The Real Cost of HSA Investment Fees

Cheaper is not always better

HSA, health savings accounts, retirementWhat a recent high-profile HSA report got wrong.

Morningstar may have given the right answer, but they asked the wrong question.

In its recent report, the 2017 Health Savings Account Landscape, Morningstar focused heavily on fund fees in its evaluation of HSA providers. This emphasis on fees echoes concerns I’ve heard from advisors when I’ve spoken at recent fi360 and PSCA conferences, among others.

Sensitivity to fees is understandable given the litigious environment and the DOL fiduciary rule. However, as advisors increasingly turn their focus towards the fast-growing HSA sector, they should take care not to view HSA fees through the same lens as 401k fees. Doing so could adversely affect how they guide their clients, not to mention their clients’ outcomes.

When it comes to investment choices, cheaper is not always better. For example, too much emphasis on fees can distort the judgment of whether a participant should allocate money to a 401k or an HSA.

If fees were equal, I believe virtually all advisors would buy into allocating participant benefit dollars first towards a 401k plan, but only in an amount sufficient to maximize any employer match; next towards an HSA up to the allowable maximum, to maximize long-term tax advantages; and finally, allocate remaining dollars to the 401k plan.

In real life, of course, fees are often not equal between 401ks and HSAs, and this has introduced some controversy to that second-stage allocation decision, the switch of dollars from 401ks to HSAs after the employer match has been maxed.

I’ve heard some advisors express concern about recommending this when fees on HSA investment options are higher, especially when those funds might be used for non-qualified medical expenses during retirement.

This is often the case because of share class differences between HSA and 401k plans. Doesn’t this give 401k plans an inherent advantage? Only for those participants who don’t mind paying more taxes.

Let’s take what I think is a reasonable example of the fee differential. Suppose an investment option in an HSA was 50 basis points higher than a comparable 401k option. “That’s outrageous,” you say. “Allocate the money to the 401k instead.” Well, not so fast.

Beyond the “triple tax advantage” of HSAs—money goes in pre-tax, grows free of tax, and can be withdrawn without income tax as long as it’s used for qualified medical expenses—there’s the fourth tax advantage, which is that money going into HSAs is excluded from Social Security and Medicare taxes. 401k contributions enjoy no such exemption.

This means that money going into an HSA saves 7.65 percent compared to money going into a 401k. Even if that participant then paid 50 basis points per year less in a 401k for investment options, it would still take over 15 years to recoup that initial 7.65 percent tax differential—and that doesn’t count the potential other advantages the HSA money would enjoy, such as no RMDs.

While the fiduciary rule has made advisors sensitive to fees, that legal standard is also not likely to look kindly on advisors who cause participants to pay excess taxes. Achieving a fraction of a percent in fee savings by allocating to a 401k rather than an HSA might not be in the best interest of investors if the tax consequences are much greater.

Furthermore, there is little doubt that over time HSA fees will come down. 401k plans are much larger and enjoy greater bargaining power, but HSAs are growing fast. Already, some platforms are offering HSA investment options at fees comparable to those of 401k menus, and other firms are bound to follow suit.

My issue with the Morningstar report is that an over-simplistic emphasis on fees could distort participant-level and plan-level decisions about HSAs. For one thing, comparisons with 401k offerings might steer participants away from the superior tax benefits of HSAs.

Also, HSA fees are structured differently from one platform to another, making the know-your-client fiduciary obligations more nuanced than a simple comparison of mutual fund fees.

For example, the trade-off between fixed-dollar platform charges and basis-point fund fees has different impacts on investors depending on their balances. Advisors may need to consider those details when making recommendations about HSA investments.

Finally, I am concerned that using 401k evaluation criteria as a standard for HSA plans could inhibit the evolution of HSA menu design. The implicit long-term liabilities of HSA investment programs are quite distinct from the general retirement liabilities funded by 401k plans, and menu design should reflect that. This relationship between liabilities and menu design is something I want to take up in a future column because the industry is going to have to take it up in a meaningful way if HSAs are to fulfill their potential.

David Snyder, CEO of Perspective Partners, is passionate about bringing holistic financial wellness solutions to retirement plan advisors, sponsors, and participants. We’ve helped hundreds of plan advisors to differentiate with industry-leading retirement readiness reports and software. Recognizing the convergence of health and wealth and the changing priorities of the C-suite, we launched NestUp Managed Deferrals to improve retirement readiness and lower healthcare costs by giving participants holistic decision support and execution for 401(k) and HSA savings.

2 Comments on "The Real Cost of HSA Investment Fees"

  1. Some one told me that the entire lump sum post 59 1/2 is tax free to withdraw for any reason. Is that true? Sounds crazy unbelievable if so.

  2. Joe, you’re right about “crazy unbelievable if so.” After age 65, HSA distributions used for a non-qualified medical expense (QME) are taxed just like 401(k) distributions are. HSAs are always tax free for a QME. If you remove the labels “HSA” and “401(k)” from the vehicles, the HSA beats the 401(k) except where there’s a company match. On top of that, there are estate planning benefits of HSAs over 401(k)s.

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