Friday, December 12, 2014

Blooom’s Niche In The 401(k) World

There’s an expression we are all familiar with: “Use it or lose it.”  Blooom, the start-up company based out of Overland Park, KS, wants you to use your 401(k) appropriately so you don’t lose potential savings for retirement.  Founders Chris Costello (CEO), Kevin Conard, and Randy Aufderheide, believe their platform is not only a “whole new way to 401k,” but also better than your current options.  They may be right.  See: 401k-retirement-problems-getting-better.


In, “401(k)s are still a problem, but…,” author Dan Kadlec summarizes the current 401(k) situation, namely, that a) employers are beginning to provide more and better investment choices, b) these choices are more cost effective for the employee, and finally, c) employers are starting to see themselves more responsible, so to speak, for their employees’ retirement planning.  For his numbers, Mr. Kadlec cited a study from Brightscope and the Investment Company Institute.  The Study 

CCM Blog likes what Mr. Costello, Mr. Conard, and Mr. Aufderheide are doing for people with Blooom.  In, 4-start-ups-democratizing-investingI linked a video that shows Mr. Costello explaining the urgency to get your 401(k) right, narrowing the wealth-gap.  After reading the article as presented by Mr. Kadlec, there were some areas of concern I noted for Blooom in relation to their business model.  For instance, Blooom’s Who We Are page gives the following reasons (poor options) to enlist the company’s services: “Ask Your HR Department, Call Your Custodian, Do-it-Yourself, Family.”

Ask You HR Department/Call Your Custodian/Do-It-Yourself/Family

I communicated with several friends with 401(k)s and asked them to talk to me in general about their 401(k)s so as not to grill them too much.  The responses were mixed and I’ll share some salient ones from two friends.  A Millennial friend said this,

“My 401(k) has an autopilot thing where you just pick the level of risk and it picks the investment choices based on that.”  

Her 401(k)’s custodian is Fidelity.  A Gen-X friend said the following, 

“Through a program at work our 401(k) is with Prudential.”  

When asked if she got help with her 401(k) from HR at work she gave the following rave review, 

“Our HR department is kinda useless.  We get help from a 3rd party.” 

She didn’t remember unfortunately off the top of her head who this “third party” company her employer had contracted to service her 401(k) advising needs and those of her co-workers.  I didn’t want to give her homework.

What’s concerning to me as it relates Blooom is if they’re not already starting to experience a loss of market/market share and a fading niche.  The report cited by Mr. Kadlec is ominous for Blooom in some respects.  He states, 

“The broadened choice is largely the result of adding target-date mutual funds, possibly the most innovative financial product for individuals in the past 20 years.”  

Hypothetically speaking, say I’m a new employee at Company XYZ and are told that my 401(k) custodian is T. Rowe Price.  I decide to select as investment choices monthly contributions to Price’s Retirement 2040 Fund (TRRDX) and some company stock because I’d get it at a discount to market value.  Can I call it a day and be done worrying about my 401(k)?  What about what my Gen-X friend said about her employer contracting an outside service for 401(k) advising?  Could she be talking about Blooom or is it some other player availing themselves to private companies?  Indeed, custodians themselves offer the whole gamut of the retirement landscape with their services: offerings, holding, planning, and consulting.  Bloom's point is that they can do a better job, that waiting 30 minutes on hold for "suggestions" and not advice is time poorly spent. 

Mr. Kadlec did point out some good news for Blooom and other 401(k) advising companies:

“For those in small plans, though, the news isn’t so good.  Expenses remain high: In plans with fewer than $1 million in assets, the average expense ratio for domestic equity mutual funds is 0.95%, versus 0.48% for plans with more than $1 billion in assets…”

This bodes well for business at Blooom.  Smaller employers may become the bulk of their business, if not already.  We already know that unless you are an investing guru, "Doing-It-Yourself," is a bad idea.  In my estimation, employees of smaller companies are probably the ones having no other recourse but to manage their 401(k)s themselves.  As for "Family" advice is that you don't go there!

I will communicate with Blooom and see if someone there can be a shining light on what I have written here.  All plants need illumination to Blooom.

Thanks for reading!  Follow me on Twitter: @COsvaGomez.  Share a comment!

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