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

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Oliver's 'Twist': 5 Takeaways

I’ve long enjoyed John Oliver’s take on the world. He has a gift for bringing humor to subjects that aren’t generally seen as funny, and in the process not only helps make complex topics more approachable, he gives voice to the frustration that millions surely feel at the world around us.
That said, when he decides to weigh in with his style of biting commentary on your profession – well, let’s just say that you’re likely to be in for a bumpy ride. And so it was this weekend, when he took on retirement savings, retirement advisors and the process of setting up a small plan 401(k).
Now, it wasn’t as biased as some media treatments of the retirement plan profession have been. Oh, they brought in the exaggerated math on fees from that 2013 PBS Frontline special, copied (and doubled down on) their dismissal of active management …and he did reference termites. But all in all – and while continuing to emphasize throughout that this was a complicated process (one that your average worker, not to mention plan sponsor, probably isn’t prepared to undertake) – he looked at our industry through the kind of eyes that most of us can appreciate, for its humor, if nothing else.
Make no mistake, Oliver was, of course, exaggerating to make a point (or two). But to my ears, the most compelling part of the program was when he described the process his production company went through in trying to set up a 401(k) plan for their employees. Of course, we know nothing about the particulars of the plan, and that makes it nearly impossible to do a reality check. Suffice it to say that he felt that this tiny start-up plan was being overcharged (1.69% + $24/participant + investment management fees), and even more so by the broker engaged to help them set up the plan – who (aside from making spreadsheet errors) seemed to be basically collecting money (1% in year one, and 0.5% each year thereafter) for (apparently) doing little more than telling them that their plan was “too complicated” to be placed at Vanguard (and whose idea was that, anyway?).
Is that overly simplistic? Almost certainly. This was no mere “hatchet” piece, however. To my ears Oliver gave voice to some great advice that, with luck, every listener (and reader) will take to heart:
Start saving now.
Oliver acknowledged that this can be rather simplistic advice for some, noting that some individuals aren’t currently able to afford to save. However, he quickly set that aside to make clear to his listeners that saving for retirement should be a priority. And he said it more than once.
Seemingly tiny fees can add up.
It’s not all about the fees, of course (or shouldn’t be), but the point that fees compound just like returns was well worth understanding. In my experience the issue isn’t that individuals think their fees are small, but that they are either unaware of them or, even worse, think that because they are unaware of them (despite those reams of disclosures), they must be $0.00.
There is, of course, no such thing as a free lunch – or a free retirement plan. Even if participants aren’t paying those fees, someone is.
If you’re lucky, you have a 401(k) at work.
Though Oliver didn’t cite this statistic, we know that workers who have a plan at work are 15 times more likely to save than those who don’t. If you have a plan at work, you have the advantage of payroll deduction, the encouragement of an employer’s education program, and likely their match, and increasingly options like automatic enrollment, contribution acceleration, and defaulted investments into qualified default investment alternatives (QDIAs) like target-date funds or managed accounts, which are not only better diversified at the outset than your average worker would be able to do on their own, but are rebalanced automatically over time by people who actually know what they are doing.
Oh, and you have a plan fiduciary looking out over all of this, with a charge to ensure that the program’s design is in your best interests, and that the fees for those services are reasonable. Lucky indeed. And Oliver’s production firm employees seem to have been well served here.
The retirement plan is a potential minefield, and you need to pay attention.
Arguably this applies to both participants and plan sponsors, but Oliver’s admonition was to an employer, like his company, that goes about setting up a 401(k) plan for its workers. This may look easy from the recliner watching HBO, but in the real world, there are complicated legal documents, complex investment considerations, regulatory requirements, participant disclosures… oh, and did we mention the personal liability?
To his credit, Oliver acknowledged the complexity, explaining that his production company “spent weeks trying to understand our own 401(k) plan.” How many employers can say that?
If you don’t pay close attention, this can really get away from you.
Complicated as things can be during the set-up, Oliver made a subtler point: that if you think setting up a retirement plan is a “set it and forget it” project – well, you’re wrong. To his production company’s credit, they did the math on their fees (going so far as to not only involve, but get “Janice in accounting” excited about their potential savings. Of course, their team not only did the math, they also had in mind a specific figurethey thought was reasonable (though whether it actually was for a start-up plan of unknown complexity is another matter). It may not have been a very well researched benchmark, but it gave them an objective measure against which they could evaluate their plan.
Ultimately, Oliver stated that, “It doesn’t need to be this confusing.” More precisely, it shouldn’t be.
- Nevin E. Adams, JD
It's worth reading John Hancock's perspective on the plan setup situation described by Oliver.  It's here. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

A Fiduciary ‘Idiot Light’

Among the assorted “idiot lights” that adorn my current car dashboard is one that alerts me to low tire pressure.

It’s come in handy on precisely two occasions – one when a nail had punctured my tire (though I had already discerned that I had a problem from the sound of the flat tire nanoseconds before the light came on); the other when I had neglected to keep an eye on the tire pressure (which coincided with a day that I had let my daughter take my car to work). Other than that, it’s never really been on or an issue – or a help – until recently, when it came on, and stayed on, about 100 miles from home.

Now my owner’s manual suggested that this behavior might be a sign of a bad sensor, and sure enough, (after 100 miles of driving angst) that was subsequently confirmed by my mechanic – who also informed us that it would cost a couple of hundred dollars to replace it. Perhaps needless to say, that light continues to illuminate my dashboard.

Since the initial flurry of so-called “excess fee” litigation a decade ago, many have perhaps become numbed to the filings. Nearly all have involved multi-million, and multi-billion dollar plans – name brand companies. One might well expect – and many pundits have opined – that this litigation, funded, if not fueled, by a contingency fee structure, was really a concern for those larger plans and their larger asset pools.

Fiduciary Failings?

Or would have, until the recent filing in the case Damberg v. LaMettry’s Collision, Inc. (D. Minn., No. 0:16-cv-01335), which involved participants who were part of a 114-participant plan that had (in 2014) less than $10 million in plan assets.

These small plan participants alleged that the plan fiduciaries breached their fiduciary duties by:
  • selecting an unduly expensive structure for its 401(k) plan – one that bundled recordkeeping and investment management services;
  • failing to conduct an RFP for the structure to minimize expenses;
  • failing to evaluate whether an unbundled or alternative fee structure was a better option;
  • failing to conduct due diligence regarding whether the assessed fees (retail versus institutional shares) were appropriate; and
  • failing to actively monitor the selected structure’s fees and expenses.
They also challenged the application of asset-based fees for recordkeeping (rather than a flat per-participant fee), and went on to suggest that for retirement plans with more than 100 participants, a reasonable annual per capita fee paid by retirement plan participants should not exceed $18.

Nothing New?

These types of charges are nothing new, of course. All (with the possible exception of the concerns expressed about the bundled pricing structure) have been invoked in just about every one of the previous excessive fee lawsuits.

What is different, of course, is that these charges are being leveled at a plan that is considerably smaller than those that have thus far been the targets of this type of litigation.

On many occasions during the months since that sensor light on my car dashboard started blinking, I have worried that I might actually have a problem, one “masked” by my choosing to ignore the glaring reminder on my dashboard. I’ve worried that, by ignoring the warning signs that “idiot light” is meant to detect, I will one day wind up feeling like a true idiot, and all because I was too cheap (or lazy) to replace that tire sensor.

Plan fiduciaries – and those who guide them – have had at least a decade to see the writing on the wall on these excessive fee lawsuits. Those who have been ignoring these risks because they think they are immune, or are too small to be a target, should have just seen an “idiot light” come on their fiduciary dashboard.

- Nevin E. Adams, JD

See also: 5 Things Plan Sponsors Should Know; 5 Things Plan Sponsors Don’t (Always) Do — But Should.