Year 2016 promises to continue the inspection of fees charged to retirement plan sponsors and participants, in part because it is such an important topic. Also there is considerable litigation in this area that appears unlikely to abate any time soon. According to Groom Law Group, "Nearly forty lawsuits have been commenced relating to 401(k) plan fees." Court documents reveal that other lawsuits focus on fees paid by government pension plans and ERISA defined benefit plans, respectively. Earlier this year, it was reported that litigation risk is a key concern of defined contribution plan executives. In the public sector, a confluence of political pressures, funding deficits and cash squeezes are forcing fees and transparency to the top of the list for trustees. I wrote about the case of Rhode Island a few months ago. Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Ohio promise to rally the fee flag.
I will be addressing the topics of fees and investment risk assessment with co-speakers on January 13, 2016 as part of "Life After Tibble: Investment Monitoring and Litigation Defense Considerations for ERISA Fiduciaries" and again on January 27, 2016 as part of "ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims."
What is less clear for the New Year is whether fee disclosures by various plan sponsors will be similar enough in nature to compare and contrast. When reporting standards vary across organizations, the result can be a confusing melange of numbers that cost a lot to put together but don't help the user. Besides ambiguity, unexplained price bounces can be likewise hard to grasp.
On a more quotidian level than the heady universe of retirement plans, I recently learned that fuzzy price math can pop up from time to time. I stayed at a hotel that offered complimentary breakfast except for my daily double espresso. That would be extra. What I soon discovered was that the pricing varied by day and who came to my table. One morning, the bill showed $5. The next time, the server whispered that he would not charge me. On the third day, I ordered a triple and was asked to pay $12. When I queried for an explanation, he shrugged his shoulders and blamed his boss. I could understand something in the neighborhood of $5 to $7.50 but $12 made no sense. I could have ordered two double shots at $10 and poured half of one cup out. When told that his manager was in a meeting, the waiter simply changed the bill to $8. I acquiesced and left for my appointment. On the last day, a new server comped the Italian drink. I left puzzled and bemused but no more wiser about how the prices were set, by whom and on what basis.
The moral of the story is that one does not always know how much he or she will be charged for something. This can be frustrating and make it hard to budget.
For the plan sponsors that do a terrific job in vetting fees and communicating this information to participants, keep up the great work. For those in need of improvement, there's no time like the present to get started.