ASA 401k Plan Changes

Change is Good, Right?

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By now you have received notice that there are some changes happening within the ASA JPMorgan 401k plan. The good news is some of the funds are getting cheaper. The frustrating part is this should and could have happened a long time ago. It should also be known that your ALPA Retirement Committee was not made aware of these changes any earlier than your receipt of the JP Morgan Letter. This is frustrating as the pilot group is the largest contributor to the ASA 401k plan and should have input into their retirement choices.

Despite the secretive and abrupt nature of this change, I will help you dissect these changes and help you figure out what actions you should consider.


On the “no longer available to us list” are the American Century Ultra and American Funds Growth Fund of America funds. These funds have recently underperformed their peers and or the S&P 500. The replacement for these funds is the JP Morgan Large Cap Growth R6 fund. There are some key measurements that we can look at to dissect if this change is in the participants’ favor.

Alpha – This is the fund manager’s ability to beat the index. In this case the index would be the Russell 1000 or the S&P 500. The higher Alpha, the better. A negative Alpha means the manager has earned too little based on the risk of the investment.

Sharpe Ratio – Most fund managers take on additional risk outside of their assigned index in order to beat the index. Sharpe Ratio does not mean a whole lot by itself. When comparing two funds you want the one with the higher Sharpe Ratio. This means that the additional risk has paid off.

Standard Deviation – This measures the volatility (risk) of the fund from its average rate of return. Ideally an investor wants a high rate of return with little standard deviation, which is hard to find. One certainly does not want a low return with a high standard deviation; this means that risk is not being rewarded with return.

Using the key indicators above we can compare our new JP Morgan Growth Fund R6 to the two outgoing mutual funds.

The data above shows that the mandatory transition from Ultra and Growth Fund of America is not a bad move. Notice how the standard deviation (risk) is virtually the same for all funds yet the end results are very different. This reflects the portfolio managers’ stock picking ability. The American Century Ultra fund has been an underperformer for years. American Funds Growth Fund of America has good ten years risk/reward data; however, it has under performed its peers in the last three years.

As a side note, over the long term 10 + years very few managers actually beat their assigned index. This is why 401k plans that offer Vanguard Index Funds are very desirable. Currently Fed Ex, Hawaiian, SouthWest and United offer 401k plans with a Vanguard Index tier as additional investment options.


JP Morgan Large Cap Growth Fund holds 68 total stocks, compared to 310 in Growth Fund of America and 81 in Ultra. The JP Morgan fund has bought and sold (turned over) 84% of its portfolio over the last 12 months compared to 33% in Growth Fund of America and 24% in Ultra. The turnover percent within a fund is important as for every 100% in turnover adds 1.0 – 1.5% in fees paid by the participants.

The top five holdings (as of 9/30/2011) within each fund are as follows:

JP Morgan Growth Fund American Century Ultra Growth Fund of America
1. Apple 1. Apple 1. Apple
2. Amazon 2. Google 2. Oracle
3. JPM Money Mkt 3. Amazon 3. Amazon
4. IBM 4. Exxon Mobile 4. Apache
5. Cognizant Technology 5. Schlumberger 5. Union Pacific

Fee Changes

Other funds within the ASA 401k plan had fee changes and new tickers assigned.

The new fees average out to be 0.15% in average reductions with the largest change being 0.20% in three mutual funds. In all the funds listed above, the holdings, investment objective and managers remain the same. Only the share class (fee structure) changed. I will note here that the JP Morgan letter shows the JP Morgan Equity Index fee as going from 1.19% to 0.10% in the new index. This has to be a typo as the old fee is published as 0.20%.

Why Did the Changes Take Place?

I have taken many phone calls from plan participants asking why these changes have taken place and what this means to them. The why part is very simple. JP Morgan has been collecting annually an estimated $356,000 in administration fees ($88 per plan participant), which is included in $1,234,000 in fund fees (avg 0.79%).

These fees are not terribly out of line with a plan of our size; currently 155 million in assets.

In my opinion these fees could have been lowered years ago. However, the company certainly has more leverage recently because of the purchase of Express Jet. A joint ASA ExpressJet 401k plan is valued at $400+ million. JP Morgan wants that business and as a result has lowered its fees. With our new fee structure, JP Morgan will still be collecting $238,918 in administration fees ($59 per participant), which is included in $1,072,000 in fund fees (avg 0.69%) just on the ASA 401k, not including Express Jet’s 401k.

This is where competition and larger plan assets benefit the plan participant (you). While this is great news, there is still work to be done. Even though our fund expenses have dropped, we can still do much better.

Three Ways to Invest

There are three ways to invest in the stock market. I love Coca Cola, so lets use cola as an investment example.

I.  Stock

Let’s say we invest $5,000 into Coke stock. Then the evil people at Pepsi infiltrate Coke and poison the syrup.  People are now dying of Coke. What is your Coke stock worth? $0. This is called company risk.  We want to diversify away from company risk such as Enron, Global Crossing and many other bad companies in good industries. This is where mutual funds enter the picture.

II.  Mutual Fund

Investing in a mutual fund is pooling investor’s money together and hiring a fund manager to manage your money. In our cola example, let’s say that there are 50 cola companies in the US. The mutual fund does not know your personal objectives but does operate under a published objective. A mutual fund objective could be to invest in large cap US stocks or foreign bonds. In our example the fund manager is looking for the 20 best cola companies out of an industry of 50. This gives the investor diversification from company specific risk. The funds goal is to beat the index of 50 cola companies.

While very popular, mutual funds have drawbacks. Many of the mutual funds in the ASA 401k plan have over 100% in annual turn over. This means that the fund manager is buying and selling a lot through out the year. For every 100% in turnover we see an added 1.0 – 1.5% in fees. In our cola example, our fund manager would be buying and selling the cola stocks on a regular basis in an attempt to beat the cola index. This type of investing is considered “active” management.

III.  Index Fund

In today’s society we are programmed to think that we are all “winners.” In fact if you think that you are not a winner then you may be depressed and a doctor can proscribe you a pill for that. Applying this thinking to investing can create poor investing behavior. We see this in a study by the University of Maryland “False Discoveries in Mutual Fund Performance: Measuring Luck in Estimated Alphas” showing that only 0.06% of mutual funds beat their assigned index from 1975 to 2007.  This draws us to our third choice of investing, indexing.

Through Index Mutual Funds or Exchange Traded Funds investors now have the ability to purchase entire asset classes (large, mid or small caps) or sectors (US energy, foreign, real estate, etc.). In our example we could purchase the entire cola index through an index mutual fund or exchange traded fund. Index funds do not have fund managers as the fund is simply purchasing companies chosen by the index provider such as S&P or Russell. This type of investing is considered “passive” investing

A real world example of indexing would be purchasing the entire S&P 500 (500 US companies) through an index versus buying the JP Morgan Large Cap fund that only holds 68 companies. The JP Morgan Large Cap Fund has an expense ratio of 0.80%. The Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund costs 0.05%.  This cost savings adds up to significantly more money in the plan participants’ pocket at retirement. In this comparison the performance difference over the last 10 years is in the favor of the index fund. History and research show that for time periods greater than ten years, indexing continues to be favored.

Currently the ASA JP Morgan 401k plan has one Index fund – the JP Morgan Equity Index Select. It should be noted that in time periods under ten years, we could usually find good performing actively managed mutual funds. However, most of you are saving for time periods greater than 10 years. For you, keeping costs low, maintaining diversification and investing long term are your keys to success.

The current line-up of ASA Mutual Funds are some of the best performing actively managed funds to choose from. However, during our research we found that a low cost index portfolio using Vanguard index mutual funds is very competitive, especially with the cost savings.

Wiser Wealth recently researched 401k options that could be available to ASA and Express Jet employees. We found that switching 401k plan providers entirely should be considered as JP Morgan provides very poor guidance to ASA plan participants. However after the recent changes with JP Morgan, Sky West/ ASA seems committed to JP Morgan. This leads us to a less known option.

Vanguard Indexing Within the JP Morgan 401k Plan

ASA/Express Jet has the ability to add an “index tier” to the ASA JP Morgan 401k Plan. This simply means that in addition to the current line up of mutual funds plan participants would also be able to choose index funds representing cash, US Bonds, US large caps, US mid caps, US small caps, international developed markets and international emerging markets.

The benefit of an index tier is that it gives 401k participants (you) access to industry leading index funds, low cost investing, plan reduction of active manager risk and historically better performance. The company benefits, as well, in that offering index funds within a plan reduces their litigation risk. A recent court case suggests that having index funds within the plan lower the litigation risk for all plan fiduciaries.

Mike Lucci of Vanguard states,

Probably the biggest trend that we’ve seen recently is the idea of plan sponsors adding additional index funds to their fund lineup within their defined contribution plans, and in many cases actually pulling the index funds out away from the active funds to have a stand-alone index tier. So if you think back historically, plans have had, in many cases, a large-cap index, often times the S&P 500. What we’re seeing now are plan sponsors adding additional index funds to cover the fixed income area, round out the domestic equity area, and include an international fund as well to have that full lineup of index exposure across the entire fund lineup.
So I’d say the trend isn’t surprising given the increased scrutiny that we’re seeing from Congress and the Department of Labor. Plan sponsors are really trying to balance their fiduciary role with the needs of their participants, and adding this index tier is a great way to lower the overall costs of the program. 
Now I think we all realize that you can’t completely eliminate the risks associated with this, but an index tier does greatly reduce the manager risk associated with the plan, and, for participants, it provides broadly diversified, low-cost options within the plan”.

In closing, Wiser Wealth likes it anytime a plan sponsor (ASA/Express jet) lowers the cost of investing. The recent changes by the company were done with your best interests in mind. We hope that they would consider the benefits of adding indexing to the 401k plan. With a combined $400 million in 401k assets, government encouragement and a fiduciary responsibility to work in the best interest of all plan participants, there is certainly no reasonable rational reason anyone could say no.

See PDF version for more information on adding Vanguard to the JPM Plan.


By Published On: October 26, 2011

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