WASHINGTON -- Workers saving for retirement often are hobbled by a lack of clear information on their investments and the fees they are charged to manage them.
These fees can eat away tens of thousands of dollars over time.
Now, amid mounting evidence that murky accounting could undermine the financial security of retirees, federal regulators are seeking to toughen disclosure rules and devise a single standard for a wide variety of investments and retirement plans.
Saying current disclosures often are "missing the mark by a country mile," Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox said his agency will advocate new rules that would force mutual funds, insurance companies and others to more clearly detail the cost and performance of investment funds and retirement plans.
In an interview, Cox said companies that manage funds and retirement plans should be required to report "one simple number that captures fees and expenses." As traditional pensions disappear, more workers are relying on 401(k) plans and IRAs. But fees can jeopardize the financial security of retirees.
These costs are often hidden now - either buried in the fine print of a fund prospectus, or simply deducted from accounts without ever showing up as a line-item expense.
"It's our top regulatory priority," Cox said, who wants to make it easier to compare funds. "There are always technical concerns raised by someone, but the truth is that apples-to-apples comparisons are quite useful for consumers. The same should be possible for our retirement savings."
Mutual funds, for example, provide information about fund fees and trading costs in different parts of the prospectus but don't add them up. Annuities sold by insurance companies, meanwhile, are typically tied to the performance of an underlying mutual fund - but the return of that fund is often not clearly reported, critics say.
Still, some see easy-to-read disclosures as a stiff challenge, given the complexity of retirement plans. "It's a good concept, giving people simple, easily comparable information," said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America. "The question is whether they'll come up with a number that is really meaningful."
There also is no single regulator. The SEC oversees mutual funds, but it does not regulate retirement plans offered by insurance companies, banks and other firms that administer retirement plans. To implement new standards that apply across the board, Cox conceded he would need the support of other agencies.
"I think it's going to require a good bit of creativity and extensive collaboration across the government," he said.
The Department of Labor, which has broad authority over employer-sponsored retirement plans including 401(k) plans, has been pursuing its own disclosure initiative and said it supports the broad effort.
"We will be working closely with the SEC to ensure that our different requirements under the different laws are complementary," the Labor Department said.
At the top levels of the SEC, the view is that far-reaching changes in the pension landscape require the effort. Self-directed retirement plans such as 401(k)s are usually linked to the performance of the financial markets, making the decisions of investors - and the bite of fees - crucial.
"If the government expects retirees to manage their own accounts, they need to know how their investments are doing, and right now many don't know how they are doing," said SEC Commissioner Roel Campos.
Campos said such information might be boiled down to a one-page summary. "It's a win-win for investors," he said. "It's a win-win for the system."
The initiative will be rolled out in phases. In the coming months, the SEC hopes to hold roundtables of experts and publish a concept paper outlining the issue, paving the way for a formal rule proposal later this year.
Some observers maintain that stricter requirements are most needed for plans run by insurers and others who are not under the direct scrutiny of the SEC.
"I'm very surprised there hasn't been more focus on these kinds of investment products," said Brent Glading, managing director of the Glading Group, a Montclair, N.J., firm that analyzes retirement plans for employers.
Lobbyists for the insurance, banking and mutual fund industries all said they support clear disclosures for the public.
At the same time, they said cost is not the only factor that affects the appeal of a retirement plan, and urged the public also to consider other matters, such as the choices a plan offers and its suitability to an individual's needs.
The American Council of Life Insurers "supports meaningful disclosure of plan fees and expenses - disclosures that do not overwhelm plan sponsors and participants but provides them with the critical information they want and need," council President Frank Keating said in a statement after a recent House hearing on the matter.
Mutual funds, which already operate under more stringent rules than some rivals, said they support enhanced disclosure efforts as long as the rules are even-handed.
"Participants need clear, concise information on fees, performance, risks, the investment adviser and investment objectives in a form that's easy to understand, for all investment options in their plan," said Paul Schott Stevens, president of the Investment Company Institute, in a recent statement.
The Labor Department plans within the next few weeks to invite suggestions from the public for improving disclosures, as a step toward a new rule. In addition, the department is working on rules to enhance information that plans provide to employers and regulators, and might propose this spring a new rule meant to improve disclosures about potential conflicts of interest.
For its part, the SEC might propose a separate new rule aimed at enhancing the disclosures of mutual funds. The idea is that improved mutual fund disclosures would make a significant difference because much of the money in self-directed retirement plans such as 401(k)s and IRAs is invested in mutual funds.
Studies have shown that many workers are unaware of the fees they pay to run their retirement plans, which can be significant.
In a November 2006 report, the Government Accountability Office said a retirement nest egg of $20,000 might grow to $70,500 after 20 years, presuming annual returns of 6.5 percent and annual fees of 0.5 percent.
By contrast, that same $20,000 nest egg would grow to only $58,400 - 17 percent less - if the annual fees came to 1.5 percent, according to the GAO.
"Differences of even a fraction of a percent can matter enormously over time," Cox said, maintaining that disclosures are typically confusing and fragmented.
"Investors deserve to know the after-tax, after-fees performance of their fund, and to know whether the manager was good or lucky," he said.
Jonathan Peterson writes for the Los Angeles Times.