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Undisclosed Fees Ravage 401(k)s

As the man responsible for the 401(k) plan at McGee Brothers, a masonry company in Charlotte, N.C., Neal Parker didn't like what he was seeing - the returns to his employees didn't match up with the performance of the funds they invested in.

"We looked into it. It was hard to determine anything," Parker said.

He challenged the bank that was managing the 401(k) and discovered that administrative fees were eating into the returns to the company's plan, by as much 4 or 5 percent.

"Four percent, compounded, could easily be four or five hundred thousand dollars," Parker observed. "It was very difficult to get clear and concise as to what those fees were."

Injecting transparency and simplicity into the 401(k) system was the subject of a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

Rep. Phil Roe is like any investor. He's also a medical doctor.

"I got thru organic chemistry and trying to figure out some of these fees is difficult to do," he said.

Nothing's been settled on Capitol Hill. But with half the workforce in America participating in a 401(k) or similar program, nearly everyone agrees that something has to change.

"The fees really pile up and destroy, literally destroy, your ability to earn a fair return," said John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group.

Typically, financial services companies charge a variety of fees to manage 401(k) funds - administration, audit, compliance, legal and recordkeeping fees.

"Of course there is no free lunch and there is no such thing as a free 401(k) plan," said Julian Onorato, CEO of Expertplan, a retirement plan administrator.

But by the time the individual investor gets a breakout of those fees, there's a lot less detail. If you have a 401(k), advisers says you should demand a full accounting from your plan administrator of what you're paying for and what you're getting in return.

When Parker didn't get answers he was satisfied with about fees, he transferred his company's 401(k) from the bank his company had done business with for 38 years.

"If you got the full benefit of what you invested in, and the fees were reasonable, you can expect to get, I estimate, between 6 and 10 years' additional retirement funds," he said.

Not a bad example. With the market shrinking 401(k)s every day, why lose even more money? Especially for fees you don't even know you're paying.

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