A recent entry into the retirement services field is giving 401(k) plan investors more choices and more flexibility in managing their money.

Persumma Financial, the retirement services unit of MassMutual Financial Group, has teamed up with the online brokerage Ameritrade Holdings Corp. of Omaha to let employees direct their own 401(k) plan portfolios by buying and selling individual securities as well as mutual funds.

J. Spencer Williams, president and chief executive officer of Boston-based Persumma which began operations Oct. 1, said other 401(k) providers, including National Discount Brokers and Credit Suisse First Boston’s CSFBDirect, offer online access and the ability to create individual portfolios. But unlike National Discount and CSFBDirect, Mr. Williams said, Persumma has no annual custody fees, no high minimum balances, and no transaction fees.

Ryan Tagal, an analyst with Cerulli Associates in Boston, said it is becoming more important for 401(k) providers to offer brokerage services. Self-directed plans currently account for 4% to 5% of 401(k) assets, and that will reach 7% by 2004, according to Cerulli research.

Persumma now has a dozen companies using its services. And its Web site offers 1,500 mutual funds to investors, along with Morningstar Inc.’s ClearFuture planning service.

The initiative with Ameritrade, announced last week, will let customers trade stock online by the beginning of the second quarter. Once the trading service is launched, participants in Persumma’s 401(k) plans who also have Ameritrade accounts will be able to use the same Web site for their 401(k) mutual fund, bond, and stock purchases and sales that they use for their nonqualified investing. Those who do not have accounts will be able to open them at no charge.

At first Persumma was only available to companies with more than 1,000 employees. Mr. Williams said all companies, regardless of size, can use its mutual fund and brokerage services now.

Pete Ricketts, Ameritrade senior vice president for strategy and business development, said his company will make money from this arrangement through trade commissions rather than account fees. The 401(k) account holders pay no annual fee for the brokerage account, and there is no minimum deposit required to open or maintain such an account. Persumma participants will also have access to Ameritrade’s online market research and customized e-mail alerts.

Mr. Ricketts said this is the first of many partnerships with 401(k) providers that Ameritrade plans.


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