Fiduciary Duty is More Than Numbers

As a published author, I am constantly assessing what has appeal to readers. I try to write about topics that are relevant and timely and welcome feedback. Click here to send an email with your suggestions. As a financial expert, I continuously seek to stay on top of what is being adjudicated. As a risk manager, I regularly evaluate what might have been done differently when things go seriously awry.

What I have noticed is that enumeration seems to offer comfort. Lists of this or that are common to many best-selling books and widely read articles. A trip to the Inc. Magazine website today illustrates the point. Consider this excerpted list of lists:

The popularity of laying out "to do" items extends to the retirement industry as well. For example, Attorney Mark E. Bokert provides insights in his article entitled "Top 10 ERISA Fiduciary Duty Exposures - And What to Do About Them" (Human Resources - Winter Edition, Thomson Publishing Group, 2007). His list of vulnerabilities - and prescriptive steps to try to avoid liability - includes the following:

  • Identify who is a fiduciary and making sure that they are properly trained;
  • Create a proper process by which investments are selected and monitored;
  • Monitor company stock in a 401(k) plan and consider whether to appoint an independent fiduciary;
  • Assess the reasonableness of "like" mutual funds versus existing plan choices;
  • Ensure that communications with plan participants are adequate;
  • Undertake a thorough assessment of vendors and review their performance thereafter;
  • Assess whether 401(k) deferrals and loan repayments are being made in a timely fashion;
  • Identify the extent to which service providers enjoy a float and whether they are entitled;
  • Understand what is allowed in terms of providing investment advice to participants and abide by the rules accordingly; and
  • Critically evaluate whether auto enrollment makes sense and the nature of any default investment selection.

One could easily break out each of the aforementioned items into sub-tasks and create appropriate benchmarks to ascertain whether fiduciaries are doing a good job. Indeed, ERISA attorneys are the first to invoke the mantra of "procedural process" as a cornerstone of this U.S. federal pension law. Importantly however, relying only on numbers is not sufficient. Increasingly legal professionals and regulators are asking that process be demonstrated and discussed. Expect more of the same in 2013. Analyses and expert reports may be deemed incomplete if they do not include a deep dive of the fiduciary decision-making process that took place (or not as the case may be).

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