High Cost Investments, Payments to Sponsors, and the National Education Association

Been away from the desk for a few days, but not away from my reading, and there’s been a whole series of things in the media that may be of interest to those who read this blog that I have meant to pass along and comment on. I am going to try to post frequent but shorter notes for the next day or three until I cover them all, starting with one that most clearly and directly falls within the jurisdiction of this blog, concerning the payment of fees to a quasi-retirement plan sponsor. Many of you may have already seen the story, from the New York Times, which concerns payments received by the National Education Association from financial firms whose investment products it recommended to members. As the article explains:

A lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Washington State contends that the National Education Association breached its duty to members by accepting millions of dollars in payments from two financial firms whose high-cost investments it recommended to members in an association-sponsored retirement plan. The case was filed on behalf of two N.E.A. members who had invested in annuities sold by Nationwide Life Insurance Company and the Security Benefit Group. It contends that by actively endorsing these products, which carry high fees, the N.E.A., through its N.E.A. Member Benefits subsidiary, took on the role of a retirement plan sponsor, which must put its members’ interests ahead of its own. By taking fees from the two companies whose annuities N.E.A. Member Benefits recommended to its members, the N.E.A. breached its duty to them, the suit contends.

The article goes on to explain some tricks and twists that the plaintiffs face in trying to press their suit against the N.E.A. related to the payments and the high cost products, namely that the plaintiffs need to shoehorn the case into ERISA by arguing that “because the N.E.A. actively promoted the annuity products to its members, it essentially stepped in as a plan sponsor [thereby making] it subject to Erisa’s fiduciary duty requirements.”

With regard to this problem, concerning the plaintiffs’ need to figure out the best manner to structure their lawsuit, what you are really seeing is the problem of forcing a square peg into a round hole. I have argued in other posts that, as we move decisively from a defined benefit plan world to a defined contribution world, and thereby make plan participants the bearers of all the risks of their retirement investments, we need to simultaneously provide those plan participants with the legal protections and tools to manage those risks, including the types of risks alleged in this case, of misleading investment recommendations, undisclosed payments, and excessive costs.

I hope to keep an eye on this case going forward, as it may provide an excellent window on the question of whether, and if so how, the law can evolve to deal with these changes in the real world environment in which people now must prepare for retirement.