Employers want to keep ex-workers' 401k's Retiring and even laid-off workers are finding that their old bosses don't want them to leave their retirement plans. But big IRA players are after their nest eggs, too. [Related content: 401k, funds, IRA, retirement, financial planning] By The Wall Street Journal Attention, workers: A battle is brewing over your 401k. A number of people who are changing jobs, being laid off or retiring are finding themselves in a tug of war between their former employers and investment firms eager to win their business. At stake: almost $400 billion of assets in 401k's and similar retirement plans that are eligible to be rolled over into other vehicles this year, according to Allianz's Pacific Investment Management, or Pimco. Can you retire without a 401k? When an employee leaves a job, he or she is generally free to roll over certain retirement accounts like a 401k into an individual retirement account. But many employers are now trying to hang on to their 401k participants. Find a broker who's right for you Some plan providers and employers, including International Paper (IP, news, msgs), are dangling carrots like low-cost investment options, financial planning or annuitylike products. Others are using sticks, criticizing IRA rollover advertisements or dragging their feet when workers ask for withdrawals. A few, such as National Football League, have even erected barriers to keep people in their plans for a certain number of years. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says a rule change "could be considered as part of a new collective bargaining agreement." Big IRA players are fighting back. Charles Schwab, Fidelity Investments, Scottrade and other firms in recent months have rolled out new online calculators, blogs and other features in an effort to boost their IRA business. Some firms even shower investors with cash to attract rollover dollars. TD Ameritrade and E-Trade Financial, for example, are offering up to $500 to people who sign on. Change in strategy Historically, most employers have been happy to see retirees and job-changers take 401k balances with them, in part because of the headaches involved in keeping them in the plans. But that is changing. According to a survey by management consultant Casey Quirk & Associates, roughly two-thirds of plans with more than $1 billion in assets said they want to retain worker accounts after retirement. The result "was a shocker," says Ben Phillips, a partner at the firm. It all adds up to confusion for many workers. Scott Madden, 46, of Portland, Ore., left his job as a project manager for a software company in mid-March, but his 401k, with $240,000 in assets, is sitting with his old employer. Madden is leaning toward rolling over that money to a traditional IRA but has also considered a Roth, which would mean paying taxes up front but getting future tax-free withdrawals. He got a brochure from his 401k plan provider highlighting the benefits of leaving his money where it is, but he isn't convinced that that is the best option. "The most difficult thing about retirement is all these suppositions you have to make" about tax rates, expected returns and other factors, Madden says. Having maxed out his 401k for the past 15 years, he says, "I like to have my future secure, and I'm having a hard time doing that" because of all the uncertainties. Should you convert to a Roth IRA? Investors deciding what to do with an old 401k must consider a range of factors, from fees and investment options to potential future tax-rate changes. Though the 401k plan may offer investment choices not otherwise available to individual investors, it may also offer a more limited menu overall, with just a couple of dozen choices. A 401k plan's fees can also be difficult to decipher. And some workers may simply have more trust in a longtime employer than in a financial-services firm seeking to attract their IRA business. New tools are emerging to help investors weigh their options. BrightScope, a retirement-plan research firm, earlier this year introduced a "personal 401k fee report," which offers a quick snapshot of plan costs and how they'll affect a nest egg over the long haul. (See "How does your 401k measure up?") Users can then compare these costs to their IRA alternatives. Employers want to hang on to workers' money for several reasons. The larger the plan's assets, generally, the lower the fees employers can negotiate with plan providers and fund firms like Fidelity, T. Rowe Price Group and Vanguard. A bigger asset base also helps employers get nonmutual fund options such as collective funds, which often have lower costs, and more customized investments, including target-date funds composed of other funds on the plan's menu. (See "Funds for newbies cut back on risk" for more on target-date funds.) With employers seeing the start of the baby-boomer retirement wave, large plans "realized they weren't going to be so large anymore and wouldn't get the same level of price breaks," says Casey Quirk's Phillips. Regulators and lawmakers have lately lent a hand to employers. The Labor and Treasury departments in February asked for public comments on the notion of providing annuities and other income-producing products in employer-sponsored retirement plans. And after being lobbied by groups representing plan providers and employers, the Senate in March passed a measure that would allow certain 401k assets to be converted to Roth 401k's. Currently, workers can convert existing retirement-plan savings to Roth accounts only using IRAs.