SAN FRANCISCO - Wells Fargo Nikko Investment Advisors has become the latest 401(k) player to provide online information to plan participants.
Six plan sponsors will begin testing Wells' Automated Net AnswerLine in the fourth quarter, said Alan Kizor, executive vice president of the firm's 401(k) MasterWorks program. They include MasterCard International, New York; Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., Pasadena, Calif.; and Cosmair Inc., Clark N.J.
ANA uses the Internet, and moves beyond the general information available from other vendors.
Other service providers make fund information and retirement planning help available on pages on the World Wide Web and in e-mail. But they don't yet provide individual account information or customized plan option details on the Net.
For example, Vanguard Group of Investment Cos., Valley Forge, Pa., is working on providing similar interactive online account access. But it is using private networks with access so far confined to employer workplace terminals. The Internet would be available at home and work.
With the Wells Fargo ANA system, plan participants can access their own account balances, performance information about their portfolios as well as all of the plan's options, asset allocation and contribution levels. General information about the features of the plan and its options, historical performance and other basic investment tools also are available. An e-mail function allows participants to reach a customer service representative.
Beginning in 1996, they can perform account transactions and change their asset allocation and contribution levels.
For its ANA system, Wells Fargo has created 265,000 personalized Internet sites for individual 401(k) accounts that are updated daily.
Protective security features include the use of Social Security and PIN numbers, separation of account and name information in all transmissions, and various aspects of the "firewall" technology used by Wells Fargo to provide security for retail banking customers.
"I think we'll see employers embracing this kind of technology at different rates and I think their employees will also take on technology like this at different speeds. But for some, they just can't wait. The Internet will provide broader and more convenient access for many workers in their homes, than other types of online plan account services," said Mr. Kizor.
Mr. Kizor said Wells Fargo decided on the Internet as a delivery system primarily for ease of use. "This way, we can handle delivery to any kind of equipment and to any kind of protocol. We don't dictate what an employer or an employee has to have on the user end. It's a more egalitarian solution for a company that doesn't want to or can't afford to install dedicated server equipment to implement this service," he said.
Using a different approach, the Vanguard Group is giving defined contribution plan participants even closer control of their accounts via Participant Online. This new, interactive participant education tool allows participants to obtain their account balance and asset allocation mixes from a desk-top terminal or in-office kiosk, as well as use retirement planning software to map savings goals.
Using World Wide Web technology, the educational content and interactive planning models are hosted on a WWW server located on Vanguard's private network. A high-speed communication link through a plan sponsor's network to Vanguard gives plan participants access to the service; a gateway connects to Vanguard's participant records.
Vanguard plans to make the service available through dial-up access from home PCs. Eventually, participants will be able to perform transactions and asset allocation changes directly on-line from home or work.