Saturday, August 27, 2016

How the Class of 2020’s Retirement Plans Will Be Different

Each year the good folks at Beloit College produce a “Mindset List” providing a look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students about to enter college. So, in what ways will their retirement plans differ from those of their parents?

In the most recent list (they’ve been doing it since 1998), the Beloit Mindset List notes that for the class of 2020 (among other things):
  • There has always been a digital swap meet called eBay.
  • They never heard Harry Caray try to sing during the seventh inning at Wrigley Field.
  • Vladimir Putin has always been calling the shots at the Kremlin.
  • Elian Gonzalez, who would like to visit the U.S. again someday, has always been back in Cuba.
  • The Ali/Frazier boxing match for their generation was between the daughters of Muhammad and Joe.
  • NFL coaches have always had the opportunity to throw a red flag and question the ref.
  • Snowboarding has always been an Olympic sport.
  • John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired.
So, what about their retirement plans? Well, for the Class of 2020:
  • There have always been 401(k)s.
  • They’ve always had a Roth option available to them (401(k) or IRA).
  • They’ve always worried that Social Security wouldn’t be available to pay benefits (in that, they’re much like their parents at their age).
  • They’ve always had a call center to reach out to with questions about their retirement plan.
  • They’ve never had to wait to be eligible to start saving in their 401(k) (their parents generally had to wait a year).
  • They’ve never had to sign up for their 401(k) plan (their 401(k) automatically enrolls new hires).
  • They’ve never had to make an investment choice in their 401(k) plan (their 401(k) has long had a QDIA default option).
  • They’ve always had fee information available to them on their 401(k) statement (it remains to be seen if they’ll understand it any better than their parents).
  • They’ve always known what their 401(k) balance would equal in monthly installment payments.
  • They’ve always had an advisor available to answer their questions.
Most importantly, they’ll have the advantage of time, a full career to save and build, to save at higher rates, and to invest more efficiently and effectively.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Boiling Points

One could hardly read the headlines this past week without experiencing a certain sense of déjà vu.

After all, it’s been not quite 10 years since the then relatively obscure St. Louis-based law firm of Schlichter, Bogard & Denton launched about a dozen of what have come to be referred to as “excessive fee” lawsuits.

Not that the recent batch of suits targeting multi-billion dollar university plans are a mere recounting of the charges leveled against their private sector counterparts. No, in the years since then the Schlichter law firm has sharpened their pencils, and their criticism. Those early suits focused on what, in comparison to the most recent waves, seem almost quaintly simplistic: allegedly undisclosed revenue-sharing practices, the use of non-institutional class shares by large 401(k) plans, the apparent lack of participant disclosure of hard-dollar fees (which even then were disclosed to regulators), and even the presentation of ostensibly passive funds as actively managed.

In the lawsuits that have been filed in recent months, it’s no longer enough to offer institutional class shares — one must now consider the (potentially) even less expensive alternatives of separately managed accounts and collective trusts. Actively managed fund options are routinely disparaged, while the only reasonable fee structure for recordkeeping fees is declared to be a per participant charge. The use of proprietary fund options, rather than being viewed as a testament to the organization’s confidence in its investment management acumen, is portrayed as a de facto fiduciary violation since the investment management fees associated with those options inure to the benefit of the firm sponsoring the plan.

The most recent suits targeting university plans add to the standard charges leveled against 401(k) plans some that are peculiar to that universe — notably providing a “dizzying” array of fund options that plaintiffs claim results not only in participant paralysis, but in the obfuscation of fees and the decision to employ multiple recordkeepers. The proof statement that these practices are inappropriate? Comparisons with the standards and averages of 401(k) plans.

Overlooked in the burst of headlines and allegations is that we know very little about these plans other than what the plaintiffs allege. We aren’t told anything about the employer match, for instance, not to mention participant rates, nor is the subject of outcomes mentioned. We know nothing of the services rendered for these fees, only that, of the investment funds on the menu, cheaper and ostensibly comparable alternatives were available. The plaintiffs’ argument seems to be, if there were cheaper alternatives available, the ones chosen were, by definition, unreasonable, regardless of the services provided.

One other thing overlooked in the burst of lawsuits is that precious few of these cases have actually made their way to trial, and that among those that have, on the issues of fund choices and fund pricing, the courts seemed inclined to give the plan fiduciaries the benefit of the doubt. The Schlichter firm’s own press releases now not only tout the 20 such complaints the firm had filed as of early August, but that in 2009 they “won the only full trial of an 401(k) excessive fee case.” A case in which the attorney fees turned out to be more than triple that of the recovery won by plaintiffs. But if the record at trial is more checkered than many appreciate, plan fiduciaries can’t ignore the fact that in the lawsuits it has brought, the Schlichter firm has succeeded in securing nine settlements.

A popular aphorism holds that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately hop out, recognizing the peril that that water represents. But if you put the same frog in a pot of cold water and then slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will stay put, since the danger creeps up on it in a less noticeable fashion.

Perhaps that explains why, 10 years after the first claims were filed, so many multi-billion dollar retirement plans still remain vulnerable.

Though by now, that fiduciary pot is surely boiling — and has been for some time.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, August 06, 2016

5 Ways Industry Surveys Can Be Misleading

As human beings, we’re drawn to perspectives, including surveys and studies that validate our sense of the world. This “confirmation bias,” as it’s called, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. It also tends to make us discount findings that run afoul of our existing beliefs.

In its simplest terms then, when you see a headline that confirms your sense of the world, you’ll be naturally inclined to embrace and remember it as a validation of what you already perceive reality to be. Even if the grounds supporting that premise are shaky, sketchy, or (shudder) downright scurrilous.

Here are some things to look for – likely in the fine print – as you evaluate those findings.

There can be a difference between what people say they will (or might) do and what they actually will.

No matter how well targeted they are, surveys (and studies that incorporate the outcome of surveys) must rely on what individuals tell us they will do in specific circumstances, particularly in circumstances where the decision is hypothetical. When you’re dealing with something that hasn’t actually occurred, there’s not much help for that, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, once given an opportunity to act on the actual choice(s), people act differently than their response to a survey might suggest.

For example, people tend to be less prone to action in reality than they indicate they will be – inertia being one of the most powerful forces in human nature, apparently. Also, sometimes survey respondents indicate a preference for what they think is the “right” answer, or what they think the individual conducting the survey expects, rather than what they actually think. That, of course, is why the positioning and framing of the question can be so important (as a side note, whenever possible, it helps to see the actual questions asked, and the responses available).

The bottom line is that when what people tell you they will do, or even what kind of product they would like to buy, if you later find that they don’t, just remember that there may be more powerful forces at work.

There can be a difference between what people think they have and reality.

Since, particularly with retirement plans, there are so few good sources of data at the participant level, much of what gets picked up in academic research is based on information that is “self-reported,” which is to say, it’s what people tell the people taking the survey. The most prevalent is, perhaps, the Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF), conducted by the Federal Reserve every three years.

The source is certainly credible, but the basis is phone interviews with individuals about a variety of aspects of their financial status, including a few questions on their retirement savings, expectations about pensions, etc. In that sense, it tells you what the individuals surveyed have (or perhaps wish they had), but not necessarily what they actually have.

Perhaps more significantly, the SCF surveys different people every three years, so be wary of the trendlines that are drawn from its findings – such as increases or decreases in retirement savings. Those who do are comparing apples and oranges – more precisely the savings of one group of individuals to a completely different group of people… three years later.

The survey sample size and composition matter.

Especially when people position their findings as representative of a particular group, you want to make sure that that group is, in fact, adequately represented. Perhaps needless to say, the smaller the sampling size – or the larger the statistical error – the less reliable the results.

Case in point: Several months ago, I stumbled across a survey that purported to capture a big shift in advisors’ response to the Labor Department’s fiduciary regulation. Except that between the two points in time when they assessed the shift in sentiment, they wound up talking to two completely different types of advisors. So, while the surveying firm – and the instrument – were ostensibly the same, the conclusions drawn as a shift in sentiment could have been nothing more than a difference in perspective between two completely different groups of people.

Consider the source.

Human beings have certain biases – and so do the organizations that conduct and pay to surveys and studies conducted. Not that sponsored research can’t provide valuable insights. But approach with caution the conclusions drawn by those that tell you that everybody wants to buy the type of product offered by the firm(s) that have underwritten the survey.

When you ask may matter as much as what you ask.

Objective surveys can be complicated instruments to create, and identifying and garnering responses from the “right” audiences can be an even more challenging undertaking. That said, people’s perspectives on certain issues are often influenced by events around them – and a question asked in January can generate an entirely different response even a month later, much less a year after the fact.

For example, a 2015 survey of plan sponsor sentiment on a topic like 401(k) fee litigation is unlikely to produce identical results to one conducted in the past 30 days, nor would an advisor survey about the fiduciary regulation prior to the publication of the final rule as to its impact. Down in those footnotes about sample size/composition, you’ll likely find an indication as to when the survey was conducted. There’s nothing wrong with recycling survey results, properly disclosed. But things do change, and you need to be careful about any conclusions drawn from old data.

Not to mention the conclusions you might be otherwise inclined to draw from conclusions about old data.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also:

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Pension Protection Perspective

It’s hard to believe, but the Pension Protection Act of 2006 will be a decade old next month. And it’s probably done more good for the nation’s retirement security than most realize.

The PPA drew its name from the portions targeted at shoring up defined benefit plans (and PBGC funding, I suppose), though at the time I remember most people thinking it was an ironic name, in that it may have been intended to secure the pensions that were already in existence, but might well accelerate the demise of some on the cusp, and in any event was unlikely to help spur any new growth in that area. Some went so far as to call it the Pension Destruction Act.

Indeed, at a recent panel session featuring the perspectives of a number of the Hill staffers who shepherded the at times controversial legislation through its passage, the emphasis was largely on the DB aspects that, though well-intentioned, had been overwhelmed (if not undermined) by the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and the “historically low” interest rate environment that continues to pressure pension funding to this day.

DC Developments

In contrast, the aftermath of the PPA on the defined contribution side has been nothing short of extraordinary. Sure it was all voluntary – the use of carrots like safe harbors for automatic enrollment, rather than the sticks that accompanied the DB provisions. And yet, seemingly overnight, and without a government mandate or regulatory imperative, the decades-old concept of “negative election” (now “rebranded” as automatic enrollment) became part of every credible retirement plan advisor’s toolkit.

Without relying on a mandate to impose its will, nearly overnight the paradigm on automatic enrollment shifted. Sure, it’s still far more common among larger employers than those downstream – and yet, those larger plans are where most participants are. And if the adoption of contribution acceleration has lagged behind automatic enrollment, it is nonetheless far more advanced than it would have been in the absence of the PPA.

For my money, the biggest long-term positive impact of all may have been the rapid expansion of the qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) as the plan default investment option. One need look no further than the millions of dollars in retirement savings that have been channeled into a range of professionally managed asset allocation solutions to appreciate the impact that change has had. All have significantly and positively moved the needle in helping enhance the ultimate financial security of thousands, if not millions, of American workers.

‘Staying’ Power

However, perhaps the most-overlooked, if not underappreciated, aspect of the PPA was that it made permanent the retirement savings incentives enacted under the Economic Growth And Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), including annual contribution limits for IRAs, Roth 401(k) plans, enhanced portability of retirement benefits, and reduced administrative burdens on plan sponsors. Without that support, all the gains made on those provisions would have fallen back. The PPA also made the Saver’s Credit permanent, as well as resolving legal uncertainty surrounding cash balance plans, and requiring DC plans to permit employees to diversify out of investments in employer securities if the securities are publicly traded.

The work is not done, of course. Innovative retirement income offerings continue to be introduced, but can’t seem to find traction, the focus on outcomes (these days generally under the banner of financial wellness) is still nascent, and the challenges of compliance with the DOL’s new fiduciary regulation lie ahead.

With so much progress made – and yet so much yet to be achieved – it may seem naïve in this exceedingly unusual election year to hold out hope that the nation’s legislative bodies could put their heads together and work together as constructively as they did just a decade ago.

But one can (still) hope.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

3 Things Retirement Savers Can Learn from Pokémon Go

If you’re a Millennial (or know one), you’ve surely heard about (or seen in action) the recent outbreak of Pokémon Go.

It’s not even a week old, but it’s quickly dominating social media. If you’ve managed to avoid the media barrage, it’s a new (free) interactive online game that builds on the basics of the Pokémon card and video games past – catching Pokémon, battling at Gyms, using items, evolving your creatures. These creatures (151 unique ones at present) have even been spotted hanging out with a certain renowned ERISA attorney (see below)!

The object of the game is to find these Pokémon (they’re fictional animals – the name is said to be from a contracted Romanization of the Japanese Poketto Monsuta, a.k.a. “pocket monsters”), and then catch them, by throwing a sphere called a Pokéball in their general direction, after which they can grow via battles with other Pokémon in Gyms, and then do battles with still yet more Pokémon in Gyms, etc. All of which is to the benefit of their trainer – you. With Pokémon Go, players can download the free app, then head outdoors using a GPS map in search of Pokémon, using their camera to view creatures “in the wild” and capture them.

Now that we’ve gotten you up to speed on the basics, here are some things that will help you in Pokémon Go and saving for retirement.

Your odds improve if you take action.

Pokémon Go character (left) and human ERISA attorney (right)Though video games have long been criticized for keeping young players indoors, Pokémon Go draws players out into the real world. You can find “wild” Pokémon by physically walking around your area, and looking near what are called “PokéStops,” which tend to be tourist spots, malls or even churches. If you’re looking to hatch some Pokémon eggs, you have to walk to do that as well! You can play it without going outside, but you won’t do nearly as well.
Pokémon character (left) and human ERISA attorney (right)

Lots of workplace retirement plans still rely on voluntary enrollment, which is to say you have to fill out a form to join the plan. Unfortunately, in those plans, if you don’t sign up, you don’t participate.

A growing number of plans do provide for automatic enrollment, which means that you get signed up for the plan unless you fill out a form to opt out. That’s a good thing for folks who are busy, lazy, or are simply befuddled by the choices that you have to make with a voluntary plan (how much to save, how to invest it, who you’d like your beneficiary to be). However, there is a catch: Most of the automatic enrollment plans assume that a 3% contribution from your pay. And, regardless of your pay level or age, that’s almost certainly not going to be “enough” to provide a financially secure retirement.

Said another way, it’s not very “evolved” thinking…

Contributing more can get you to the finish line faster.

Pokémon Go is free – and you don’t need to spend a cent to pick up Pokémon, battle them, accumulate points, and even hatch the new ones. That said, we lead busy lives (yes, even those who find time to play Pokémon Go), and for those who want to get “there” faster, there are ways to do so by spending a little money.

There is, as you might expect, a shop where you can purchase all manner of coin bundles for real-world cash, which can then be traded for Pokémon-luring Incense, more Pokéballs and a few other things. If you’re in a hurry to “catch ‘em all!” And would rather spend money than time.

Saving for retirement doesn’t have to be a big financial commitment (depending on how much you need, and how long you have to save), though it can be if you put it off, or don’t establish a goal that suitable for the amount you need and the time you have to set it aside. Those who would like to get to that point sooner can, of course, “spend” more on retirement by setting aside larger contributions, sooner.

Every so often you need to look where you’re going.

Apparently one of the dangers of the new Pokémon Go is that game players have been spotted looking at nothing but their smartphone screens while they walk around looking for new Pokémons. This even when they are crossing highways, walking over bridges, travelling near bodies of water or – in at least one case – frequently empty parking lots where individuals looking to separate them from their money have been lurking. The bottom line – players are advised to be aware of their surroundings as they search for Pokémon.

When it comes to saving for retirement, whether you’re in an automatic enrollment plan (where the initial investment decision is likely made for you, and directed to a target-date fund), or a voluntary enrollment plan (where you may have made the initial decision, perhaps with some help, but probably haven’t looked at it in a while), those initial investment decisions – however ably made – should be revisited from time to time, at least once a year. The markets are always moving, after all – and that perfect choice of investments has likely shifted over time.

More importantly, you need to keep an eye on how your total savings is adding up to your retirement savings goals, and perhaps make adjustments to the amount you are saving.

After all, even if you get off to a good start, if you don’t look where you’re going, it’s easy to wander off the path and find yourself in trouble.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, July 02, 2016

4 Things Plan Fiduciaries Have in Common With the 2nd Continental Congress

Anyone who has ever found their grand idea shackled to the deliberations of a committee, or who has had to kowtow to the sensibilities of a recalcitrant compliance department, can empathize with the process that produced the Declaration of Independence we’ll commemorate on the Fourth.

That said, I think there are things that today’s investment/plan committee share with, and can learn from, the experience of those forefathers who crafted and signed the document declaring our nation’s independence.

It’s hard to break with the status quo.

By the time the Second Continental Congress convened, the “shot heard round the world” had already been fired at Lexington, but many of the representatives there still held out hope for some kind of peaceful reconciliation, even as they authorized an army and put George Washington at its helm. Little wonder that, even in the midst of hostilities, there was a strong inclination on the part of several key individuals to put things back the way they had been, to patch them over, rather than to break things off, and take on the world’s most accomplished military force.

However, even those who were ready to declare independence weren’t of a single mind on how it should be done, or how those intentions expressed. Committee work is the art of compromise – and had those varying voices not been accommodated, the status quo would likely have prevailed.

As human beings we are largely predisposed to leaving things the way they are, rather than making abrupt and dramatic change. Whether this “inertia” comes from a fear of the unknown, a certain laziness about the extra work that might be required, or a sense that advocating change suggests an admission that there was something “wrong” before, it seems fair to say that plan sponsors are, in the absence of a compelling reason for change, inclined to rationalize staying put.

As a consequence, you see new fund options added, while old and unsatisfactory funds linger on the plan menu, a general reluctance to undertake an evaluation of long-standing providers in the absence of severe service issues, and an overall inertia when it comes to adopting potentially disruptive plan features like automatic enrollment or deferral acceleration.

While many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were restricted by the entities that appointed them in terms of how they could vote on the issues presented, plan fiduciaries don’t have that option. Their decisions are bound to an obligation that those decisions be made solely in the best interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries – regardless of any other organizational or personal obligations they may have outside their committee role.

Selection of committee members is crucial.

The Second Continental Congress was comprised of representatives from what amounted to 13 different governments, with everything from extralegal conventions, ad hoc committees, and elected assemblies relied upon to name the delegates. Delegates who, despite the variety of assemblages that chose them, were in several key circumstances, bound in their voting by the instructions given to them. Needless to say, that made reaching consensus on the issues even more complicated than it might have been in “ordinary” circumstances.

Today the process of putting together an investment or plan committee runs the gamut – everything from simply extrapolating roles from an organization chart to a random assortment of individuals to a thoughtful consideration of individuals and their qualifications to act as a plan fiduciary. But if you want a good result, you need to have the right individuals – and if those individuals lack the requisite knowledge on a particular issue, they need to access that expertise from individuals who do.

It’s important to put it in writing.

While the Declaration of Independence technically had no legal effect, with the possible exception of the Gettysburg Address (which was heavily inspired by the former), its impact not only on the establishment of the United States, but as a social and political inspiration for many throughout the world is unquestioned, and perhaps unprecedented. Putting that declaration – and the sentiments expressed – in writing gave it a force and influence far beyond its original purpose.

As for plan fiduciaries, there is an old ERISA adage that says, “prudence is process.” However, an updated version of that adage might be “prudence is process – but only if you can prove it.” To that end, a written record of the activities of plan committee(s) is an essential ingredient in validating not only the results, but also the thought process behind those deliberations. More significantly, those minutes can provide committee members – both past and future – with a sense of the environment at the time decisions were made, the alternatives presented and the rationale offered for each, as well as what those decisions were.

They also can be an invaluable tool in reassessing those decisions at the appropriate time(s) in the future and making adjustments as warranted – properly documented, of course.

Committee members should understand their obligations – and the risks.

The men that gathered in Philadelphia that summer of 1776 to bring together a new nation came from all walks of life, but it seems fair to say that most had something to lose. True, many were merchants (some wealthy, including President of Congress John Hancock) already chafing under the tax burdens imposed by British rule, and perhaps they could see a day when their actions would accrue to their economic benefit. Still, they could hardly have undertaken that declaration of independence without a very real concern that in so doing they might well have signed their death warrants.

It’s not quite that serious for plan fiduciaries. However, as ERISA fiduciaries, they are personally liable, and may be required to restore any losses to the plan or to restore any profits gained through improper use of plan assets. And all fiduciaries have potential liability for the actions of their co-fiduciaries. For example, the Department of Labor notes that if a fiduciary knowingly participates in another fiduciary’s breach of responsibility, conceals the breach, or does not act to correct it, that fiduciary is liable as well. So, it’s a good idea to know who your co-fiduciaries are – and to keep an eye on what they do, and are permitted to do.

Indeed, plan fiduciaries would be well advised to bear in mind something that Ben Franklin is said to have remarked during the deliberations in Philadelphia: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Your Plan Might Be an Excessive Fee Litigation Target If…

Last week another of the so-called excessive fee lawsuits was settled – not adjudicated, mind you. Here are some factors that the targets of these lawsuits seem to have in common.

Now, in fairness, most of these cases haven’t actually gone to court – and, by my count, most of the ones that actually get to court are won by the employers/plan sponsors. Even the Tibble case, which drew so much attention when it made it to the Supreme Court, eventually came out in favor of the plan sponsors (though they “lost” the Supreme Court decision).

However, a lot of litigation has been filed over the past decade, and millions of dollars spent — reminding me of an old mentor’s admonition that you can spend a lot of money in court being “right.” That so many employers have decided that it is “cheaper” to settle for millions of dollars gives you some idea of the magnitude of these challenges.

So, with that in mind – and with apologies to Jeff (“you might be a redneck…”) Foxworthy: Your plan might be an excessive fee litigation target if…

It’s a multi-billion dollar plan.

Nearly all of the excessive fee lawsuits filed since 2006 (when the St. Louis-based law firm of Schlichter, Bogard & Denton launched the first batch) have been against plans that had close to, or in most cases in excess of, $1 billion in assets. There’s no real mystery here. Willie Sutton robbed banks for the same reason: that’s where the money is. And if you’re a class action litigator, that also happens to be where a large number of similarly situated individuals can be found.

Harder to figure out is why plans of that size, and the expertise/resources that such employers can ostensibly bring to plan administration, have been so vulnerable.

Your multi-billion dollar plan has retail class mutual funds.

Granted, even at the largest employers, individuals frequently find themselves assigned the responsibility for being a plan fiduciary with little or no training or background. Still, in this day and age, it’s remarkable that so many of these targets were either so ignorant of the concept of share classes or so poor at negotiating with their providers that they included options in their multi-billion dollar plan menus funds that were, in some cases, no more competitive in price than what the individual plan participants could have acquired in their IRA.

You have proprietary funds on your menu.

As a financial services provider, there are any number of valid business reasons to include your own funds on the menu you offer to your workers. It’s a testament to your willingness to “eat your own cooking,” a statement of confidence in the skill and acumen of your investment management staff.

However, this access can be used to prop up funds with steady cash flow that aren’t deserving of that confidence, and can provide at least the temptation on the part of committee members to favor internal offerings to the exclusion of external choices. Moreover, since it can be difficult politically to “fire” an internal service provider, the plan might find itself paying “retail” prices, not only for funds, but for administrative services – an issue that has been made in several of these lawsuits.

The bottom line: However outstanding your internal options are, the current litigation environment seems to favor a “Caesar’s wife” approach – your actions need to be above (and beyond) suspicion.

You can’t remember the last time you benchmarked your plan/investments.

Let’s face it, even changing a single fund on an existing menu can be complicated, much less a full blown consideration of changing record keepers and fund menus. And plan sponsors, even plan sponsors at multi-billion dollar plans, juggle myriad responsibilities and are constantly pulled in multiple directions. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a mantra born of practicality, if not necessity, for most. If the current process and services are working, that is often “enough.”

But if you haven’t been through some kind of competitive bidding/review process in recent memory – well, “it seems to be working” isn’t necessarily in keeping with the legal admonition to ensure that the services rendered and fees paid for those services are “reasonable” and in the best interests of plan participants and their beneficiaries.

And even if it is in the eyes of a judge, a motivated plaintiff’s bar can likely make an issue of it.

You are still paying asset-based record keeping charges, rather than a per-participant fee.

Okay, this is a new one. I don’t recall seeing this being an issue until this year – and though it has been alleged, and incorporated in a couple of the most recent settlements, to my recollection, no court has ever ruled on this.

That said, the current and apparently emerging argument is based on the notion that there is little correlation between record keeping services and the dollar value of that account. And the most recent litigation puts forth some fairly specific notions of what that reasonable per-participant charge should be. And did I mention that this has even been raised in some very recent litigation involving a $10 million plan?

You haven’t hired a qualified retirement plan advisor to help.

It’s possible that advisors have been involved in these plans, but to date I can only recall one situation where an advisor was involved/named (though not as a party to the litigation), and that more an investment consultant than an advisor, per se.

That said, when you look at the issues like share class selection, and the lack of regular review (not to mention documentation of that review) in many of these cases, you can’t help but think, “Where was the advisor?” The answer seems to be that these plans hadn’t engaged those services.

And then you can’t help but wonder what difference their involvement might have made.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD