Brown M&Ms and Investment Service Provider Due Diligence

 

According to marketing guru Steve Jones, parties seeking to do business with one another can learn a lot from rock musician David Lee Roth. As explained in "No Brown M&M's: What Van Halen's Insane Contract Clause Teaches Entrepreneurs" (Entrepreneur Magazine, March 24, 2014), each of their agreements included a rider that was designed to force a promoter to pay attention to the band's true objective about ensuring safety. By adding what may have seemed like a silly provision about "melt in your mouth" candies being unwelcome, Van Halen was testing whether the promoter had read the contract in its entirety and was therefore more likely to install equipment properly. "If any brown M&M's were found backstage, the band could cancel the entire concert at the full expense of the promoter," leaving him or her with a possible loss in the millions of dollars.

In institutional investment land, there are intriguing parallels. For one thing, there is the safety issue. If a pension plan is poorly managed, beneficiaries may suffer. Second, if there is confusion or ambiguity about who is supposed to do what, when, how and at what price, there are likely to be disputes and economic consequences. There is a growing number of lawsuits and regulatory investigations that are scrutinizing service providers and/or the pension plan trustees who are tasked with diligently selecting them.

The developing market in outsourcing various services to a third party is yet another reason for paying close attention to the quality of engagement letters and vendor contracts. Earlier this year, the ERISA Advisory Council announced its plan to study "current contracting practices with respect to outsourced services, including provisions such as termination rights, indemnification, liability caps, service level agreements, etc. that might assist plan sponsors and other fiduciaries in negotiating service agreements."See "Outsourcing Employee Benefit Plan Services."

As someone who has done business intelligence research and trained investment fiduciaries and their advisors, I often hear the same frustration being expressed about a gap in expectations. Budget-strapped buyers want more for less. Consultants, asset managers and banks say they are searching for ways to satisfy their clients while still being able to earn a reasonable rate of return for their efforts. One solution is to streamline operations, to the extent possible, while acknowledging any fiduciary implications associated with prevailing law and governance standards. If cutting corners to preserve a profit margin ends up sacrificing requisite quality, trustees could be at risk of being investigated for anemic oversight of service providers. Vendors could be at risk for failing to deliver contractual services.

Based on my work for both defense and plaintiff counsel (depending on the matter and whether there is a counterclaim), a poorly worded agreement can be a potential trouble spot. Another hugely important issue is whether a service provider has self-identified as a fiduciary. An attorney or judge may categorize a particular service provider as a functional fiduciary even if a written contract is silent on that point. Trust counsel can play a critical role in assisting with negotiations before authorized persons sign on the dotted line.

ERISA attorneys David C. Kaleda and Theodore J. Sawicki address the issue of fiduciary status in a 2012 article for the National Society of Compliance Professionals. See "Should You Have a Formal ERISA Compliance Program?" In a recent discussion about the best practices for creating and adhering to service level agreements, ERISA attorney Howard Pianko expressed his strong view that there are numerous ways to ensure "plausibility" and still be able to hire affordable outside organizations to assist. He went on to describe the advantages of having a systematic mechanism in place such as the Six Sigma type model that his firm employs. Click to read about Seyfarth Lean. (Having earned a Green Belt in Six Sigma, I can attest firsthand to the upside of developing a process to control quality.) 

For those involved in the selection and oversight of service providers or the delivery of said services, ask yourself if you know as much about an existing or anticipated contract as you should.

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