Quick Take: Yes, Better 401(k) Disclosure Is a Good Idea

Few ideas are worse than asking Congress to intervene in the financial markets. But when I read this morning that the governing body is taking up the question of whether investors deserve to know exactly what they pay to contribute to a 401(k), I applauded.

Not that anyone actually heard me. Our kitchen is empty at 5:30 a.m. And, with the kids still sleeping, all I could afford was a polite golf clap. Still, even a small amount of applause is deserved here.

Roughly 90 million Americans have money in stocks like Tyco International (NYSE: TYC  ) , Waste Management (NYSE: WMI  ) , and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK  ) via mutual funds. And most of that is invested via self-directed retirement accounts such as the 401(k).

But many of my friends and family haven't a clue what they pay to remain invested. That's why Financial Times reporter and Eliot Spitzer biographer Brooke Masters, whom I interviewed in October, says that retirement accounts are rife for a Spitzer-sized investigation. Her primary concern? Conflicts of interest.

As Masters said at the time, "Mutual funds would pay brokers so that their mutual fund, their S&P 500 fund, would get recommended. I think there is the same potential [for conflicts] if you can pay a 401(k) plan administrator extra money to make sure that your product gets put on the list. Your one option may turn out to be a high-fee fund because there is some kind of deal going on."

She may be right. But even if she isn't, investors deserve to have an inventory of charges printed alongside their fee-adjusted total returns vs. the S&P 500. Advisers who provide real value have no reason to be afraid of that.

Have a different take? Let me know.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers usually reserves a polite golf clap for the golf course. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article at the time of publication. Tyco is an Inside Value pick. GlaxoSmithKline is an Income Investor selection. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy just eagled the 10th at Augusta to take a two-shot lead over Wall Street.


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