Fiduciary Frenemies

As senior ERISA litigation attorney Steve Rosenberg points out in a recent blog post, a service provider with a wayward institutional client could end up in a lose-lose situation. Ignore questionable or illegal conduct and co-fiduciary liability might lead to allegations of breach and a costly fallout for the advisor. Inform authorities and one is likely to lose that client and accompanying revenue.

Referencing a Plan Adviser article entitled "Do Retirement Plan Advisers Have a Duty to 'Rat?'," Attorney Rosenberg describes this dilemma as a real problem. I concur and offer that the growth in outsourcing arrangements could be a catalyst for further friction unless all parties understand how work is to be allocated and are equally committed to a high standard of care. With over $1.2 trillion categorized as "outsourced assets," there is a lot at stake.

In 2014, the ERISA Advisory Council had an entire forum on the topic of outsourcing of employee benefit plan services. On the topic of duties, law professor Colleen E. Medill testified that "... the courts have not provided much guidance on whether one fiduciary has the right to sue another fiduciary for equitable relief under ERISA.  She noted that this issue will be of increased importance as more employers and other named fiduciaries look to outsource fiduciary functions.  Likely, in a co-fiduciary situation, one fiduciary is more culpable than the other.  Thus, while both fiduciaries are jointly and severally liable under ERISA, the less culpable fiduciary may wish to sue the other fiduciary for damages in a contribution or similar action."

Based on my experience as an expert witness, service provider disputes can arise for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, what I call an expectations gap wherein some task is left undone because it has not been formally assigned. In other situations, a conflict may exist that makes it hard for a third party to act independently on behalf of its institutional client. Of course, an investment committee member(s) may likewise have a conflict that impedes the advisor's ability to do what he or she is supposed to do. A pay-to-play kickback that involves a trustee with authority to hire an advisor is one example.

As I've written about many times, vetting and overseeing service providers by an investment committee is critical. As Attorney Rosenberg reminds his Boston ERISA Law blog readers, knowing one's customer is likewise important. After all, some lawsuits are brought by plan participants against both internal and outsourced fiduciaries. It is not unreasonable to conclude that working with a governance-focused client and vice versa redounds to the advantage of both buyer and seller.

ERISA Litigation Webinar Transcript Now Available

Seeking to accomplish a goal without having the right tools can result in frustration and possible failure. One solution is to get outside help when needed as long as the party being hired is knowledgeable and independent. Otherwise, what looks like a solution could quickly become a problem. Applied to ERISA plans, trouble might take the form of costly and time-consuming enforcement and/or litigation. Over the last few years, that reality has set in for more than a few employers.

Recognizing the importance of abiding by good governance principles, several of us agreed to speak as part of an educational webinar on April 8, 2015 about fiduciary tools, pitfalls and lessons learned. Sponsored by fi360 and entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors," this webinar joined Attorney Tom Clark (Counsel with the Wagner Law Group), Dr. Susan Mangiero (Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC) and Mitchell Shames, Esquire (Partner with the Harrison Fiduciary Group) to address the (a) use of an independent fiduciary (b) clarifying what an outside vendor should be doing and (c) avoiding legal and economic landmines that have revealed themselves in prominent court cases and regulatory examinations.

If you missed the event, email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com for a copy of the slides. Click here to download the written transcript. Edited for clarity (and because the audio file is spotty in some places), this fourteen page document lays out cornerstone concepts and includes suggestions for plan sponsors and the advisers who serve them. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The outsourced fiduciary market is growing in the United States and elsewhere.
  • When an outside party is hired by a plan sponsor, it is critical to specify responsibilities and contract accordingly. When an "expectations gap" exists, some critical tasks may be left wanting or not addressed at all.
  • When multiple fiduciaries are in place, a plan sponsor must ensure that a central person or team is adequately coordinating the efforts of all fiduciaries.
  • The newly proposed Conflict of Interest rule is predicted to materially change the landscape of fiduciary relationships between plan participants and retirement advisers.
  • A fiduciary status may exist due to either a contractual agreement or by virtue of the functions assumed by an individual or organization.
  • ERISA litigation is getting more attention these days, with a particular focus on fees, use of proprietary funds, revenue-sharing and disclosure of compensation paid to investment consultants, advisers and asset managers.
  • Demonstrating procedural prudence in part depends on what others in the industry are doing (or not doing as the case may be) and whether actions make sense for a given plan.
  • A renewed focus on disclosure and transparency is in the works according to comments made by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged for a singular transaction or for a task that continues over a long period of time.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged by either a defined contribution plan or defined benefit plan or both.
  • When there is a perception or reality of a conflict of interest, it may be prudent for an independent fiduciary to be engaged. The participants pay for said party because the independent fiduciary works on behalf of the participants.
  • The concept of co-fiduciary status is important and should be paid heed by any adviser who has an ERISA plan as a client.
  • Before delegating duties (to the extent allowed) to a third party, a plan sponsor should decide what financial issues should be vetted. Liquidity, the use of leverage by asset managers and asset allocation are a few of the many topics that a delegated fiduciary could be asked to measure, monitor and manage.
  • A fiduciary audit can be extremely helpful as a tool for identifying areas of improvement for an ERISA plan sponsor.

It may be no surprise that over 500 people registered for this educational webinar about fiduciary foibles. After forty years since its inception, ERISA remains a force that cannot be ignored.

Fiduciary Outsourcing Considerations

I try hard to avoid duplication when contributing to this retirement plan blog (www.pensionriskmatters.com) versus writing about investment compliance on a broader scale (www.goodriskgovernancepays.com). However, there are times when I believe a topic has equal appeal to both plan sponsors and their advisers, attorneys, asset managers and other types of vendors.

With that in mind, I invite you to read "Fiduciary Outsourcing Considerations." As I have said both in private conversations and in public speeches, my work as a forensic economist (and sometimes testifying expert witness) leads me to predict that disputes between institutional investors and service providers are unlikely to disappear any time soon. The good news is that those who take governance seriously have a wonderful opportunity to develop and maintain business with risk management focused pension funds, endowments, foundations and other types of buyers.

New is Not Necessarily Better and Could be Worse

Every now and then, my husband likes to remind me that older is better in terms of quality. His father's tools still get used, our washer and dryer from twenty years ago are in place and his 1989 Honda was only recently sold when I nudged him to buy a car with air bags. Incidentally, the CRV was sold with 400,000 miles to a neighbor who still drives it on a regular basis. I was reminded of his words when I read a New York Times article on the failure of "new math." More recently the concept that new can be counterproductive came to light when a meeting organizer insisted on using technology that was so "cutting edge" that a few of us could not join because we did not have the requisite equipment. As a result, we have to schedule anew, costing time that could have been avoided.

Applied to pensions, adding too much complexity by trying something untested and/or sold as "the next big thing" can spell trouble. As I wrote in "Investment Complexity Risk" (August 1, 2014), transactions that are hard to explain make it difficult for an investor to "appropriately identify the right benchmark to track performance." When that occurs, tasks such as portfolio rebalancing, assessment as to whether fees paid are "reasonable" and/or constructing an effective hedge strategy are difficult to achieve.

While "new" does not automatically mean "complex," the reality is that capital markets and service providers such as asset managers are increasingly dependent on one another. What happens with one organization can have a far-reaching impact on others. Consider Goldman Sachs Group Inc. ("Goldman"). Its plan to retract prime brokerage services to some hedge funds while increasing fees to those that remain as clients will impact the institutional investors that have exposures to asset managers that either need to look elsewhere for capital or will pay more money to Goldman. See "Goldman Sachs Cuts Roster of Hedge-Fund Clients" by Justin Baer and Juliet Chung (Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2014).

Some institutional investors are throwing their proverbial hands in the air when it comes to in-house management. Pensions & Investments reporter Douglas Appell describes a trend in seeking third party help as the result of "today's volatile markets." Refer to "Complexity of investments pushes funds to seek outsourcing help" (July 9, 2012). Asset managers are similarly outsourcing certain tasks such as performance measurement and attribution. According to "Managing complexity and change in a new landscape: Global survey on asset management investment operations" (Ernst and Young, 2014), partners Alex Birkin and Alan Fish write that "Firms are only beginning to realize the opportunity in outsourcing more complex processes."

Contracting others to augment one's core business is not bad or good on its face. Importantly, end-users must understand what they are buying and what may not be covered by the agreement. Based on my experience as a forensic economist and investment risk governance expert, disputes often arise when expectations - even those that are codified with a letter of engagement - differ. Ambiguous language is one culprit. In-house and external counsel as well as those tasked with dotting the due diligence "i's" can play a vital role in clarifying the terms of outsourcing. Similarly, attorneys can work with their institutional investor clients to ensure that a Request for Proposal ("RFP") questionnaire includes ample questions about the nature of the contracts in place between asset managers being considered and the vendors to said asset managers.

The principles of good contracting are tried and true. Some may sneer at old fashioned ideas but they have a place in one's investment risk governance toolbox. When the lights go out, a pencil has a lot more value than a computer that doesn't work.

ERISA Advisory Council Investigating Fiduciary Management

According to a 2014 statement, the ERISA Advisory Council intends to investigate the nature of retirement plan outsourcing and report its research to the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). "Outsourcing Employee Benefit Plan Services" cites objectives to include the following:

  • Discussion about current practices in outsourcing and whether variables such as plan size or type impact the services provided to ERISA plans;
  • Clarification of "the legal framework under ERISA for retaining outsourced service providers..." and possible areas for regulatory guidance;
  • Getting suggestions about the management of potential conflicts of interest;
  • Further discussing the "scope of co-fiduciary liability in the outsourcing context" for 3(16), 3(21) and 3(38) relationships;
  • Discussion about how contracts are put together between an ERISA plan and a service provider to address issues such as termination rights, indemnification, liability caps; and
  • Examination of insurance coverage and ERISA bonds when an outsourcing arrangement exists.

This news is not particularly surprising. The topic of fiduciary management continues to attract attention, in part because it appears to be growing as a business model in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere. According to a survey of 73 pension plans and their advisors, Buck Consultants found that 70% "had at least considered going down that route." For those schemes that that had engaged a fiduciary manager, they cited motivations such as "improved speed in the decision making process, greater focus on the end game, and improved expertise." At the same time, UK-based Brian McCauley, Head of Fiduciary Evaluation at Buck Consultants, added that the governance burden is still "huge." In "Perceptions of Fiduciary Management," Stephenson Harwood attorney Fraser Sparks addresses concern about conceivable conflict of interest trouble spots when "an advisor turns into a provider." One offered solution is to engage an independent third party to evaluate the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of fiduciary manager short list candidates.

Stateside, ERISA legal experts debate the pros and cons of the outsourced fiduciary approach. In "New flavor of outsourced fiduciary for retirement plans hits the market" Investment News reporter Darla Mercado writes that "This latest service offering is popping up in an era when plan sponsors have a heightened awareness of their fiduciary responsibilities and are looking to offload some of them so that they can get back to the day-to-day work of running their business." Drinker Biddle & Reath attorney, C. Frederick Reish, talks about "3(16) lite" and the need to "[r]ead the fine print." The April 2, 2014 piece emphasizes that "...plan sponsors still have the responsibility of choosing and monitoring their service providers."

In "Expert Q&A on Outsourcing Fiduciary Investment Responsibilities" (Practical Law, February 2014), Groom Law attorneys David N. Levine and Allison Tumilty explain the legal dimensions of outsourcing fiduciary investment responsibilities and the advantages and disadvantages of passing the baton for certain delegated tasks. They add that outsourcing "can be appropriate for defined benefit and defined contribution plans of all sizes."

From my perch as a forensic economist who is sometimes hired to give expert testimony, I have observed a larger number of cases being filed that address the relationship between plan sponsor and service provider. Whether that trend continues remains to be seen. Given the foregoing, the ERISA Advisory Council inquiry is likely to be both timely and informative.