Some of the earliest investment advice given: “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” Its value is enduring. An investor can minimize the risk of losing money by diversifying the allocation of money into different categories of investments. Even within a single category, an investor can choose investment vehicles, such as mutual funds, spreading ownership over an array of financial instruments. Are plan sponsors successful if they offer participants the highest possible amount of mutual funds and other investment choices?

Offering a large number of funds does not equate to success in either the realm of compliance with regulation, nor in achieving maximum levels of employee participation. It is important to offer the appropriate number of choices to empower participants to meet goals for retirement income. It is also important to do this in a manner that allows the employer to meet fiduciary responsibilities.

Fiduciary Responsibility

On one hand, participant-directed accounts, such as many 401(k) plans, give members control over their own investment accounts. On the other hand, the plan sponsor is generally still responsible for the fiduciary liability associated with selecting and monitoring the investment vehicles being made available to participants. Good processes with solid documentation of their application provide the foundation, enabling employees to make good decisions about investments. These factors also position the employer to face an Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) audit without undo fear of negative consequences. Most employers will need to engage the services of a “prudent expert” as a guide along the path of selecting and monitoring appropriate investment opportunities.

A prudent expert financial advisor must be familiar with methods required to deliver comprehensive analysis of investment vehicles. Among these methods is the necessity to establish and track appropriate benchmarks to measure a particular investment’s performance over time. Understanding the purpose of a particular class of investments and how the particular fund being offered relates to its peers is more important than offering a large number of funds in that class.

Sponsors need to maintain an Investment Policy Statement outlining the categories of investments to be offered to participants. This document should also identify the committee and entities responsible for choosing, monitoring, and, when appropriate, replacing the individual investment options offered to participants. This tool will assist the sponsor in seeing when it is appropriate to replace an option instead of just adding new options. Beyond concerns about managing an employer’s exposure to liability, providing a reasonable, yet limited, choice of options can actually improve employees’ willingness to participate in the benefit plan.

Participant Behavior

Fewer choices are better when people do not come into a situation already knowing for sure what they prefer. This describes most employees in their relationship to employee benefit plans. They simply do not know what to do without education. Initially, it may seem logical to grant the widest possible range of options. If surveyed, employees may even indicate a strong preference for unlimited choices. However, the employer’s goal is not to merely capture interest — the goal is to make it easy for employees to participate in a benefit plan and see progress towards fulfillment of their own financial objectives.

The opportunity to make some choices is a good thing for participants. Indeed, it is necessary for employees with participant-directed accounts to be offered options so that they can achieve diversification of their investments. However, too much of a good thing is manifest when participants experience choice overload.

Behavioral scientists are finding choice overload to be a condition people experience when they withdraw from a situation out of fear of making the wrong decision. Often an individual starts off highly motivated as they begin to examine the choices they have been presented. As choice overload sets in, the extensive array of choices becomes demotivating, and the individual may put off a decision to commit or give up entirely.

Sheena S. Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark R. Lepper of Stanford University demonstrated the impact of choice overload when they studied the influence of choice on the purchasing habits of 502 people who were introduced to various selections of exotic jams. They found that 60 percent of the people given the opportunity to choose from 24 items were interested in investigating, but only 3 percent made a purchase. By contrast, only 40 percent of those given the limited choice of 6 items investigated, but 30 percent made a purchase. The average quantities of jam individuals were willing to taste test was less than 2, regardless of whether they were offered an array of 6 or 24.

Employers can promote participation in benefit plans by reducing the complexity of presentations to employees. Making use of competent advisors, employers can present employees with properly labelled choices packaged in a consumer-friendly manner.