The Department of Labor may require 401(k) plan providers to give their clients detailed, uniform fee disclosures, a senior official said this week.

The department is developing a one-page form that providers-including banking, mutual fund, and insurance companies-would use to itemize the fees that corporate plan sponsors pay, said Robert Doyle, director of regulations and interpretations at the Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration.

Mr. Doyle, who spoke here Monday at a 401(k) conference sponsored by the American Bankers Association, stressed that no decision has been made and no timetable has been set for adopting a rule. He said the department will strive to make any form it adopts as unobtrusive as possible for plan providers.

Nevertheless, he said, there is a clear need for better information. Many providers do not itemize costs, which range from one-time start-up fees to annual payments, for current or prospective clients, he said. Plan sponsors could, therefore, imprudently choose a provider on the basis of what seems a competitive price.

Mr. Doyle said some providers have told plan sponsors that their services are free, but they are in effect hiding the fees.

The Labor Department, which began looking into 401(k) plan disclosures last November, has received input from industry groups including the ABA, which has submitted a sample of what a one-page fee disclosure could look like.

Banks administered 21% of 401(k) assets at the end of 1997, according to an annual study by Spectrem Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm. That placed them behind mutual fund companies, which had 42% market share, and insurance companies, with 22%.

If sponsors knew what they were paying for they could "bargain down" costs or "shop around," said Judith A. McCormick, senior trust counsel for the ABA.

She said that a disclosure form would be particularly beneficial to smaller companies that do not have the resources to investigate providers' fee structures.

Creating a standardized disclosure form will not be easy, observers said, in part because breaking down fees associated with 401(k) plans is an arduous task. Though the form submitted by the ABA is one page, the instructions take up seven pages. "It's like filling out a tax return," Ms. McCormick said.

What's more, it may be "difficult to get everyone to agree on a standard," said one mutual fund company representative who attended the conference.

Even Mr. Doyle expressed some doubt that the information could be boiled down to one page. Nonetheless, he said he was "fairly confident" that the Labor Department would follow up with the ABA. He said in an interview that it was premature to say when such a form might be adopted. "It's a concept that we believe is worth exploring," he said.

Meanwhile, some industry representatives who attended the conference said that uniformity was long overdue. "People really believe they are getting these services for free," one banker said.

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