I mentioned in a prior post that I was speaking on a panel with David Webber of Boston University Law School. David’s blog, Labor Capital, has a nice post on the financial weakness of public pension plans, and the questionable financial transactions that have led to it; you can find it here. I have commented in various posts on the same phenomenon at different times, but what was interesting to me about David’s post is how much it sounds like the gamesmanship with pension funding that eventually brought about the enaction of ERISA itself. One wonders whether the problems of state pension funds will eventually lead to some sort of broader national reform effort of a similar nature targeted at those funds.

This in turn leads to another thought, which again links to the seminar I presented last week, which concerned the legal implications of the shift from pensions to 401(k) plans. ERISA was enacted, as noted, in response to pension problems and to create some uniform rules and regulations to govern them. One can argue that, in hindsight, the system that was created – a mix of regulation, insurance and private enforcement – did a pretty good job controlling pension issues. Now, however, we have, in essence, moved out of the pension world and, for all intents and purposes, into the defined contribution world, and ERISA in all its forms – litigation theories, judicial doctrines, regulatory provisions, etc. – have not yet caught up, resulting in ERISA not currently being as well suited to govern defined contribution plans as it was for governing pension plans. From this perspective, one can see the new fee disclosure regulations, for instance, as steps towards grafting on the type of regulatory and other controls that are appropriate for the defined contribution world, and that were not needed before, when pensions roamed the earth.

I think it is important to realize this, as we watch both the DOL develop new rules and the courts develop doctrines to govern employer stock drop, excessive fee, and other hot topics related to defined contribution plans, so that we are aware of exactly what we are watching proceed, which is – from a very broad and macro perspective – the creation of a framework for applying ERISA, and its fiduciary duty obligations in particular, to the defined contribution world which we now inhabit. In hindsight, in terms of jurisprudential philosophy, that is what the Supreme Court’s decision in LaRue was about: the recognition that the fiduciary liability rules applicable to defined benefit plans may have to change to match the reality of the defined contribution world.