John Fuchs was checking his 401(k) account online one afternoon when he saw something that seemed amiss. Listed along with his regular contributions was a $48 charge, in red.

After a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, Fuchs learned that the $48 deduction was no mistake. The money was paid to an outside firm that enrolls employees in his company's 401(k) plan, mails quarterly account statements and handles other administrative tasks.

Because the administrative fee is a percentage of his balance, he will pay more and more as his savings grow. Fuchs figures that by the time he retires, it will have cost him more than $316,000 in direct charges and lost investment returns.

"I think a lot of people out there pay this fee but don't know it," said Fuchs, 38, an information technology manager for an engineering firm in Exton, Pa. "To the average employee, it's totally invisible."

As many employers scrap their traditional pensions and doubts grow about the future of Social Security, Americans' hopes for a secure retirement depend more than ever on their 401(k)s. About 44 million workers have more than $2 trillion invested in the accounts.

Yet unknown to many of them, obscure fees and deductions are quietly eroding the value of their nest eggs. In many cases, employers could bargain for lower charges, but don't. Mutual fund management fees are the biggest expense. But they are prominently disclosed, have attracted wide publicity and have been declining as fund providers compete for customers.

They usually don't show up on quarterly or annual statements. Brochures touting the benefits of 401(k) investing rarely mention them. Employees have to work hard to find out how much they're paying -- for instance, by scouring their plan's Web site for a record of all activity in their accounts.

Plan consultants and providers collect their cut in varied ways. Some take a percentage of each employee's account balance. That's the charge Fuchs stumbled upon. Others collect a commission from insurance companies that run 401(k) plans.

When mutual fund companies manage 401(k)s, they often absorb overhead costs in return for the chance to give most of the "shelf space" to their own funds. They get their money back through fund management fees.

What's more, fund providers frequently offer 401(k) participants the same retail mutual funds they sell to the general public, not the low-fee alternatives designed for big groups of customers.

Because of outdated federal disclosure rules, publicly available records on fees often reveal only a fraction of the money leaking out of retirement accounts.

"It's very difficult for the average participant to determine what the total expenses are, how those expenses measure up, and who exactly is getting paid and how much," said Bud Green, a principal at Fortress Wealth Management Inc., a 401(k) consulting firm in Santa Monica.

Workers who save conscientiously take a disproportionate hit because fees are typically a percentage of their account balances. Someone with $100,000 pays 10 times as much as a co-worker with $10,000, even though it costs about the same to administer the two accounts.

The peculiar structure of 401(k)s leaves employees with little or no voice. Employers sponsor the plans and hire the providers and administrators. But workers pay most of the fees.

Employees can raise a stink about the charges -- if they happen to learn about them. But they can't take their business elsewhere; they're stuck with whatever plan their company offers.

"People can be paying thousands of dollars in fees if they've been in their 401(k) plans for years," said John Turner, a senior policy adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute. "They can be paying thousands of dollars more than they need to be paying."

Fuchs works for Groundwater & Environmental Services, which cleans up contaminated groundwater at gas stations and other sites. The company, which has 600 employees, selected Benefits Sources & Solutions, a consulting firm in Bound Brook, N.J., to run its 401(k).

The consultant advises Groundwater on which mutual funds to include, processes employees' payroll deductions and holds educational workshops, among other tasks.

Benefits Sources does not bill Groundwater for these services. Instead, it collects a percentage of employees' total savings every three months.

In 2004, this fee averaged 0.51 percent -- $51 on a $10,000 account. Overall, the company took in $48,185 from Groundwater employees that year, the most recent for which figures are available.

The payments do not appear as a line item on employees' quarterly statements. Rather, Benefits Sources takes a cut of the mutual fund shares in each account. That makes the fee all but invisible.

Most employees focus on their dollar balance, not the number of shares. The share balance changes constantly as fresh contributions are added and dividends are reinvested. To detect the deductions, an employee would have to track his or her shares rigorously enough to notice that the number isn't climbing as quickly as it would otherwise.

"I think it's pretty sneaky," Fuchs said. "The fees should be reported in a forthright manner, but they're not. All these companies do it. A lot of human resources people don't even know what's taken out of their own funds."

Fuchs said his employer wouldn't reveal details of Benefits Sources' fee. From Internet research, he learned that he could ask Groundwater for a copy of its Form 5500, which employers must file annually with the Labor Department, listing certain expenses paid from retirement savings plans. With the document in hand, Fuchs was able to calculate the size of the fee and how much he was being charged: about $500 a year.

Over time, the effect of such charges can be huge. In addition to the direct cost, workers lose out on the interest, dividends and other returns that would pile up if the money had been left in their accounts to grow.

Fuchs used calculators on the Securities and Exchange Commission Web site (www.sec.gov under "investor information") to arrive at his $316,000 estimate of how much administrative expenses will cost him by the time he retires in 2030.

John Zelechoski, Groundwater's manager of human resources, said that Benefits Sources had done a good job selecting mutual funds and that he had gotten few employee complaints about the plan.

Scott Rappoport, president of Benefits Sources, said its fee was in line with what other 401(k) administrators charge. He said the firm earned its money by researching investment choices, educating workers and providing other services. But he declined to detail the cost of those services or explain how the firm arrived at the fee.

Although they have become the main retirement savings vehicle for millions of Americans, 401(k)s were not created as part of a grand plan. They were an accidental byproduct of a 1978 tax law.

Shortly after the law took effect, a few benefits consultants realized that subsection 401(k) -- intended to clarify the tax status of corporate profit-sharing plans -- allowed workers to accumulate tax-deferred savings through payroll deductions.

In the early days, employers picked up most of the administrative costs of the plans. That changed as mutual fund companies and insurers sought a larger share of 401(k) business.

Those firms offered to handle every aspect of the retirement plans, including administration. In exchange, they would have a captive audience for their investment products.

In 1988, 87 percent of U.S. employers paid all 401(k) administrative costs. Today, only about 25 percent do. The rest have shifted some or all of those expenses to workers, said Pam Hess, a 401(k) expert at Hewitt Associates, a benefits consulting firm that also administers retirement plans.

As a result, employers have little incentive to hold down 401(k) costs. A 2004 Hewitt survey found that about half of employers haven't even tried to figure out what their workers are paying in fees.

"If the company doesn't have to write a check, many times they're not interested in what the participants have to pay," said Ted Benna, a Pennsylvania benefits consultant who created one of the first 401(k)s.

There are wide variations in fees. HR Investments Consultants of Baltimore surveyed about 80 401(k) providers, asking what they charge for plans of varying sizes. For a medium-sized plan with 500 participants and $20 million in assets, the fees ranged from $205 to $818 per employee each year.

Investors should benefit from economies of scale as 401(k) plans grow, allowing overhead costs to be spread over a bigger pool. Yet the HR Investments survey, released in 2004, found that employees realized little savings.

The average fee for a 500-employee plan was $482 per person. For a plan 10 times as large -- 5,000 participants and $200 million in assets -- it was $450 per person, just 6.6 percent less.

Chris McNickle, a 401(k) specialist at Greenwich Associates, a Connecticut consulting firm, says this is necessary because small accounts are unprofitable. The entire mutual fund industry relies on the largest 10 percent to 20 percent of accounts for all its profit, he said.

Marcy Supovitz, a retirement plan consultant in Worcester, Mass., suspects 401(k) account holders would object to this system -- if they were aware of it.

In addition to basic services such as staffing call centers and keeping account records, 401(k) firms shoulder the cost of complying with federal tax laws. For example, they must perform complex statistical analyses to ensure that highly paid employees do not benefit disproportionately from matching contributions and other plan features.

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