One underlying theme of much commentary about 401(k) plans is the idea that their replacement of pensions as the primary retirement vehicle for most private sector workers was not intended, and is the walking, talking example of the law of unintended consequences. Seen as it was in its origin myth – as a supplemental retirement investment vehicle – its flaws become less significant; for instance, questions of the appropriate levels of fees, or whether and under what circumstances to include employer stock, are less important when the risks of reduced return from those issues impact not the participant’s primary retirement investment, but rather a supplement to it. In some ways, that is the revolution of BrightScope. I have spoken with lawyers and industry people who quibble (and sometimes outright quarrel) with its math, but the reality is that, regardless, it is the first public forum (that I know of, anyway) to really treat 401(k)s as what they truly are: the primary retirement vehicle for a vast swath of the public. Viewed in that light, every piece of information that impacts or reduces performance, which BrightScope tries to capture and communicate to the participants, is of the utmost importance, something that would not be the case if 401(k)s played a less central role in employee retirement planning.

I was thinking of this today because of two stories on issues involving the use of ESOPs and 401(k) plans for purposes other than retirement income accumulation; in both cases, for the more traditional purpose – in my mind anyway – of motivating employees and managing tax exposures. As tools for these purposes, they have more value and less risk than they do as primary retirement vehicles. Both though are subject to distortion depending on the nature of the management of them: the ESOP by misuse, as I have written before, as a tempting tool for corporate transactions and the 401(k) by mismanagement of its investment selection and cost. Each risk is countered, or supposed to be, by the fiduciary obligations of those operating the plans, and at heart this is what the Department of Labor initiatives to expand the scope of fiduciaries is targeted at: making sure that all those who play a management or similar key role in the operation of these types of plans become fiduciaries and are subject to the discipline imposed by that status, in terms of potential liability exposure, behavioral demands and expectations, and litigation risks.