If You Bought In to TIAA Based on Reputation, Check Your Accounts

For years, TIAA has nurtured a perception among its clients that it is different from a typical profit-seeking financial services firm.

Its literature and advertising touted its “mission-based approach” and “nonprofit heritage,” leading many of its customers — typically professors, private-school teachers, hospital employees and similar workers — to believe TIAA took more benevolent approach.

But now, some of TIAA’s business practices are being called into question, after several legal filings and a whistle-blower complaint accused the company of pushing its salespeople to promote its own products and services, which generate higher fees, according to a New York Times article published last month. The whistle-blower also asserted that TIAA advisers had been told to exploit customer fears.

In response, the New York attorney general has subpoenaed TIAA and has sought information related to its sales practices.

That has led some who hold accounts at TIAA to take a closer look at their own investments. As the largest administrator of retirement accounts known as 403(b) plans, TIAA hold $341 billion in assets — 40 percent of the market, according to the data analytics firm Cerulli. These accounts are similar to 401(k)’s but used largely by workers in education, health care, religious institutions and other nonprofits.

“I can see how the advertising/marketing wording might lead someone to infer TIAA acts in the interest of participants,” said Richard Shafer, a former TIAA executive who managed its services on the West Coast before leaving the company in 2005. “Not so.”

“They are a business, with goals and objectives for the benefit of TIAA,” added Mr. Shafer, executive director of Well and Good, an adviser to retirement plans. “If TIAA’s goals and objectives happen to align with a professor’s, great. Caveat emptor.”

Chad Peterson, a spokesman for TIAA, said that as a result of the questions raised by The Times, it has begun “a thorough review to ensure its actions and sales practices are aligned with our mission and values.”

Source: NY Times

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