Saturday, June 16, 2007

Caveat Emptor


A couple of weeks ago my better half told me that she thought it was time that we traded in two of our aging vehicles – one a car that is too small for our family, the other a van that now seems too big for all but cross-country trips – for something in the middle. I was amenable to the idea – until she mentioned that she didn’t think we needed to buy a new vehicle as a replacement.

If you have ever in your life purchased a “pre-owned” anything, you’ll appreciate the dangers inherent in the principle of caveat emptor, literally “let the buyer beware.” That’s why, to this day, the notion of purchasing a used car practically causes me to break out in cold sweats. Not that lemons don’t roll off the new car lots every day – but there, at least, it seems that your odds are better – if not in terms of product, at least of obtaining satisfaction if something doesn’t work out.

Buying a used car is, of course, as much art as science – particularly if you aren’t mechanically inclined. That’s why it has become fairly common to enlist the support of a trusted mechanic to assess the reliability of a potential vehicle purchase. Of course that works only if you actually HAVE a trusted mechanic to rely on. In my experience, the only way – outside of a personal relationship - for a mechanic to have earned that trust is for you to have spent a lot of time at the garage (which, of course, may be why you are looking for a different vehicle in the first place).

Plan sponsors are increasingly looking for guidance on what constitutes reasonable, and – spurred by the flurry of recent 401(k) plan lawsuits, and the increasing level of scrutiny applied by regulators and lawmakers – have, logically, tended to be dominated by a focus on fees.

It’s hard to argue with the “clarity” of that focus, but what do you think would be the result if my used car purchase used cost as the only criteria? All things being equal, cost may be a perfectly adequate point of differentiation, but all things are seldom “equal”. When it comes to used cars, common sense dictates that a vehicle in better condition could well be worth more than an identical make and model that has been handled roughly. And we all know of “cheap” car purchases that have more than made up for that initial price differential in terms of subsequent trips to the repair shop.

Things are even more complicated with retirement plans, where plan design flaws are often obscured, and where subtle restrictions and operational limitations don’t appear until well after that finals presentation. Fortunately, ERISA doesn’t require “cheapest.” However, it does call for plan fiduciaries to make decisions that are solely in the best interests of plan participants and beneficiaries, to ensure that those decisions culminate in the selection of services (and fees for those services) that are “reasonable” – and to do so with the insights and perspective of an expert in such matters, or to enlist the support of those who are.

Failing that – “caveat emptor’.

Nevin E. Adams, JD

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