Hecker, Fees and A Broad Public Market

To me, intellectually, all roads lead to Hecker right now, as the sort of touchstone around which all thinking about fiduciary obligations and the amounts of fees charged in 401(k) plans must revolve. Hecker, of course, found not only that a broad range of offering meant that marketplace discipline guaranteed appropriate fees, but also that this could be determined at the motion to dismiss stage. This whole question of whether a broad marketplace for mutual fund offerings can be counted on to guarantee appropriate fees is at issue before the Supreme Court in a different context in an upcoming case, as commented on here: once again, you see that the question is the propriety of the assumption that market discipline is all that is needed to protect against overcharging of this type, and thus whether there is a legitimate basis for the assertion that the existence of a broad market is all that is needed to ascertain that fees were not so high that a fiduciary breach has occurred. It would take many more pages, and an analysis much more suited to a different forum, such as a law review article, to break down the potential flaws in the base premise of that assumption, but for this venue, at least one comment is warranted, and that has to do with the Supreme Court’s relatively recent conclusion that the same thesis - that marketplace discipline would prevent the problem from actually coming into existence - was not an acceptable answer to the problems potentially posed by structural conflicts of interest with regard to ERISA benefit claims. There, the Court rejected the view of many circuits that the risk of the marketplace punishing companies that misbehave did not represent a legitimate basis for assuming that administrators who both decided and funded benefit decisions could not be acting out of a conflict. There is independent evidence for the argument that fees are, in fact, too high with regard to 401(k) plans, as discussed in this report here (and thanks are due to the ever vigilant eyes of the folks at BrightScope for passing that along) and other places too numerous too detail in a few minutes this morning, causing one to ask whether, much like the Court decided with regard to structural conflict claims related to benefit decisions, it is a realistic economic assumption to believe that a large public market alone is a guarantor of appropriate fees, as the Seventh Circuit assumed in Hecker.