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Is Regulation Driving Innovation in 401(k) Fee Models?

401(k) Specialist

By John Sullivan | November 7, 2016

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Far from pricing smaller investors out, it could actually help.

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The fiduciary rule and accompanying low-fee fallout has 401(k) advisors, providers and investment managers thinking creatively about competitive differentiation.

Far from pricing smaller investors out of the market, it could actually have the opposite effect.

One firm in particular, Denver-based First Ascent Asset Management, is taking the client-first cliché one step further by announcing flat-fee pricing model for clients with multiple accounts (or households).

“The policy is a continuation of the firm’s effort to jettison the industry’s traditional pricing model, which charges clients a percentage of assets under management, in favor of a more rational and client-friendly approach,” according to firm First Ascent founder Scott MacKillop.

Earlier this year, First Ascent unveiled its unique capped-fee schedule. Under that schedule, clients pay .50% for First Ascent’s services until the account reaches $300,000. The fee is then capped at $1,500 and does not increase no matter how large the account becomes.

So a $300,000 account and a $3 million account pay the same flat fee—$1,500 annually.

With its new policy, First Ascent bills the largest account in a household using its regular capped fee schedule, but manages additional accounts within the household for a flat fee of $400 per account. This amount coincides with First Ascent’s minimum fee.

“We think our household pricing is a breakthrough that makes quality asset management services, provided by experienced investment professionals, available to everyone at an affordable price,” MacKillop adds.

The pricing model works like this:

A husband and wife have four accounts: a $1,000,000 taxable account, a $500,000 IRA, a $300,000 SEP IRA and a $200,000 Roth IRA. The taxable account would be billed under First Ascent’s regular fee schedule, since it is the largest account. That account is over $300,000, so it would be charged a flat annual fee of $1,500. The other three accounts would be charged a flat annual fee of $400. The total fee for managing the household’s $2 million would be $2,700—the equivalent of 14 basis points.

“When you consider our low fees together with low internal expense ratios–about 13 basis points –in our portfolios, the benefit to clients is even greater,” MacKillop concludes. “In a world where there is increased scrutiny of fees and advisors are being held to high standards of conduct and accountability, we think this is a compelling offer.”