Smoke and mirrors
Group plans lack clear disclosure on fees
If you have a group RRSP or group pension savings plan through your employer, you might have been pleased, or felt privileged if you saw these words in the plan documents: "Fees have been paid for by your employer - meaning that there is no cost to members for this plan". However, there's a good chance you were misled.
Pensions and group RRSPs
There are two basic types of pension plans: defined benefit and defined contribution. Defined benefit plans specify a formula that determines the pension payable at retirement. In other words, the plan sponsor (i.e. the employer) must make sure that there is enough money in the plan to fund the pension dictated by the formula. This type of plan places all of the investment risk with the employer.
Defined contribution plans function more like individual investment accounts, for practical purposes. They're not quite as liquid, but the pension payable depends on how much money is in each individual's "pension account" at retirement - much like RRSPs. There is no formula or other implied promise as to a set level of pension income. In other words, the plan member (i.e. employee) assumes all of the risks of investing.
Group RRSPs are no different than a regular RRSP account and are nearly identical to defined contribution plans. Over the past several years, the trend has been away from defined benefit plans, in favour of the less complex (and cheaper) defined contribution plans.
Institutional vs. retail: the regulatory gap
Most investors, like you and I, are considered retail investors. If you buy investments through a broker or advisor, the advisor must ensure she is reasonably familiar with your circumstances so that her recommendations are well suited to you. That's generally known as the "know your client" or KYC rule. Also, the advisor is required by law to hand you financial statements of the recommended funds, along with a simplified prospectus - a legal document detailing pertinent information on the funds - at the time of purchase.
When investments are bought in a pension plan, it is the pension plan that is deemed to have purchased them. Pension plans are considered "institutional investors", which are exempt from the prospectus and KYC requirements because they are considered "sophisticated purchasers" - i.e. since they're institutions, they don't need that level of consumer protection. In the absence of that exemption, some plan administrators have applied to securities regulators for relief from the prospectus and KYC requirements in order to eliminate what they consider to be an unnecessary layer of regulation.
No financial advisor alive can apply for any exemption from his requirements to "know his clients".
The problem is that the assets are managed on behalf of individuals; and more and more plans put investing decisions in the hands of individual plan members. So, individuals (just like you) are deciding where to invest their money - decisions they will literally have to live with for a lifetime.
The regulatory framework must catch up to the reality that individual plan members are ultimately making the investment decisions. Fortunately, this is not an issue that has escaped the watchful eyes of regulators. They've been working on drafting regulations to harmonize securities and pension laws for a few years now; but as you'd expect, it's taking a long time to finalize.
One could write hundreds of pages on the group RRSP regulatory evolution. However, rather than get into that nitty-gritty, I'll show you how poor disclosure remains today and the importance of the current initiative to get implemented.
A case in point
A Toronto-based relative of mine was offered the opportunity to join an employer-sponsored group RRSP plan. He was given a marketing brochure that summarized the benefits of investing in the plan and highlighted the employer's generosity in picking up the tab for the fees charged for the plan.
Since the plan basically offered a menu of mutual funds, I knew that couldn' t have been true. They wouldn't give me any information so I had my relative e-mail the address listed in the brochure to request a summary of the fund-related costs applicable to each fund in this group RRSP. They replied with the management expense ratio (MER) applicable to each fund in the plan.
The plan was a good deal because it involved employer matching and had a nice selection of funds from which to choose. The fee picked up by the employer was the RRSP trustee fee, which almost nobody charges these days. While the "plan" was technically free, they further gave the impression that investments attracted no fees. That's no different than a blatant lie in my book.
To squash another common myth with such plans, I found that the fees applicable to each fund (which were managed by such firms as Perigee, McLean Budden, Trimark, and TD Quantitative Capital) were identical to the fees charged to the same funds available to any investor. Sometimes, fees on funds in group plans are lower than that available to individuals outside the plan. However, it's not always the case, so it shouldn't be assumed.
Was the plan good? Sure. Were plan members misled? Absolutely, but that will be the case until harmonized legislation is finalized and introduced to protect plan members.
Dan Hallett, CFA, CFP is the President of Dan Hallett & Associates Inc. in Windsor Ontario. DH&A is registered as Investment Counsel in Ontario and provides independent investment research to financial advisors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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