Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Enemy of the Good?

Over the past couple of years 401(k) evaluation service BrightScope has made quite a splash.

Early on, most folks I spoke with were quite keen on what was being undertaken by the firm. 401(k) fees were unfortunately still mystery meat to many plan sponsors, and thus a service that purported to help them make sense - not only of what they paid, but how it compared to other programs - looked to be a godsend.

As time has worn on, there have been questions and concerns. The data that underlaid Brightscope’s computations was drawn from government files – and while that made it “official”, it apparently didn’t always mean it was accurate, and it surely didn’t make it timely (though the latter is getting better all the time). Moreover, BrightScope employs a proprietary methodology that relies on certain weightings and assumptions that not everyone would agree with – but then, it’s a proprietary methodology, after all. If you don’t like it, or don’t think it does a fair job of representing the real situation, one has only to say so.

What made them different, at least at the outset, was that they went public with that information – and by public, we mean all the way to retail participants - with data for a vast number of plans, and with a good deal of press coverage, to boot.
That created a modest amount of consternation for some plan sponsors and advisers – not because they had a problem (though some surely did), but because the data presented to the public about their plan and its relative competitiveness vis-à-vis other programs (particularly on the sensitive issue of fees) was, as noted above, incomplete, inaccurate, and/or out of date. None of which the BrightScope folks contested, by the way. But in the couple of conversations I have had with them on the subject, their response has been “if our data is wrong, tell us and we’ll fix it.”


Last week BrightScope turned its attention to financial advisers with its BrightScope Advisor Pages; not to rank them or rate them (though who would be surprised to see that come to the fore one day – particularly since there are already placeholders for “qualifications”, “experience”, and “conduct” on the new adviser tool), but rather to provide information to the public. Data that, like the retirement plan information noted above, wasn’t in one place, wasn’t easy to find, and surely isn’t easy to understand for many. And then, as it had with the retirement plan analytics information that launched the firm, it rolled its adviser database out – to everyone.

Well, advisers are sensitive about such things (with good reason), and a number have already checked out the database and found “issues.” Mike Alfred, co-founder and CEO of BrightScope told me last week that “…many of the “errors” we’re being accused of are really just issues with the advisor’s ADV or U-4 which they did not notice until it was published in this format”. And, as was the case with the retirement plan filings, Mike noted that “Once we get the updated information from a public filing, we will always move quickly to have it updated on the site because our foremost concern is having accurate data”.

Of course, I’m guessing that getting “updated information from a public filing” isn’t an overnight process, and Mike acknowledged that the BrightScope team has been “slammed by a very large volume of incoming requests to claim the Advisor Pages profile as well as general messages of both support and dismay.” More troubling have been the published reports and emails from advisers who say they’ve been told they will have to pay to have their information corrected (or at least strongly encouraged to do so), though Alfred dismissed that as “totally untrue.”

Still, the public release of data that may be old, inaccurate, and/or outdated is surely cause for some concern, and hopefully speedy remediation by BrightScope, where appropriate.

After all, Voltaire once famously said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But IMHO, the real enemy of the good is more often “not ready yet”.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

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