Saturday, February 23, 2008

All For One

Looks like James LaRue will get his day in court, after all.

Last week’s Supreme Court result (see Justices OK Individual ERISA Suits in Landmark Ruling) could perhaps have been anticipated – certainly there has been little of late to suggest an interest in depriving participants of their right to sue - but the margin of victory – 9-0 – was striking.

The case - LaRue v. DeWolff – involved a participant that claimed he had instructed his plan administrator to transfer his balances to different funds. Those instructions were either ignored, or never presented in the first place, depending on who you choose to believe – but the lack of attention to those instructions allegedly cost James LaRue $150,000. What really happened, why LaRue chose to sue when he chose to sue, and how much damage was done as a result has yet to be established – the case was dismissed by two lower courts that, relying on an earlier Supreme Court precedents, determined that ERISA did not permit individual participants to bring suit on behalf of their own interests, only on behalf of the plan as a whole.

I can’t say, however, that I was impressed with the rationale presented by Justice Stevens, who authored the court’s decision (he was joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, while Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, and Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring only in the judgment, which Justice Scalia joined). Essentially, Justice Stevens admitted that the Supreme Court had previously held in Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Russell, that ERISA didn’t permit individual participant suits (1) - but that while “Russell’s emphasis on protecting the “entire plan” from fiduciary misconduct reflects the former landscape of employee benefit plans. That landscape has changed.”

Change “Parse”?

How has it changed? Well, to put it simply, because defined contribution plans have individual accounts, and – here I’ll let Justice Stevens speak for himself – “Russell’s emphasis on protecting the “entire plan” reflects the fact that the disability plan in Russell, as well as the typical pension plan at that time, promised participants a fixed benefit. Misconduct by such a plan’s administrators will not affect an individual’s entitlement to a defined benefit unless it creates or enhances the risk of default by the entire plan…. Thus, Russell’s “entire plan” references, which accurately reflect §409’s operation in the defined benefit context, are beside the point in the defined contribution context.”

Of course, defined contribution plans were not “beside the point” when the Russell case was decided, and the justices then ((in an interesting touch, Stevens also authored that opinion) addressed what ERISA allowed, not what it provided for suits brought in a non-individual account context under ERISA. Consequently, to my eye, anyway, it’s as though the Supreme Court sought to “excuse” its prior decision as not being applicable to ALL plans covered by ERISA (you’d think that could’ve been mentioned at the time), or worse – to suggest that because the “landscape” has changed, so has the law.

I suppose some will appreciate the “vitality” such flexible interpretations give the law, but it’s precisely those kind of situational determinations that unduly complicate our lives, IMHO. Defined contribution plans (and those individual accounts) have been with us more than a century, ERISA for a generation. What about the prevalence of defined contribution plans relative to defined benefit programs warrants a reinterpretation of the latter to adequately address the former – other than perhaps the fact that the justices themselves didn’t “get” individual accounts in 1985 when the Russell case was decided? Or, more cynically, that the justices messed up in their Russell decision, and wanted to rationalize what could plausibly be viewed as a repudiation of the previous decision?

A Loss is a Loss

That’s why I much prefer the rationale expressed by Justice Thomas in his concurrence – a concurrence that “is not contingent on trends in the pension plan market. Nor does it depend on the ostensible “concerns” of ERISA’s drafters.” Thomas goes on to affirm the statutory right of a participant, beneficiary, or fiduciary to bring suit (“obtain relief”), and then goes on to state what common sense dictates – losses to individual accounts in a plan are losses of the plan – and recoverable as such (2).

Whatever the rationale, the law of the land now affirms that participants can bring suits based on injuries to their individual accounts. Frankly, the court’s previous sense that an injury to a participant in a plan was not a plan injury smacked of the kind of legal hair-splitting that only lawyers (and I have a JD) and politicians relish. Now, in the wake of the LaRue decision, I can understand and appreciate the concerns expressed on behalf of employers – that this case will simply set off a wave of new and expensive litigation.

No doubt the coverage of the LaRue case will serve to discourage some who were contemplating offering a 401(k), but I doubt that it will lead to the demise of plans already in existence. Much as I hate to contemplate the prospect of more red meat for the plaintiffs’ bar, I suspect the individual participant lawsuit “shield” pierced by the LaRue decision was unappreciated by most plan sponsors. Perhaps most obviously, why else would so many have sought the protections of ERISA’s 404c, but to avoid the possibility of an individual participant suit?

Still, one need look no further than the rash of so-called stock drop cases or the revenue-sharing challenges to see the potential – and the LaRue headlines certainly convey the sense of a new way for workers to sue their employers. But I think plan sponsors – certainly the ones attentive to their fiduciary responsibilities - have long been concerned about participant lawsuits.

Of course, they’re also probably not the ones who should be worried.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

(1) ERISA Section 409(a) provides: “Any person who is a fiduciary with respect to a plan who breaches any of the responsibilities, obligations, or duties imposed upon fiduciaries by this title shall be personally liable to make good to such plan any losses to the plan resulting from each such breach, and to restore to such plan any profits of such fiduciary which have been made throughuse of assets of the plan by the fiduciary, and shall be subject to such other equitable or remedial relief as the court may deem appropriate, including removal of such fiduciary. A fiduciary may also be removed for a violation of section 411 of this Act.” 88 Stat. 886, 29 U. S. C. §1109(a).

(2) “The allocation of a plan’s assets to individual accounts for bookkeeping purposes does not change the fact that all the assets in the plan remain plan assets.”

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Not-So-Fine Print

If you watch commercial TV (that is to say, TV with commercials), you’ve no doubt been struck by the proliferation of ads for various prescription medicines. Medicines that you generally can’t buy directly, of course - but you CAN “…ask your doctor or pharmacist about how they might work for you.”

Setting aside my personal disgust at just how many (and how explicit) Via.gra ads are shown (and shown so early in the evening), I’m always struck by the length and content of the disclosures that accompany such promotions. Frankly, IMHO, by the time they’re done reeling off the potential side effects, it’s a wonder anyone actually makes an inquiry about taking them. Truly, the “cure” often sounds worse than the disease.

Disclaimers are also increasingly popular in our industry. There’s the disclaimer that plan fiduciaries are asked to sign if they choose not to follow the counsel of their financial adviser, disclaimers that purport to limit the liability of providers, and exactly why do you suppose those admonitions that past performance isn’t indicative of future results come so intriguingly positioned vis-à-vis the trumpeting of those results? Just ahead of the press toward automatic enrollment, some were requiring that participants physically opt out by acknowledging that they realized the consequences of their decision. Not that they necessarily did, mind you. One would expect that if they did, they wouldn’t opt out, if for no other reason to get the “free money” associated with the company match.

No, like the litany of disclaimers on those pharmaceutical ads, the consequences of not saving for retirement are, for many, simply a reminder that some highly unlikely side effects could, but probably won’t, happen. Part of that, of course, lies in the inability to portray something so uniquely individualistic, and part of it, surely because the audience itself has no real idea what a secure retirement looks like, much less what it will be like to live through the alternative. But part of it also is our collective unwillingness to share that truth, or to do so only in the smaller sized text, the fine print of “disclaimers”.

I’m sure the pharmaceutical companies would just as soon not bother with their little disclaimers – ditto those consent forms that accompany the most modest medical procedure. Let’s face it, if any of us EVER thought those “possible” results were likely (including the folks shoving the forms in our face), we’d surely walk away.

Disclaimers, of course, are generally defensive mechanisms; written by lawyers, for lawyers – by the people who have spent time figuring out how all the things that can possibly go wrong to protect themselves against the impact on those who haven’t – or can’t. The drug company tells you that dire consequences are a possibility precisely because they don’t want you to later claim (in a court of law) that you weren’t told they were. They are NOT, however, generally designed to so fully and completely apprise you of the negatives that you hesitate. The “fine print”, in other words, is not designed in such a way as to gain your full attention.

Are your disclaimers any different? Are they truly designed to get people’s attention…or are they simply designed to cover your….assets?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Ant and the Grasshopper

One of the more well-known Aesop’s Fables is the story of “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” In the story, the ant works hard all summer long, storing up food for the winter that it surely knows is coming. The grasshopper, though he too knows that winter is coming, decides instead to fritter the summer months away—going so far as to make fun of the ant for working so diligently.

Of course, winter does finally arrive, and the grasshopper finds himself stuck in the cold, and hungry. He quickly remembers his “friend” the ant—and hops over to his anthill and proceeds to ask for a handout.

There have been certain animated retellings of this fable over time—in most of those, the grasshopper comes to see the error of his ways and appeals to the ant for a morsel of food in a contrite manner. And, in those “happier” versions of the fable, the ant has enough to share—and does—and everyone seems to live happily ever after. But in the original version of the story, the grasshopper approaches the ant not with a sense of contrition, but with one of entitlement. And in at least one older version of the story, the ant slams the door in the grasshopper’s face.

Respect “Ed”

I’ve not been a huge proponent of automatic plan solutions. Not that they don’t have their place, and not that they don’t have the ability to have a positive impact on plan participation rates. Certainly, some would-be participants just don’t get around to completing or turning in the enrollment forms, and surely others are intimidated by the process. But my thinking over time has been that those who could afford to save were—and that adults should be accorded the respect of allowing them to make their own financial decisions, even when those decisions weren’t the ones I would make, or the ones I think they should.

More recently, I had been concerned that many workers simply couldn’t afford the discretionary savings. But over the past couple of years, the miniscule drop-out rate from automatic enrollment programs has persuaded me that many of those who think they can’t afford it find a way (that, or they haven’t yet figured out that they can opt out). Economics is clearly a factor for some—but studies seem to suggest that isn’t the issue for most.

That’s left me wondering—again—why so many eschew voluntary savings programs, and that’s why, though I am philosophically opposed to mandatory programs (the fact that employees can opt out doesn’t mean that they actually feel that they can, or know how to), these days, I am willing to take a more aggressive stance That was inspired in some part by the whole subprime debacle. Clearly, there were a lot of people who made questionable (to put it mildly) financial decisions—decisions that, depending on who’s making the call in Washington, could come to be underwritten (directly or indirectly) by people who had the good sense not to overextend themselves.

It does not require a hyperactive imagination to see a point down the road where many Americans lack the financial resources to fund their retirement years, including workers who once had an opportunity to participate in their workplace retirement plan—“grasshopper” workers who simply may have made a choice to invest in things other than their retirement security at a time when most of the “ants” who had the chance gladly took advantage.

Of course, “automatic” enrollment is not mandatory participation, and the Pension Protection Act’s provisions (and the required annual notices) may make it easier for those who are automatically enrolled to opt out than it has been up till now. I’ll also concede that, as articulated motivations go, “making it harder for people to shirk their responsibility to save for retirement” comes off as rather, well, harsh.

Nonetheless, we’re all running out of time to do the right thing—and I’m not sure the rest of us can afford to let the grasshoppers continue to have their day in the sun.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

If you’ve been asked in the past two weeks what to do about the market (and who hasn’t), I’m sure your response has been something along the lines of…“Nothing.”

There are, of course, more eloquent ways to express that sentiment. And, let’s face it, when it seems that everyone is asking that question – it’s generally well past the time when it is prudent to try and do something. Still, it seems that throughout my professional career, every time the market plunges (even when it stays down for an extended period), the pundits all seem to say the same thing; “the fundamentals are sound,” “we’re going through a period of short-term volatility”, sometimes even that that period of “short-term volatility” was anticipated (apparently even an innocuous footnote about the possibility of such things “counts”).

Naturally, we’d all like to believe is that we don’t need to do anything in these times of - “uncertainty” - because, well ahead of the current tumult, things have already been done to protect us on the downside. However much we would like to believe that, there’s something to be said for a timely, comforting voice of reassurance. Better yet if that reassurance comes from someone knowledgeable in such matters – and better still when that reassurance comes from someone familiar with the particulars of our investment portfolio. That’s why, to some extent, I find the platitudes from various economists somewhat disingenuous; not only are they blissfully ignorant of my own personal asset allocation, what they always seem to be saying, IMHO, is “don’t take your money away from us.”

Still, plan sponsor fiduciaries are generally appreciative of those messages. They bear responsibility for the prudence of such investments, after all – and the reassurances of experts that prudence has been manifested in their decisions (or their non-decisions) is understandably welcome. Most are only too happy to pass along those reassurances to the those on whose behalf their decisions (or non-decisions) have been made.

Those retirement plan participants are often reminded that their 401(k)s are long-term investments, that they continue to benefit from the on-going benefits of dollar-cost averaging, and perhaps increasingly that their investment in a diversified asset allocation “solution” means that they needn’t concern themselves with those kind of interim swings. And, for the most part, at least in my experience, on a day-to-day basis most are oblivious to a fault about the status of those investments. They may have a passing awareness that the markets are down, and some consciousness that their retirement plan investments could be impacted.

There is, however, a new generation of participant-investor emerging. One that has, consciously or, increasingly, unconsciously, relinquished control of that portfolio to experts – individual advisers, perhaps in the form of managed accounts, or less personalized solutions, such as target-date funds. What remains to be seen is how some of these “proxies” will fare in troubled markets – and perhaps just as importantly, how they will be perceived as doing.

Tough times can engender resentment and, in extreme cases, litigation. But they can also foster an appreciation for past expert counsel, and that current reassurance that the storm has been anticipated – and tough times can bring opportunity.

So, are the portfolios you’re responsible for standing pat – or just standing still?

- Nevin E. Adams, JD