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Have you ever wondered how your 401(k) stacks up against other company retirement plans? Now you have a chance to find out. A new independent rating service called Brightscope is starting to analyze and compare 401(k) plans nationwide. You can get those ratings free at their website, brightscope.com.

The 401(k) ratings are based on data gathered mainly from public filings, such as the company match, quality of the investment options, vesting schedule, and fees. After crunching the numbers, the San Diego-based firm awards a numerical score that reflects how quickly the plan will help the average participant—someone 44 years old who earns $42,000 a year—achieve a secure retirement. Each 401(k) plan is also compared to those offered by companies of the similar size in the same industry.

For example, Brightscope gives the National Fuel Gas Co. 401(k) plan a top score because of its generous match, low costs and high account balances, which average $240,000. By contrast, the Dominion Resources Transmission and Hope Gas Union Savings Plan, which is also in its peer group, ranks seven points lower, with an average account balance of $180,000. According to Brightscope, that seven points difference comes to $83,600 in lost savings, which means Dominion plan participants have to work up to three years longer in order to achieve the same level of retirement security.

“Up till now it’s been difficult for most participants to really find out how good their plans are,” says Brightscope co-CEO Mike Alfred, “We think these ratings will shine more light on the 401(k) industry and lead to more cost-effective plans.”

So far, BrightScope has rated roughly 1,000 of the largest U.S. 401(k) plans. Alfred, who runs the company with his brother, co-CEO Ryan Alfred, hopes to have ratings for plans covering two out of every three employees by the end of year. The company, which aims to provide independent analysis, intends to earn fees by providing reports to plan sponsors on how their 401(k)s rate compared to their competitors.

Brightscope’s ratings are still a work in progress. Some of the peer groups are narrow or include oddly matched companies. And because the plan data comes from government filings, it tends to be one to two years old. So if your employer recently dropped its matching contribution, that change probably will not be reflected in the ratings. Still, Brightscope is seeking to step up its game. If your company’s plan data is wrong, you can correct it. Or if your 401(k) is not rated, simply fill out an online request, which will enable Brightscope to acquire the public filings more quickly. And the ratings service will add the plan to its database. It’s neat way for plan participants to help improve their 401(k)s.

-- Penelope Wang