Companies readying to provide advice to retirement savers

Posted: Friday, June 14, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Millions of Americans have retirement savings accounts, but they're often confused about how to make the most of them. That's been especially true during the down stock market of the past two years.

Help will soon be on the way.

Several retirement plan managers say they'll take advantage of a recent Labor Department ruling by offering personalized investment advice to help savers make better decisions about their 401(k), 403(b) and other employer-sponsored accounts.

The ruling allows such advice if it comes from qualified financial experts who are independent of the plan operators. That alleviated concerns that advice from a plan operator could constitute a conflict of interest.

Earlier this week, CitiStreet, one of the nation's largest retirement plan providers, said it would begin making personal advice available to plan participants through the Financial Engines advisory service in Palo Alto, Calif.

CitiStreet -- a venture between Citigroup and the State Street investment management firm -- said its program would be available to participants in the 403(b) program of the California State Teachers Retirement System in coming weeks and that its first 401(k) clients would be announced in July.

Sandy McCarthy, a CitiStreet vice president, noted that many savers already can go to Web sites run by plan providers or their employers and use calculators and other tools to evaluate savings options.

''For some people, onsite software is OK,'' McCarthy said. ''But others find that difficult or still have trouble making decisions. Now they'll be able to call a trained financial adviser for help.''

A CitiStreet adviser will ask a series of questions about a saver's age, sensitivity to risk and retirement goals and, using Financial Engines software, suggest the proper investment funds, she said. The software compares investment alternatives and evaluates the odds they will be successful.

Such advice will go a long way toward reducing savers' anxiety, said Jeff Maggioncalda, president of Financial Engines.

In the past, ''a company like CitiStreet would do an onsite educational seminar,'' he said. ''At the end, someone would come up and say, 'I think I understand what you were saying about Enron and the need for diversification, but now what should I do with my account?' The answer before this (the Labor Department ruling) had to be silence.''

David Wray, president of the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America, said savers need a variety of support services.

''If you're going to make the system work the best way possible, you need a multiplicity of tools for the participants,'' Wray said. ''One of the good things you can offer is advice.''

Other support, he said, includes good educational programs, online calculators and, perhaps, fund packages that are suitable for different age groups and risk tolerance.

Ibbotson Associates of Chicago, which provides products and services to manage assets, is developing an advisory program with SunAmerica, a retirement plan vendor. They plan to go a step further, offering to manage savers' accounts.

Ibbotson president Mike Henkel noted that some companies already were paying independent outsiders such as financial planners to help workers with retirement strategies. But, he argued, only a small percentage of employees take advantage of such services and even those who do still have to act on the advice by buying or selling funds in their account.

He believes ''80 percent of the world really just wants somebody to take care of it for them.''

As a result, he foresees a system under which a saver would call a plan provider and give basic information about age, risk tolerance and retirement goals. A provider agent could respond, ''Would you like us to create a portfolio for you? Would you like us to manage it for you?''

Henkel believes the answer most of the time will be ''yes.''


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