(Adds details, consultant comment about Wal-Mart's plan)
By Lauren Young and Jessica Toonkel
June 20 (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) is considering bids from retirement plan managers to run its $15.6 billion 401(k) program, which has been administered by Bank of America's (BAC.N) Merrill Lynch unit for the past 15 years, according to three sources familiar with the situation.
The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer is talking to Wells Fargo & Co's (WFC.N) retirement division about managing the program, the largest U.S. private sector plan, said the sources, who wished to remain anonymous because they are not permitted to speak to the media. Bank of America is also in the running, they said. It was unclear if other plan providers were also being considered.
Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Wal-Mart declined to comment.
While Wal-Mart accounts are much smaller than the average retirement account, the sheer size of the company makes it a coveted - and closely watched - client in the retirement industry. It could not be learned when Wal-Mart last conducted a similar review, but retirement plan administration mandates rarely come up for grabs.
Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has more 1.2 million people participating in its retirement plan, which has an average account balance of $15,000, according to BrightScope, which tracks and rates retirement plans.
By contrast, the typical retirement account in a plan with more than 10,000 participants had an average account balance of more than $63,000 at the end of 2011, the latest data available from the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
BrightScope, which ranks retirement plans, currently rates Wal-Mart's 401(k) plan as average compared to its peers, noting that it has very low management fees, average participation but small account balances.
The account sizes along with the high-turnover nature of Wal-Mart's vast retail workforce has caused some providers to bow out of bidding to oversee Wal-Mart's plan, said Martin Schmidt, an independent retirement plan consultant in Chicago. He declined to name the providers other than to say that they serve "the mega-plan space."
(Reporting by Lauren Young and Jessica Toonkel in New York; Editing by Gary Hill and Kenneth Barry; Follow us @ReutersMoney or here)
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