Is There A Disjunct Between Excessive Fee Cases and the Real World?

Here’s a very interesting article from the Financial Times on the Deere/Wal-Mart line of 401(k) suits, in which class actions are being brought on behalf of plan participants alleging that fees in the plans at issue were too high and insufficiently disclosed. I have discussed in other blog posts the essentially diametrically opposed results in Hecker and in Wal-Mart, with one circuit essentially finding no merit to the underlying legal theory, and the other deeming it viable and worthy of further fact finding to determine whether fiduciary breaches had in fact occurred. Me, personally, I think the theory, independent of actual facts of any given case, is viable and has merit. I don’t think, though, that the fiduciary obligations require the particular plans to have the lowest possible fees, but rather require reasonable fees under all the circumstances, along with a realistic and reasonably aggressive process to obtain lower fees than smaller companies or the consumer off the street would have ended up with, this later point being something which the opinion in Hecker did not require.

Factually, though, I thought it would be fun to combine two of my favorite hobby horses - the Hecker theory of fiduciary liability and BrightScope ratings - in light of the Financial Times article, and see what we learn. Interestingly, it is in Wal-Mart that the Eighth Circuit let this line of attack on 401(k) fees proceed, but we learn from the BrightScope ratings on Wal-Mart’s 401(k) plan that it has low fees in comparison to other companies. John Deere’s plan, at issue in the Hecker case, isn’t rated yet on the BrightScope site. Two other large companies identified in the Financial Times article as being the target of such suits, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, are both rated as likewise having low total fees. The same can be said of Caterpillar, which just settled such a suit. ABB Inc., which the article identifies as proceeding to trial as we write on just such a claim, doesn’t score as well as those other companies in this regard, but is rated as having low fees.

Now, long time readers know that I am quick to quote (especially when the other side on one of my cases has a statistician for an expert witness) the old line that there are three kinds of lies - lies, damn lies and statistics - and certainly there are subtle points to be made about the comparison between what the plaintiffs are claiming against those various companies and what the BrightScope ratings on fees tell us. This, though, isn’t the place to fully vet those points. What is clear, though, is that easily accessible data - for us, anyway, but surely not for the folks at BrightScope when they went through the work of getting it - suggests there is a pretty good disjunct on a macro level between the theories being crafted by participants’ lawyers in this particular area and the factual reality of the operation of many of the plans that are being targeted.