Ayres is Wrong, and Hecker is Wrong: Establishing a Fiduciary Breach Through Excessive Fees

A further thought on Ayres’ focus on what he calls dominated funds, namely funds with higher than necessary fees that nonetheless contain a disproportionate amount of a 401k plan’s assets, and whether their inclusion by a plan sponsor should be seen as a fiduciary breach. As I discussed in a recent post, it’s a viable theory, and a welcome antidote to the very low bar set by the Seventh Circuit in Hecker on the question of fees when it found that simply including lots of funds with fees set by the market as a whole represented a sufficient effort by fiduciaries when it came to protecting participants against unnecessarily high fees. However, as I also pointed out in my recent post, the Eighth Circuit, in Tussey, cabined that mistake by the Seventh Circuit, without needing to take the broader step urged by Ayres, which is to treat the excessive use in a plan of one fund with higher fees, in and of itself and without anything more, as a breach (as Ayres and a co-author argue for here). It is probably a bit much to say that this later circumstance, without more (such as the circumstance being caused by a mapping strategy that benefits a plan sponsor by driving down operational costs), should be enough to impose liability for breach of a fiduciary duty.

And why is that? Probably because such an approach applies a very paternalistic view to 401k plans, employees, and their employers (in the guise of plan sponsor and/or plan fiduciary). Ayres’ thesis presumes the existence of low cost – presumably index – funds within a plan, along with higher cost funds, and assumes that it is effectively a breach to allow funds to flow into the latter. It seems to me, though, that it places too low a burden on participants, and gives them too little credit. If there are a range of funds available in a plan, and mapping or other decisions are not driving employee withholdings into the higher priced funds, then it seems to me participants should be free to make their own call on what funds to hold. Further, unless one accepts the premise that no knowledgeable investor would ever use any fund other than the lowest cost funds (which requires living under a presumption that only index funds or similar passive investing funds can ever be an appropriate investment), then it is not legitimate to say that a prudent person in the position of the plan fiduciary could not make available higher cost funds along with lower costs funds. If that is the case, then it cannot be a breach of fiduciary duty to include such a range of funds in a plan – even if it results in some participants over investing in the higher cost funds.

In essence, while the Seventh Circuit – as I have often said and written – was wrong to believe that the inclusion of many funds is enough to preclude a breach of fiduciary duty by the inclusion of investment options with excessive fees, so too is the premise that simply having an excessive amount of assets invested in a higher price product that is included among many funds with varying fee structures is enough to constitute a breach. The truth, as with most things, lies somewhere in between – you need more than simply excessive investing in a higher priced fund, and less than simply inclusion of many fund choices, to have a fiduciary breach based on the costs of the investment options in a 401k plan.