Why ERISA?

You know, people often get bogged down when talking about ERISA with the limitations of the statute and the protections it provides on the individual level; that is, to an extent, what the hullabaloo about the LaRue case is about, as it concerns the question of whether investment losses in a 401(k) plan are actionable if they only injure an individual, or instead only if they have a macro effect on the plan as a whole. But a look at the bigger picture on occasion reflects why we have ERISA, why its an important statute, and why it matters, despite the cottage industry of criticism that the statute and its interpretation by the courts has created. A story in the New York Times today jumped out at me as demonstrating the importance of ERISA’s imposition of fiduciary obligations on pension plans on a macro basis, as imposing a regime in which the interests of the plan participants whose retirements are at stake must be placed at the forefront of all considerations related to the management of a pension plan. The article concerns investment fund problems in a state government fund in Florida, created by the subprime lending mess. Before anyone yawns into their third cup of coffee of the day over yet another story on subprime lending (as the people at Mortgage Meltdown astutely pointed out recently, if you follow the mass media, you would end up with the erroneous impression that everything is, and everybody is holding, subprime debt), take a look at the part of the article where the elected officials who oversee the fund discuss possible remedies, and the first thing they think of is to raid the massive amount of cash in the state pension plan. And that, on a macro level, is the point of ERISA’s protection of pension plan participants, and its imposition of obligations on those who run such plans to act in the best interest of the participants in managing the plans: they represent huge piles of cash that can be tempting targets in the worst of times, and the obligations imposed by ERISA exist to counter that temptation. That’s a good thing, if you ask me, no matter how much criticism the details of the statute’s application provoke.