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Why in the world isn't the 401(k) industry entirely digital?

Yes, I'm a millennial, but clients in 2018 should not have to print forms and mail in checks

Sep 26, 2018 @ 5:21 pm

By Ryan W. Neal

As a byproduct of InvestmentNews' recent acquisition, I just hit a major life milestone. I experienced my first 401(k) account rollover, and oh boy, was it eye-opening.

As a technology reporter, I'm much more familiar with fintech companies and firms pushing the digital envelope than I am with the status quo — or worse.

Without naming any names, the entire process is shockingly analog and requires much labor on behalf of individual plan participants. You're telling me that in order to move my money from an old 401(k) plan into a brand new one, I have to request a physical check by mail from one provider, receive it in the mail, print out a form, fill it out, then mail that form with the check to the new provider? With, like, stamps and envelopes?

It may be that I'm too busy ruining beloved American institutions and having brunch, but why would anyone want to take the time to print, sign and mail something in the modern age of electronic signature and email?

Call me an entitled millennial all you want, but I've found that it's not just digital natives who would like to see the retirement industry catch up to 2018. The problem isn't limited to rollovers, either.

"I hear clients complaining every week about poor access, having to deal with slow-to-respond HR departments, and limited web access," said Mark Henry, founder and CEO of Alloy Wealth Management.

"Most 401(k)s could easily offer direct online access to anything from investment re-allocations to necessary forms in the same manner that many investment firms are using now," he said. "Technology has definitely improved many, many things about investing, but it has been slow to reach the employer-sponsored plans."

Mr. Henry is right, there is simply no reason the 401(k) industry cannot be digitized.

(More: 401(k) robo-revolution is underway)

Plenty of firms are working on it.

Financial Engines grew to $169 billion in assets by automating the 401(k) process. It was acquired and paired with Edelman Financial Services earlier this year.

Betterment set its robo eyes on 401(k) with the launch of Betterment for Business in 2015 and has since signed on hundreds of companies.

The problem for the retirement industry at large, according to Tom Conlon, Betterment for Business' head of client relations, is that many 401(k) and 403(b) providers are still operating on outdated technology systems.

"Incumbent record-keepers are slow to implement new tech because their new software must integrate with their archaic and antiquated record-keeping engine," Mr. Conlon said. "Most record-keepers are part of a larger organization whose primary focus is either insurance or asset management. Given this, they generally view technology spend as cost rather than a differentiator."

There's also the fact that firms don't necessarily want to make things like rollovers easy for plan participants. After all, that's money leaving the firm.

But many firms are realizing that the clunky process is leaving a bad taste in clients' mouths, said Aaron Schumm, CEO of Vestwell, a technology platform for digitizing the 401(k) and 403(b) process. Not just with people looking to rollover money, but also with advisers looking to offer retirement plans to small business-owner clients.

Mr. Schumm hopes that by digitizing documents and auto-populating forms with client information, Vestwell can ease the burden on plan providers, sponsors and participants.

"In dialogue with many firms, they realize that they are losing clients," Mr. Schumm said.

(More:401(k) robo Guideline tries to woo advisers with new service)

They know clients are unhappy, and many no longer accept the status quo.

"I've been pleasantly surprised at the engagement from some of these large institutions that are looking to become a tech-forward provider. They are looking at firms like us and other new firms beyond retirement and thinking [they] have to start incorporating technology into the overall platform," he said.

That sounds great, and it's better late than never.

And if I never have to mail another rollover check again, it will all be worth it.

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