty is to their firm and themselves, not the plan sponsor or participants , because they slip through the currently enormous loopholes in ERISA’s fiduciary net. But that will change, as investors learn about this and demand better treatment.

Lou Day

Lou Day

May 15, 2013 — 8:12 PM

Brooke’s comments from the perspective of a small business owner are at the heart of the issue. There is not one 401k business but two, the larger plans which involve companies that have HR professionals and deal with independent consultants are one business. When it comes to the smaller plans even the business owner with the best intentions is pretty much screwed when he or she relies on a “advisor” who is acting as an agent for a provider. It is one of if not the most preditory sales approaches in the industry. Providers and their “Advisors” know that the 401k plan is ancillary and won’t get the necessary attention,they count on this benign neglect because the “accidental fiduciary” is too busy running the business and in spite of the new laws the 401k providers continue their mastery of obfiscation. The lawyers saw these new regs coming and have had plenty of time to create slight of hand ways to disclose fees without providing meaningful transparency.

So Pat is right that for a 10B plan it starts with the plan sponsor but for the smaller plans it starts and ends with the crap that is being sold with the classic sales line “ we can put this plan in with no out of pocket costs to the company”. Group Annuity contracts, the most expensive share class you can find, finder fees to move the plan, cash marketing stipends etc., when it comes to retirement the particpants in these plans are bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Elmer Rich III

Elmer Rich III

May 15, 2013 — 8:40 PM

Blaming is the default in human nature – well some human nature and journalism — but it blocks understanding and problem solving. Apparently it emotionally satisfying to see the world in black and white – while untrue. Moralizing, b&w thinking and easy solutions invariably create more problems.

The retirement challenge of greatly expanded lifespans is historically unprecedented and we have no models to use to create entirely new ways to manage the set of problems.

We can predict there will be lots of emotions and scare headlines and predatory behavior by folks exploiting public fear. Also, human nature. Likely we will fumble along with lots of trials and mainly error.

If anyone has a magic solution, with any evidence and proof it works, now is the time to speak up.

Let’s also remember that “If it bleeds it leads” and all journalism is forced to evoke fear, even create it, to get any attention.

Elmer Rich III

Elmer Rich III

May 16, 2013 — 12:30 AM

OK, you can call it fraud – but what’s the alternative to the system as we have it now?

There is a “pitcher” and “catcher” in every transaction. Typically, the client is “catching” and calls the pitches they want. It is impossible to sell anyone anything they aren’t asking for and agree to. Are unrealistic client demands at fault?

Revolutionary change is not going to happen and it probably wouldn’t help anyway. These are very, very hard structural problems due to demographics – not brokers or advisors or even governments.

All professions face these same kinds of challenges. Again, anyone with the silver bullet or a good idea — let’s see the evidence and proof it will work.

All we really have so far is a lot of overwrought hand-wringing, finger-pointing and journalism. That just distracts from real problem identification and solutions.

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