What Vanity Fair Teaches About Fiduciary Obligations

Not to be too flippant or cynical, but whenever, over the years, I have heard an economist base a nice, highly logical, elegantly structured analysis on the underlying base assumption that investors or business people or consumers are acting rationally – without accounting for the likelihood that they won’t actually do that – I understand anew why cynics call economics the dismal science (I often like to cross-examine economists by asking them about that reputation, if for no other reason than the sport of it). As a result, nothing about this article by Michael Lewis on the extensive literature in psychology – including Nobel Prize winning work –concerning the utterly non-rational behavior of individuals and the problems it exposes in economic theory really came as a surprise to me.

But if not a surprise, the article and the ideas it elegantly presents have a special significance for ERISA litigation and fiduciary obligations, believe it or not. Much of breach of fiduciary duty litigation is about establishing the parameters of what is the responsibility of the fiduciaries and what is instead the responsibility of plan participants. The Seventh Circuit, most famously, in Hecker seemed to have concluded that participants in defined contribution plans need to apply a caveat emptor approach to selecting mutual fund options and that fiduciaries do not have a particularly heightened duty to police the fees and expenses inherent in those investment choices, a point I discussed here; similarly, the history of employer stock drop litigation suggests that many courts and judges now believe that in almost all circumstances, employees – and not fiduciaries – have the duty to keep watch over whether retirement investing in employer stock is prudent, a point I discussed here.

This approach, though, places an awfully high burden on participants who are generally speaking, not particularly sophisticated investors and certainly not professional ones, and who are instead simply sorting out investment options in the spare time they have after doing their real jobs, the ones that they have to do well enough that they will stay employed so that they can continue to be a participant in such plans in the first place. Worse yet, as pointed out above, it is an unfair assumption to believe they will even act rationally in that role in the first instance. So does it make any sense, then, to place the burdens of investment decision making on plan participants, rather than on fiduciaries? Fiduciaries, after all, are charged by statute with acting in this regard with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence of someone knowledgeable about the subject, and there is no such statutory obligation imposed on participants. When you combine the original statutory calculus as to which side of the equation – participants or fiduciaries – should carry the responsibility of expertise, with the likelihood of irrational investment decision making by amateurs (a/k/a plan participants), one has to ask whether the line between the responsibilities of fiduciaries and those assigned to plan participants in recent court decisions is being drawn in the wrong place.

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