A new MassMutual Financial Group unit is offering a supermarket selection of mutual funds for 401(k) plans.

Such a choice has never before been available to 401(k) customers, says J. Spencer Williams, president and chief executive officer of the unit, Persumma Financial in Newton, Mass.

Persumma was launched Oct. 1. Like several other 401(k) providers, it offers online trading as well as 24-hour access to account information. Unlike the others, though, it provides access to over 1,500 mutual funds.

Persumma will push none of them. It will, however, provide online advice, from Morningstar Inc.’s online ClearFuture planning service.

The MassMutual service is now being offered only to companies with over 1,000 employees, but plans are to eventually let smaller companies in.

R. Theodore Benna, a consultant to Persumma, is the retirement analyst credited with creating the first 401(k) plan in 1972. He says many participants in 401(k) plans “are upset by the lack of control they have” over them.

“If the employer is bought and the new company has a different 401(k) provider, they are shifted, because it is simpler to manage one set of funds,” Mr. Benna said.

Mr. Williams said a selection like Persumma’s can also help employers. “Employers who sponsor 401(k) plans are often in a no-win situation with their employees,” he said. “Employees are a diverse group; there just isn’t one size that fits all.”

The 401(k) market has changed a lot, Mr. Williams observed. He pointed out that in the past 20 years, according to a survey by Cerulli Associates, the number of 401(k)-related mutual funds has grown from 600 to 10,000 and their total assets from $100 billion to more than $6 trillion.

Several analysts expressed skepticism about the Persumma strategy. Dallas Salisbury, chief executive officer of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, said limited choice helps employees make better investment decisions.

If Persumma-like options were “desirable and doable,” he said, many employers and employees would have demanded them — and they have not.

Also, for companies with more than 1,000 employees, investment companies like Vanguard Group and Fidelity Investments are willing to create plans to whatever specifications the sponsor wants, including a wide selection of their own funds, Mr. Salisbury said.

But Mr. Benna and Mr. Williams insisted such plans are still too restrictive. “We are not offering any ‘first row’ of funds,” Mr. Williams said. “People are tired of having products pushed at them. We are dealing with an educated society that knows mutual funds.”

Furthermore, he said, Persumma’s selection frees the employer from worrying about which funds to offer.

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