Disclosure is fast becoming the proverbial four letter word in pension fiduciary land. Critical questions abound.
- How much information do pension fiduciaries need in order to make an "informed" decision?
- Who should provide that information, how often and in what form?
- Is there a danger of having "too much" information?
- What does the law currently require?
- What information is currently available and to whom?
- Is there an industry consensus about what constitutes "good quality" information?
- What are the consequences of "incomplete" disclosure and are they equally unpleasant for plan participants, shareholders, taxpayers and plan sponsors?
- What current roadblocks stand in the way of "better" disclosure (once that term is defined)?
The topic of disclosure and transparency is as broad as it is critical to good plan governance. We've written extensively about this topic as applied to investment risk and will continue to do so. Click here if you would like to receive copies of some of our many articles. After hours of work, our research librarians are completing an Ebook on the topic of pension information resources. Click here if you want to be notified of its publication.
With a copyright date of July 4, 2007 (symbolic perhaps?), independent fiduciary Matthew D. Hutcheson addresses the topic of 401(k) plan information in "Retirement Plan Disclosure: A Declaration of Ethical Principles and Legal Obligations." Not known for being shy about his point of view, Hutcheson makes a compelling case for additional, complete and user-friendly disclosure about fees and related compensation arrangements.
“The Department (Department of Labor) emphasizes that it expects a fiduciary, prior to entering into a performance based compensation arrangement, to fully understand the compensation formula and the risks associated with this manner of compensation, following disclosure by the investment manager of all relevant information pertaining to the proposed arrangement. [Advisory Opinion Letter 1989 WL 435076 (ERISA)]
Thus, for a fiduciary to know all relevant information ahead of time, service providers must disclose all relevant information prior to entering into an engagement. The failure to disclose all relevant information effectively forces fiduciaries to violate the law unknowingly. The SEC has taken action against various service providers of 401(k) plans because of hidden compensation arrangements which obscured relevant information to fiduciaries. "
Hutcheson provides solid legal and regulatory evidence in support of full disclosure of all types of fees and related non-fee agreements. In addition, he reminds readers that fees impact economic performance and are therefore integral to any kind of investment decision-making. Would we buy a car or get surgery without enough information to gauge potential risk and rewards?
His message comes at an opportune moment to begin a national "no holds barred" conversation about fees, fiduciary duty and protection of plan participants. Countless companies are switching from defined benefit plans to defined contribution structures. In loco parentis NOT. While employers transfer more responsibility to employees, research suggests that individuals are saving much less than is minimally needed to secure a reasonable lifestyle in retirement. Add to that an uncertain outlook for the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare (and international equivalents to the U.S. post-employment safety net) and policy-makers are starting to take notice. Not a day too soon for many folks. If you think a train is about to crash, why wait to seek preventative measures?
Hutcheson concludes that "industry and regulators must either: (a) Return to the model originally contemplated under ERISA, in which recognized fiduciaries would make all decisions regarding trust assets; or (b) Empower participants to make their own individual decisions with respect to the assets in their personal tax-deferred 401(k) accounts. If the chosen course is to return to the original intent of ERISA, then fiduciaries of 401(k) plans must be armed with all relevant information necessary to construct a low-cost prudent portfolio for the benefit of the participants. Alternatively, if the chosen course is to enable those holding tax-deferred investments to, in essence, serve as their own mini-fiduciaries, then they must be afforded the information necessary to construct the same sort of prudent, low cost personal portfolio."
Those who advocate individual responsibility, and therefore favor the idea of choice at the employee level, get push-back from some that Sally or Joe "Every Worker" is unlikely to delve deep with respect to investment issues. Yet people make decisions for themselves every day - choosing a doctor, buying a car, voting, changing jobs and so on. But, for argument's sake, let's agree that a "mini fiduciarization" of the workforce is impractical, infeasible or otherwise unappealing. What then?
If only plan sponsors are to decide on all things 401(k), should we not be seriously engaged in identifying what makes for a "top quality" fiduciary? Besides access to good and complete information about fees and other pecuniary arrangements, we've long advocated a requirement for "suitable" qualifications (education and experience) before someone makes multi-million decisions with other people's money. To be clear, the use of the term "require" here refers to that which is self-imposed by plan sponsors, perhaps with the help of various industry and fiduciary organizations. Mandatory requirements would be problemmatic and could exacerbate the situation. (Our firm, Pension Governance, LLC provides fiduciary training, process checks and research in the areas of investment risk and valuation. Part of a growing industry to help fiduciaries do a better job, we complement work done by our partners but always with the same message. Good process is everything!)
On the topic of information, the more voices the better as long as it gets us to an enlightened place. This means that "good" disclosure would be seen as a value-enhancing tool for all concerned parties, not another costly, "go nowhere" exercise.
To read the full text of Hutcheson's article, click here. You will be taken to the Social Science Research Network site. Pension Governance, LLC is a proud sponsor of four SSRN sections. Click here to learn more about our sponsorship of a pension risk management section (created just for us) and a research section about mutual funds and hedge funds. Click here to learn more about our sponsorship of a research section about employment law and litigation and a research section about corporate governance.
For further reading, click on the title of each item listed below:
"Who Wants to be a Fiduciary Anyhow?"
"Do You Know the True Cost of Your Retirement Plan?"
"Searching for Hidden Treasure"
"Do We Need an Easy Button for Fiduciaries?"
"401(k) Fee Analysis - Who Benefits?"