ETFs in 401(k) Plans

A June survey conducted by State Street Global Advisors and Knowledge@Wharton determined that financial advisors think the biggest potential growth area for the exchange-traded fund industry is in 401(k) plans. Of the survey’s 840 respondents, 43% said that 401(k)s would be the biggest area of growth for the ETF industry going forward, compared with 27% for actively managed ETFs and 20% for unified managed accounts.

Ironically, this perspective was soundly rebutted in a July 2008 article in Journal of Indexes. The article, “Why ETFs And 401(k)s Will Never Match” (by David Blanchett and Gregory Kasten), outlined a variety of reasons why ETFs may never gain a large foothold in the 401(k) industry. Among the reasons listed were transaction costs, including the bid/ask spread and the brokerage commission associated with every purchase and sale of ETF shares. Another disadvantage noted was the inability to buy fractional shares of ETFs. The fact that the tax advantage ETFs offer in taxable accounts disappears in a tax-deferred plan such as a 401(k) was another highlighted drawback.

It’s been nearly two and a half years since I first reported that the industry is devoting resources to the idea of incorporating ETFs into the 401(k) platform. It seems like a perfect time to evaluate the current state of ETFs in defined contribution plans in general, and in 401(k)s specifically.

This story was originally published on Index Universe. For the full article click here.

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