Private Attorney Generals and ERISA

Here’s an interesting, although at a minimum somewhat overstated, diatribe against 401(k) plans from Forbes, in which the author complains about four specific risks to participants: greater investment risk than would exist investing outside of such a plan; problems with employer or vendor record keeping and management; the possibility of employer failure; and a lack of regulatory oversight, at least in comparison to the extent of regulation applicable to other investments. The author overstates some of his points - for instance, some of his complaints about regulatory oversight are more accurately seen as complaints about sponsor capabilities, such as with regard to publishing and timely distributing summary plan descriptions or making timely distributions.

What’s more interesting to note, though, than quibbling about the details of the author’s complaints, is the extent to which they primarily concern the fact that the 401(k) world, much more than being a regulatory driven regime, is governed more on a private attorney general model, in which breach of fiduciary duty lawsuits and denial of benefit claims are the tools that address and remedy the problems the author identifies. For instance, in his discussion of increased investment risk, he references the fact that, outside of 401(k)s, an investor can pick from the universe of funds, while within the 401(k), the investor is limited to the several funds included in the plan, which may not be the best performers or the cheapest (or, if neither, at least the funds with the optimum combination of performance and cost). This, though, is at heart what all breach of fiduciary duty claims related to excessive fees or other complaints about fund selection are directed at, namely whether the fiduciaries included the right mix of funds. In theory, fiduciaries will do that, if for no other reason than out of fear of being sued if they don’t. Anecdotally, there seems to be, for instance, greater attention being paid now by plans to fees and fund selection in the wake of the class action litigation that has been pursed over excessive fees and alleged non-disclosure of fees. This is a perfect example of a private attorney general mindset, in which the issues of concern - here, the operation of 401(k) plans - are expected to be avoided by the threat of liability and, if they are not, are remedied by private litigation; this is, theoretically anyway, the counter to the type of more regulated regime to which the author compares the 401(k) world.