A Parable About the Cable Man

For reasons too obscure and uninteresting to mention, I have had almost nothing to do with the cable tv industry since, well, it was invented. What’s a DVR, anyway, and why would I want one? But yesterday, I had to obtain digital cable from my local cable company, and called them, braced to be gouged. Instead, I was offered a special deal for a year, much less than I was expecting to pay, with stuff I would never pay for thrown in. A few hours later, of course, the reason occurred to me. The cable monopoly I recall from my youth is not what I was dealing with, and I was instead talking to a cable company that had competition from dishes - Dish.com, I guess? - and the local telephone/internet/cable company, so instead of gouging me, they had to offer me a deal they figured would keep me as a customer. Classic economic, legal and antitrust theory holds that there are really just two ways to police pricing - competition or, in its absence, regulation. Competition, of course, is why I got my sweet deal on cable yesterday.

So what does this have to do with the topics of this blog? Seems like plenty, in that it is the absence of above board open competition that is at the root of much of the problems discussed in these pages concerning ERISA governed plans. I have discussed in many posts that the problem with health insurance coverage through employers has much less to do with the question of whether employers want to provide it than it has to do with the ever escalating cost of health insurance and the fact that providing health insurance is a punishing cost. Employers, in my view, are unfairly demonized as trying to avoid providing health insurance, but it is the cost that is driving their increasing balkiness about being, as I have described it in other posts, unofficially deputized as the providers of health insurance in this country. From where I sit, one of the fundamental problems with acts mandating health insurance provision or payments by employers is that they don’t account for this, either by reducing health insurance costs or by recognizing the business costs imposed by these types of statutes. Does anybody really think that the restaurants targeted by the San Francisco statute are swimming in profits? This article here, profiled on the Workplace Prof blog, describes this exact concern about costs as the driving force behind employer, and particularly small employer, health insurance decisions.

And perhaps one solution to the problem of the cost of providing health insurance - perhaps the most important one - is that what is good for the cable industry should also be sauce for the gander, i.e., much greater competition among, and significantly less market control by, health insurers, as pointed out in this op-ed piece here by Robert Reich (when even the archetype liberals are arguing that market competition is the answer to all evils, you know the world has turned upside down).

And the same thought continues across to 401(k) plans, and the ongoing issue of fees and costs in investment options, and how they are disclosed. What if, instead of arguing after the fact about whether the fees in a particular plan were too high, prudent fiduciary practices were deemed to require a competitive process for selecting investment options, in a manner forcing putative vendors to put their lowest cost options forward to win the business? Isn’t that what all the complaining about large asset plans that don’t use their size to win better pricing is about, after all? Instead of just complaining in the abstract that plan sponsors should have acted that way, or engaging in after the fact litigation to try to police how much should have been charged in fees, wouldn’t it make more sense to just require a fully competitive process among vendors for selecting investment options, conducted by fiduciaries - or their delegates - who have the knowledge base to understand the pricing structure of the proposed options?

In that version of the world, it would be a fiduciary obligation to impose a fully competitive, open call for investment options, and to select the best - including on fees, costs, disclosure and performance - from among them, with it being a fiduciary breach for failing to pursue this process (rather than it being a fiduciary breach for ending up with fees that are too high). The focus would return in this way to fiduciary practice, both in terms of judging conduct as meeting or failing to meet the standards of a fiduciary and in terms of whether to impose liability, rather than on an after the fact, necessarily subjective evaluation of the amount of fees, costs, or disclosure in a particular plan that resulted from the fiduciary’s decisions.

Open competition would certainly drive down the fees and costs in plans, while simultaneously giving fiduciaries a clear standard - namely their obligation to decide on the basis of such competition - against which to work. I can’t help but think that, like the cable customer, plan participants will end up with better and cheaper products to pick from, while plans - and their insurers - will spend substantially less on litigation costs.