At the end of each quarterly, I update the five and ten-year Active Management Value Ratio analyses for the non-index based mutual funds in the top ten funds in “Pensions & Investments” list of most commonly used mutual funds in U.S. defined contribution.
Given the recent performance of the markets, it should come as no surprise that the 5 and 10-Year AMVR analyses of the six most popular non-index mutual funds in U.S. defined contribution plans remain relatively unchanged.
Interesting to note that for both the 5 and 10-year period, only Vanguard PRIMECAP Admiral shares managed to qualify for an AMVR ranking.
Also interesting to note the importance of factoring in a fund’s risk-adjusted returns. On the 5-year AMVR analyses, factoring in risk-adjusted returns turned AF’s Washington Mutual Fund’s incremental return from (0.90) on nominal returns, to a positive 0.13. Admittedly, a small positive number, but still a significant change.
On the 10-year AMVR analyses slide, factoring in the fund’s risk-adjusted returns turned their incremental return from (0.57) (nominal) to 0.57 (risk-adjusted.) Likewise for Fidelity Contafund, where an incremental return of (0.79) (nominal) turned into a small, yet positive, 0.09.
Overall, the song remains the same, with the majority of actively managed funds being unable to overcome the combination of the weight of higher fees and cost and high r-squared/correlation of returns number to beat the index of comparable index funds
And so, we continue to see 401(k) actions alleging a breach of fiduciary duties by plan sponsors. Of note, we are seeing an increasing number of cases focusing on target date funds (TDFs). I expect to see more actions involving TDFs, as the AMVR provides compelling evidence of the imprudence of the active versions of such funds. I will post an updated analysis of the active and index versions of both the Fidelity Freedom and TIAA-CREF Lifestyle TDFs next week
Somehow some judges are buying this fallacy that participants get better recordkeeping by paying substantially more for it. They are accepting this myth without proof and are actually blocking the transparency which would expose this truth by denying discovery.
Low-Cost recordkeeper Employee Fiduciary says “There are few industries where the phrase “you get what you pay for” is less applicable than the 401(k) industry. That’s because equally competent 401(k) providers can charge dramatically different fees for comparable administration services and investments.[i] Employee Fiduciary comes out with an example weekly on huge savings in recordkeeping. [ii]
There are no material differences in quality of recordkeeping services Fidelity at $30 a head is same service as Fidelity at $90 a head. There are really no material differences that a participant can tell between any recordkeepers, they get statements and have access to a web site. –
Smug articles gloat on how courts have blocked transparency of discovery for so called differences in record keeping quality that no participants or anyone in the industry can even measure. [iii] As attorney James Watkins says “Requiring a plaintiff to plead specific information known only to the defendant, without an opportunity to discover such specifics, is obviously just an attempt to protect plans.”
In this absurd insult to justice and transparency, some judges are putting the initial burden of proof on participants where the plan is deliberately hiding the critical information needed to fulfill that burden.
In addition, revenue sharing is an another way to help hide excessive recordkeeping fees, as some judges ignore these obvious issues. A 2021 study by experts from the Federal Reserve and leading universities says higher fees are not associated with better performance; to the contrary, “The future performance of revenue-sharing funds is weaker than that of non-sharing funds. The bulk of the under-performance is driven by higher fees, though revenue sharing funds display lower performance even after accounting for fees.”[iv]
Revenue sharing does not hold up during discovery and this has been confirmed by the fiduciary liability insurance industry, which put much higher litigation risk on plans with revenue sharing and either denying coverage or raising rates significantly. [v]
There are some instances of additional administrative services couched as education that can, in fact, be harmful to participants. Especially insurance providers, and especially in hospitals which are known to provide commissioned salespeople who actually try to push participants into higher fee funds and cross-sell them on imprudent outside investments as well.
Competitive recordkeeping costs have been established at $30 to $50 per heard for plans over $200 million in assets. There are no material differences in the quality of recordkeeping. Judges are dismissing fees double to such fees for identical services. The fact that such fees are largely ignored because they are non-transparent in no way reduces the significant harm they cause to participants.
The 401(k) market differs greatly by size. 85 percent of 401k plans (534 out of 631 thousand defined contribution plans) (DC Plans) are under $5 million in size. The DOL is overwhelmed with the 534 thousand plans under $5 million, of which there are enough bad actors doing engaged in highly questionable activities, such as taking participants’ money for personal use, that they have not touched the excessive fees issue, leaving it to the legal community to address such concerns. Less than 1 percent of DC Plans are over $200 million in assets and are generally cost effective to litigate.
However, less than 1 percent is still nearly 4000 plans with over $200 million each in assets. However, within this 4000, differences vary greatly by size as well. My best guess is that less than 500 actions have been filed according to what I have found. I still believe there is room for around 2500 more actions to be filed over the next decade.
An August 2022 Bloomberg article cites $150 million in settlements over the last 3 years. Bloomberg puts the number filed at around 200 since 2019 so my estimates may be conservative.[i] Bloomberg notes that decisions issued in the seven months since the US Supreme Court Hughes decision have tended to favor plaintiffs over defendants. Bloomberg predicts that “employers negotiating future settlements may be facing higher price tags than the $1 million to $5 million range seen over the past few years.” This Bloomberg article shows a growing pace of ERISA litigation.
An August 2022 article by Fred Barstein of 401kTV also predicts the rapid growth of litigation in smaller 401(k) plans. [ii]
401(k) plans of $3 billion and more assets According to my data base there are 334 plans over $3 billion in assets. This has been the most litigated group, with well over 100 actions filed. There is still a high probability of 100 or more cases coming from this group, perhaps even more if there is double dipping, as many earlier litigating plans have gone halfway at best in lowering fees.
For larger plan administrative costs, fees above $50 a head, or even one high fee option, may be enough to trigger a suit. This could apply to plans that have already been litigated once and did not adequately cut costs the first time. Does every plan option have to been prudent even those who go through to the brokerage window? If so, this could this be litigated as high fee funds and even Crypto Currency are in widely held brokerage windows.
Many of the largest plans unitize investments with defined benefit plans. Will the new level of transparency go through to target date funds with underlying alternatives like Private Equity? Alternative contracts typically contain multiple fiduciary breaches, excessive fees along with liquidity and other breaches.
401(k) plans of $1b – $3 billion
There are an estimated 717 plans between $1-$3 billion, with probably 200 that have been litigated, leaving room for maybe 300 more.
There are lots of plans with administrative costs above $50 a head, or even more with at least one high fee option, along with all the other attributes like brokerage windows like the largest plans.
401(k) plans of $500m – $1 billion There are 961 plans between $500m $1 billion, with probably only 50 or less cases litigated. This area will probably have the most explosive growth, with well over 600 plans with high fee providers. There are many higher fee insurance recordkeepers in this group and conflicted consultants, along with share class violations in many funds.
401(k) plans of $200m – $500m There are 2259 plans between $200-$500 million. 2022 will start to see a great growth in litigation in this area. Plans in this group who start fixing their plans could greatly minimize their chances of litigation. I still guess that over 1500 plans could be subject to litigation. There are even more higher fee insurance recordkeepers in this group and conflicted consultants, along with share class violations in many funds.
403(b) plans ERISA 403(b) plans include: not-for-profit hospitals, and not-for-profit universities, private not-for-profit K-12 schools. Non-ERISA 403(b) plans include public K-12 schools, public universities and some university related hospitals.
The largest 30 or so private universities 403(b)s have already been hit with litigation. Northwestern is typical with 3 different recordkeepers Fidelity, Vanguard, & TIAA. This portion of the 403(b) market with multiple recordkeepers is unique as almost all 401(k), which is more oriented toward single record keeper, so all could be litigated around administrative costs. Fidelity and TIAA also have high-cost options and TIAA has high-cost higher risk annuity options as well. The next 100 or so private universities will be at great risk of litigation.
The big wave of 403(b) litigation will probably be hospitals. While they typically only have one recordkeeper, they are much more likely than 401(k) plans of the same size to use higher fee (especially insurance company) based platforms.
401(k) plans of $50m – $200m There are an estimated 8646 plans between $50-$200 million. I predict litigation will be low in 2022 as there are so many larger targets. However, over the next decade it could pick up. This gives plans in this size range time to clean up their plans, giving maximum value to participants while minimizing litigation risk in the future.
Higher fee insurance recordkeepers, conflicted consultants along with multiple share class violations, are rampant in this group with much higher percentage.
401(k) plans of $20-$50m and $5-20m There are an estimated 14915 plans between $20-$50 million and an estimated 69343 plans between $5-$20 million. I predict that litigation involving these plans will be rare during the next 5 years, as there are so many larger targets, but over the next decade it could pick up. This gives plans in this size range time to clean up their plans, giving maximum value to participants while minimizing litigation risk in the future.
Parting Thoughts 401(k) litigation is only in its infancy, with only 15-20 percent of the 3000 potential largest complaints filed. This number could triple if the litigation goes down to plans from $50-$200 million. All of the controversy now is mostly in the largest cases being litigated. Most of these smaller cases are much more clear-cut regarding potential fiduciary violations.
Plans can fix themselves or wait to be sued. Unfortunately, many are close-minded, relying solely on conflicted advice from brokers and insurance agents that tell plans that they are OK when they actually are not. Many plans will be in for a rude awakening.
Whenever plan sponsors and plan advisers talk about 401(k) litigation, they always point the finger at those bad ‘ol ERISA plaintiff attorneys. Since I am one of those bad folks, I respectfully disagree with such sentiments. I respectfully suggest that plan sponsors should look in the mirror to see the real party for such litigation. As the famous comic strip, “Pogo,” once said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Whenever I talk with a CEO and or a 401(k) investment committee, this is the first graphic I show them. Most plan advisers insist on plan sponsors agree to an advisory contract that contains a fiduciary disclaimer clause. Many plan sponsors are not aware that they have agreed to such a provision since they are usually set out in legalese. But they are usually there.
When a plan sponsor agrees to such a clause, it waives important protections for both itself and the plan participants. With a fiduciary disclaimer clause, securities licensed advisers can claim to be subject to Regulation “Best Interest” (Reg BI) rather than the more demanding duties of loyalty and prudence required under a true fiduciary standard.
Reg BI claims that it requires brokers to always put a customer’s best interests first, including considering the costs associated with any and all recommendations. The Reg BI turns around and allows brokers to only consider “readily available alternatives,” which the SEC considers to be the cost-inefficient and consistently underperforming actively managed mutual funds and various annuity products. In whose best interests?
Unless a plan sponsor properly performs the investigation and evaluation required under ERISA, this usually results in 401(k) litigation and the plan sponsor settling for a significant amount. As we discussed in a previous post, when you consider that all of this can be easily avoided by a plan sponsor by performing a cost-efficiency analysis using our free Active Management Value Ratio, you have to wonder why plan sponsors do not better protect themselves by simplifying their plans and ensuring that they are ERISA-compliant.
My experience has been that most plan sponsors create unnecessary liability exposure for themselves due to a mistaken understanding of their true fiduciary duties. “The CommonSense 401(k) Plan”™ provides a simple solution that reduces both administration costs and potential liability exposure, resulting in a win-win situation for both plan participants and plan sponsors.
So, for plan sponsors and plan advisers, the next time you point a finger at ERISA plaintiff’s attorney and blame us for the number of 401(k) litigation cases, remember the words of my good friend, Charles Nichols, when you point at us, three of your remaining fingers point back at you. Then contact InvestSense for a free “The CommonSense 401(k) Plan” consultation at “CommonSense InvestSense.” (investsense.com)
Copyright InvestSense, LLC 2022. All rights reserved.
This article is for informational purposes only, and is neither designed nor intended to provide legal, investment, or other professional advice since such advice always requires consideration of individual circumstances. If legal, investment, or other professional assistance is needed, the services of an attorney or other professional advisor should be sought.
I have looked at dozens of retirement committee meeting minutes working with both public and ERISA retirement plans and I have seen little or no discussion of vendor due diligence around lawsuits and regulatory issue.
When firms hire an employee, they usually do a background check. From SHRM”
A background investigation generally involves determining whether an applicant may be unqualified for a position due to a record of criminal conviction, motor vehicle violations, poor credit history, or misrepresentation regarding education or work history. [i]
Given this exhaustive process for one new hire it makes sense to run the same type of background check on vendors for the employee’s retirement plan and It can be argued is the plans fiduciary duty to run one on each vendor.
While a violation may not be an immediate reason to disqualify and terminate a vendor, it would be a good fiduciary process for the plan to ask the vendor to explain the violation and why it does not affect their ability to serve the plan.
A lot of plan fiduciaries would not be surprised by 401(k) litigation if they had followed this easy fiduciary process. Many of the same firms caught by the SEC for share class violations for retail and other institutional funds are doing the same thing in 401(k) and it is showing up in litigation. Many of these firms avoid fiduciary responsibility in their contracts multiplying this risk.
Violation tracker quickly shows: Prudential has 19 investor protection violations with fines totally over $744 million.[ii] Wells Fargo has 223 overall violations 93 investor protection violations. Bank of America 264 overall violations 119 investor protection violations.
.Going to the SEC website under litigation you can easily find the following more detailed violations.
SEC Merrill Lynch (B of A) – Share Class Violation April 17, 2020
SEC Wells Fargo (Bridgehaven)Share Class March 11, 2018
SEC Morgan Stanley (Greystone)Share Class November 7, 2019
SEC TIAAJuly 2021 misleading statements failure to disclose conflicts of interest [i]
SEC MML Mass MutualSept 21 Revenue Sharing Share class violations
SEC VALIC Financial Advisors Inc. AIG-VALICJuly 28, 2020 Revenue Sharing Share class violations
SEC VOYA Financial Advisors Inc ING-VOYADec. 21, 2020 Share class Revenue Sharing Share class violations
SEC PRUCO Securities, LLC (Prudential)Dec 23, 2020 Rev Sharing Share class violationsFINRA PIMS June 2020
SEC PRINCIPAL Securities, Inc.March 11, 2019 Revenue Sharing Share class violations
SEC TRANSAMERICASept 30, 2020 fee gauging TA FINRA Share Class Variable 2020 annuities2014 Fee Gauging
A prudent ERISA fiduciary should be aware of these violations, and/or their consultants/attorneys should have brought this to their attention. They should also be aware of any 401(k) litigation each vendor is involved in both directly and indirectly.
Each vendor’s contracts should state they take fiduciary duty as to not shift it back to the plan.
A background check for every vendor is essential for fiduciaries.
Crypto, trying to bribe its way into 401ks via Congress and with providers like Fidelity, has exposed a non-transparent dark area of 401(k) that has been on the back burner – brokerage windows. A typical plan has 12 to 16 main options, but a brokerage window could add hundreds of additional choices that so far have escaped any oversight. Fidelity stated they would put crypto as a main option and prompted this response from the DOL
“The plan fiduciaries responsible for overseeing [cryptocurrency] investment options or allowing such investments through brokerage windows should expect to be questioned about how they can square their actions with their duties of prudence and loyalty.”[i
The DOL advisory council put together a report on brokerage windows that basically said they are so immaterial, that the DOL needs to give little or no oversight to them since those in the brokerage window are aware of the additional risks.[v]
A report cites PSCSA that
23.2 percent of all retirement plans offer a brokerage window, and nearly 40 percent of those with more than 5,000 participants do. Even though brokerage windows are being offered in many plans, participants do not use them widely only 1.5 percent of plan assets are invested through brokerage windows. DOL states that custodians saw a usage ranged from .03 percent to 3 percent. [vi]
Because of their size, less attention has been paid to brokerage windows both by the DOL and the plaintiff’s bar. But with the declaration by Fidelity to offer crypto as a main option within plans and the DOL doing its job by sounding concerns, people realized that there could be crypto investing already going on in brokerage windows, with most plans not having a clue.
Fidelity, who is the largest runner of brokerage windows and who cut the deal with bitcoin to put them on their platform, are most likely receiving millions of undisclosed dollars from the crypto crowd.
Crypto is pouring millions into DC lobbying, and seems shocked that DOL did their job and did not roll over like they did with private equity investments under Trump.
Bloomberg writes that
Under that guidance, which the DOL issued last month, employers could be responsible for risky crypto trades their workers make in workplace 401(k)s. The DOL’s employee benefits enforcement agency will launch what it’s calling “an investigative program” that requires plan officials to “square their actions with their duties of prudence and loyalty” if they allow crypto investments in self-directed accounts, according to the guidance.[vii]
“This is a very damning statement about brokerage windows,” said Lisa Tavares, a partner at Venable LLP and a former IRS attorney.”
Since almost all brokerage windows have excessive fees and many have excessive risks that do not pass fiduciary scrutiny, this opens up almost any plan with a brokerage window to potential litigation.
Leading plaintiffs firm Keller Rohrback LLP is investigating whether employees and retirees have paid unnecessary fees in connection with their use of brokerage windows such as excessive fees, selecting funds based on the amount of fees shared with the brokerage firm, and selecting more expensive share classes despite the availability of less expensive classes of the same fund. They have targeted particular large firms like Continental Airlines, Kimberly-Clarke, Lilly, and Caterpillar looking for plaintiffs.[viii]
In the article, “401(k)s with Bitcoin Should Expect Lawsuits: Lawyers,” trade publication “Ignites” quotes Jerry Schlichter as saying that
Any employer who would follow the Fidelity lead by offering cryptocurrency and 401(k) plan is exposing itself to very serious risk of a fiduciary breach…. As an unproven, highly volatile investment, Bitcoin would test the prudence standard under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act….The account will carry a fee of up to 90 basis points, plus undisclosed commission fees, which would be 20 times as much as a simple index fund.[ix]
The defense bar is trying to talk up a structure the digital accounts to qualify for 404(c) protections. Schlichter, however, suggested that 404(c) protections would not provide a safe harbor anyway. He pointed to a Supreme Court decisionhanded down in January that found that plan sponsors could not escape their responsibility for allowing imprudent investments in their plans even if they feature them alongside prudent ones. Schlichter represents the plaintiffs in that case, the plan participants in Northwestern University’s 403(b) plan.Quoting Schlichter,
“[The Supreme Court] said, ‘No, the employer plan sponsor has the duty to furnish only prudent options,’ and the same applies here.'”
Any 401(k) plans with a brokerage window will be subject to severe fiduciary liability unless they can prove they have provided 100% prudent options. This will most likely lead to much more litigation and many more settlements, as the cost of proving 100% prudent options will be extremely expensive.
50 percent of all 401(k) assets are in target date funds. I believe Target Date Funds were created to sustain higher fees. The least transparent Target Date Funds are those that are not SEC registered mutual funds. Many are in poorly state regulated annuities either in whole or in part. Many are in poorly state regulated Collective Investment Trusts (CIT)s Many CIT’s can hide private equity or annuities and their many hidden fees and risks. Many, if not most, CIT based Target Date Funds and all annuity TDF’s are a fiduciary breach based on the higher risks alone, not to mention the excessive fees.[i]
Weak Regulation There is a general assumption that CIT’s are regulated by the Federal Government Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Some CIT’s are regulated by the OCC while many others are regulated by one of 50 state bank regulators. This allows CITs to choose their own state regulator who may have the laxest oversight. [ii] While the SEC mutual fund regulations are not perfect, they do control for a lot of risks and provide a good amount of transparency
Prudential Day One Target Date funds provide this disclosure to plans:
Unlike mutual funds, the Day One Funds, as insurance company separate accounts or collective investment trusts, are exempt from Securities and Exchange Commission registration under both the Securities Act of 1933 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 but are subject to oversight by state banking or insurance regulators, as applicable. Therefore, investors are generally not entitled to the protections of the federal securities laws.[iii]
Principal provides this disclosure:
The CITs are not mutual funds and are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the State of Oregon, or any other regulatory body.
The Collective Trust and the Funds intend to qualify for the exclusion from the definition of an “investment company” under the 1940 Act provided for by Section 3(c)(11) of the 1940 Act. The Section 3(c)(11) exclusion is available for collective investment funds maintained by a bank consisting solely of assets of certain employee benefit plans. Accordingly, Participating Trusts will not have the benefit of the protections afforded by the 1940 Act (which, among other things, requires investment companies to have governing boards of directors with a majority of disinterested directors and regulates the relationship between the adviser and the investment company). The offering of units of the Funds (each, a “Unit”) has not been registered under the U.S. securities laws or the laws of any applicable jurisdiction. Therefore, Participating Trusts will not have the benefit of the protections afforded by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) under the Securities Act of 1933 (the “1933 Act”) (which, among other things, requires specified disclosure in connection with the offering of securities). Neither the SEC nor any state securities commission has approved or disapproved of the Units or determined if this document is accurate or complete. Any representation to the contrary is a criminal offense
In these cases, it appears these target date funds are avoiding SEC and any kind of federal regulation. The only state regulator with any standards close to the SEC is New York and most of these funds avoid NY regulation whenever possible.
How can any fiduciary subject to Federal ERISA laws use for its main investment options target date funds that go out of their way to avoid Federal oversight?
Toxic Assets A major reason to avoid SEC oversight is to put in investments which are not allowed in SEC registered mutual funds because of risk. The other reason is to load up on assets with hidden fees which will not be disclosed under the current weak regulation.
Private equity, along with other illiquid contract investments like hedge funds, private debt, real estate is a potential fiduciary time bomb for plans and their participants. In target date funds even a small allocation to a Target Date Fund, with the excessive risk, lack of outperformance and excessive fees seem to make it a fiduciary risk. [iv]
A disclosure from Principal:
A differentiating aspect…..is exposure to alternatives (hedge fund strategies).[v] ….. Given the managers approach to asset allocation (more equities and alternatives)…. Exposure to nontraditional (commodities, natural resources, and real estate) and alternative (hedge fund strategies) asset classes is a differentiating aspect from a style perspective relative to the peer group
Principal LifeTime Hybrid CITs may invest in various types of investments including Principal Funds, Inc. institutional class shares, Principal Life
Insurance Company Separate Accounts and other collective investment trusts and mutual funds.The risks associated with derivative investments include …that there may be no liquid secondary market, Investing in real estate securities, subjects the Fund to the risks associated with the real estate market (which are similar to the risks associated with direct ownership in real estate), including declines in real estate values, loss due to casualty or condemnation, property taxes, interest, rate changes, increased expenses, cash flow of underlying real estate assets, regulatory changes (including zoning, land use and rents) and environmental problems, as well as to the risks related to the management skill and creditworthiness of the issuer.
Like high-risk hedge funds Prudential, Principal and others have the contractual right to put up gates and restrict liquidity if they are downgraded or in danger of default. They can refuse to give the plan/participant their money at any time which would be illegal in a SEC registered mutual fund
Annuities I spent 7 years at Transamerica making insurance annuity 401k products Anytime an insurance company puts something in an annuity form, they take ownership of the underlying securities put it on their balance sheet and squeeze out another 150 bps or more in spread fees. Anytime something is put in an insurance company Separate Account, same thing they take ownership and lock in a spread.
These annuities do not have SEC mutual fund oversight, and the plan does not own the underlying SEC registered securities, the insurance company does. I make the argument that any annuity is a fiduciary breach. [vi]
Prudential Day One Funds may be offered as: (i) insurance company separate accounts available under group variable annuity contracts issued by Prudential Retirement Insurance and Annuity Company (PRIAC),
Sub-Advised Investment Options include Separate Accounts available through a group annuity contract with Principal Life Insurance Co.
Fees Target Date Funds are so opaque that the actual fees and profits are hard to pin down. I estimate that many could approach 200 basis points or more.
Principal Target dates have 13 underlying funds 5 insurance company separate accounts (annuities), 4 CIT’s, 4 proprietary mutual funds, for a total of 25 share classes.
The disclosed fees are even way above most providers, so any plan using these is not trying to minimize fees.
Conclusion Any plan sponsor who invests in one of these black hole CIT funds deserves to be sued. I guess that in many cases there is a so-called consultant receiving a huge undisclosed insurance commission.
One of my favorite disclosures:
The ultimate decision as to whether a Principal LifeTime Hybrid CIT is an appropriate investment option for a plan and whether a target date fund can serve as a QDIA belongs to the appropriate retirement plan fiduciaries.
interpret this disclosure as the insurance company way of saying “if you are stupid enough to buy our high fee high risk products, it is on you, not us.”
Annuities issued by a single insurance company are a Fiduciary Breach. They can be called guaranteed income, they can be called GIC’s or fixed accounts, or index annuities. I am focused on the institutional annuity products mostly used in 401(k)s. There are many more fiduciary breaches in retail and variable annuities, as noted by attorney James Watkins in his recent article.
There are breaches in institutional annuities for 4 basic reasons
Single Entity Credit Risk
Single Entity Liquidity Risk
Hidden fees spread and expenses
Structure -weak cherry-picked state regulated contracts not securities and useless reserves
A 1992 Federal Reserve paper notes that the so-called insurance safety net is much weaker than most realize. [i]
Annuities are in the news as insurance companies are pouring millions of dollars into lobbying and PR and advertising trying to trick people into buying them.
The insurance industry spends millions of dollars trying to abolish and weaken fiduciary standards because they do not come close to meeting them.
Insurance companies are especially frustrated with 401(k) plans because they have not only the strongest fiduciary standards, but an enforcement mechanism in 401(k) litigation. While they have lobbied the US Department of Labor to ignore most of their enforcement duties on excessive fees on 401(k), they have not been able to block court action, and the latest Supreme Court ruling has reinforced this.
Annuities in 401(k) plans have traditionally been in 401(k) plans though a stable value of fixed annuity option. [ii] In recent years they are trying to expand into hiding annuities in target date funds,[iii] mostly under the guise of Lifetime Income.[iv]
The Insurance industry’s huge push into 401(k) has even had some plan fiduciary consultants sounding words of caution. A commentary in Benefits Pro by Mitch Shames is titled “Annuities: The Straw That Breaks the Back of Retirement Plan Fiduciaries.”[v]
Annuity contracts, however, are not investment securities. Instead, they are individually negotiated contracts entered into between an insurance company and the annuity-holder. …… the fiduciary will also need to be a prudent expert in the selection of the annuity. That is a pretty tall order. Retirement plan fiduciaries are on notice. Annuity contracts may be the straw that breaks the back of the fragile fiduciary infrastructure employed by plan sponsors under ERISA.[vi]
Single Entity Credit Risk Single Entity Credit Risk – Diversification is one of the most basic Fiduciary duty and annuities totally ignore this. Like a single stock or a single bond is a clear fiduciary breach so is an investment 100% reliant on one entities credit like an insurance contract.
For over 20 years fiduciaries in the know, like large 401(k) plans, fled fixed annuity products backed by the general account of a single insurance company. This was due to concerns about single entity credit and liquidity risk. Many attribute this to the 1992 and 1993 defaults by Executive and Confederation Life, as documented by the Federal Reserve Bank 1992 article.[vii]
In 2005 AIG was AAA rated and some in the trade press said that AIG was as safe as the Government by 2008 it was in default. In 2008 Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that “workers whose 401(k) plans had purchased $40 billion of insurance from AIG against the risk that their stable-value funds would decline in value would have seen that insurance disappear.”[viii] Many investment professionals believe that a plan sponsor is taking a severe fiduciary risk by having a single contract with any one entity, such as AIG. It can be argued that a plan is taking less risk by assuming that the single insurance company backing the stable value option is too big to fail and has an implied government guarantee.
The Federal reserve for several decades bought fixed annuities in their stable value option in there 401(k) option for their employees. They limited credit exposure to 5% per insurance company. In the late 2000’s there were not the 20 issuers needed for diversification so they shut the fund down. Even the few diversified annuity structures still have 25% or 33% single entity exposure which is considered high by fiduciary diversification norms.
Taking 100 perentsingle entity credit risk is a clear breach of fiduciary duty.
Single Entity Liquidity Risk Single Entity Liquidity Risk – A fiduciary managing a bond portfolio sells a bond when it is downgraded to a level allowed in the investment policy. Most Annuities are not allowed to be sold when they are downgraded. They have no liquidity if the firm is downgraded multiplying the credit risk as a participant has to ride it down to default.
Noted Morningstar analyst John Reckenthalrer said in April 2022 that in selecting 401(k) investment options, “inappropriate are investments that don’t price daily.” [ix]
Annuities do not price or mark to market daily. There is a secondary market for retail annuities provided by firms like JG Wentworth and Peachtree, which many times only pay 80 percent on the dollar. So, if you bought an annuity and wanted to sell it the next day on the secondary market, you would take a 20 percent loss. There are annuity products that provide some limited liquidity, what they call benefit responsive, but is always a major fiduciary risk.
Hidden fees spread and expenses Prudential in a 2013 conference documented by Bloomberg bragged that they had secret hidden spread fees of over 200 basis Points.[x]
This loophole allows insurance companies to hide as much 2% or 200 basis points (bps) in yearly spread profits. I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch, stating that
“These excessive profits, even if called spread, act like fees and are used like fees,”[xi]
In addition they continue to pay commissions out of the hidden spread which drive even more sales.
The National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators, Inc. (NAGDCA) in September 2010 created a brochure with this characterization of insurance company general account stable value that got beyond the high risks and right to fee disclosure.
Due to the fact that the plan sponsor does not own the underlying investments, the portfolio holdings, performance, risk, and management fees are generally not disclosed. This limits the ability of plan sponsors to compare returns with other SVFs [stable-value funds]. It also makes it nearly impossible for plan sponsors to know the fees (which can be increased without disclosure) paid by participants in these funds—a critical component of a fiduciary’s responsibility.[xii]
It is hard to comprehend why the DOL lets these products escape disclosure. However, there is already ERISA litigation in which spread fees have been important in settlement negotiations.
Structure -Weak Cherry-Picked State Regulated Contracts and Useless Reserves When you purchase an annuity, you do not get to own any securities, you just get a piece of paper.
Whereas securities (and the firms issuing, offering or underwriting the instruments) are governed by the federal securities laws and regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, insurance companies and the contracts they enter into are governed by the States – 50 different regulators and bodies of law. Once again, the variety can be staggering. This is the world that retirement plan fiduciaries are being forced into. [xiii]
A 1992 Federal Reserve paper notes that the so-called insurance safety net is made of 50 different state regulators with a wide variety of regulations and is much weaker than most realize. This allows companies to shop for insurance regulation among the 50 states to find the ones that have the softest regulations. [xiv] In 2017, The European Union showed concern with the weakness of state regulators of insurance companies. [xv]
Investors are mostly unaware of this risk based on flimsy state guarantees which the Federal Reserve has said have little worth. [xvi] These guarantee fund balances are typically a joke with $0 as they pass the hat to other insurers if one goes under.
Required Fiduciary Questions What should a fiduciary document and become comfortable with before investing in an annuity.
1.Which state issues the annuity, what is their record, do they have conflicts of interest with the insurance company?
2.What is their minimum capital requirement in basis points for this annuity product in the state your contract is issues in?
3.What is the current solvency of that states guarantee pool.
4. Get full fee disclosure all internal spreads (200+) before expenses and then with expenses and profits broken down?
5. Does the Annuity contract have a downgrade provision to get out if the company is downgraded?
All annuities flunk at least one of these fiduciary tests, most flunk all. By and large the Fortune 500 largest US Corporations have avoided these insurance company products in their 401(k) plans since 1992. This is not because of fear of regulators, but because of fear of lawsuits filed by employees under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Thus, many of these non-transparent insurance products are in smaller company plans which are not cost effective for plaintiff bars to litigate individually. However, as litigation goes downstream there are over 9 thousand plans from $100mm to $3 billion out of the top 500 many of which have annuity assets. It is these mid to large plans who need to resist the annuity marketing push into guaranteed income mostly hidden in target date funds.
[i] Pg. 6 Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Summer 1992 Todd, Wallace SPDA’s and GIC’s
Target Date Funds now are above 50% of all 401(k) assets.[i] They are the most non-transparent plan investment option and the easiest to hide fees and play performance games. They are also the dominant default option or QDIA (Qualified Default Investment Alternatives) resulting in the highest level of fiduciary responsibility. Despite the high level of fiduciary risk, they are specifically designed to avoid accountability and thus need the most scrutiny.
A 2021 study shows that in general Target Date funds cause participants to “lose 21%” over career to primarily excessive fees from proprietary funds.[ii] A 2020 study finds that asset managers exploit reduced investor attention (i.e. lack of transparency) to deliver lower performance.[iii]
HISTORY The history of the Target Date Fund, I believe, is mainly a story about Fidelity. I think around 2002 they saw Vanguard and indexing as their biggest threat. Fidelity needed a new vehicle to hide the fees for active mutual funds and created the Target Date Fund.
With heavy lobbying by Fidelity, in 2006 the Pension Protection Act was passed. This act allowed for auto-enrollment of target-date funds into defined contribution plans and set the stage for QDIAs (Qualified Default Investment Alternatives), which strongly supported the growth of these funds.[iv]
Fidelity had Target Date Funds ready to go before the legislation was passed and dominated in market share immediately, and still keep the highest levels today. This gave them basically a 10-year ride from 2006-16 in which they could load-up their higher fee active funds in target date funds with little or no pushback. Starting around 6 years ago there has been a shifting inside Fidelity’s target date funds toward greater indexing.
USING THE RECORDKEEPER After choosing a record keeper or administrator, most plans automatically default to the Target Date Funds of that company. A prudent process would be to have a competitive bid, but most 401(k) committees make selections based on informal processes and relationships.
Many times, the target date and administrative fees are commingled in the Target Date funds using revenue sharing to create a total lack of transparency.[v]
This record keeping default fuels the 2021 study showing that Target Date funds cause participants to “lose 21%” of their end-returns over their career due primarily to excessive fees from proprietary funds [vi]
A 2020 study found that the average higher-cost actively managed target date funds failed to perform as well as the cheaper indexed competition in the 2015-2019 period.[vii] Some of the actively managed funds did very well in relative terms, but most did not. We found that past performance is only weakly predictive of future performance. The implication is that even an active fund with a superior record has an expected future return below the passive alternative TDFs.
However, even within a record keeper’s Target Date Fund selections, there can be a wide variety of fee levels (especially with market leader Fidelity) in which 401(k) committees can make better fiduciary decisions. The burden is on the plan fiduciary to show why they are not selecting an index fund for the Target Date Fund the QDIA.
HIDING HIGH RISKS & FEES IN TARGET DATE FUNDS The least transparent Target Date Funds are those that are not SEC registered mutual funds. Many are in poorly state regulated annuities either in whole or in part. Many are in poorly state regulated Collective Investment Trusts (CIT)s. [viii] There are a few good CITs like the Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price that are clones of their SEC mutual funds at a lower cost. Many CIT’s can hide private equity or annuities and their many hidden fees and risks. [ix]
Many, if not most, CIT based Target Date Funds and all the annuity TDF’s are a fiduciary breach based on the higher risks alone, not to mention the excessive fees.
GAMING THE BENCHMARK Many plans rely on consultants to guide them in the selection of Target Date Funds. However, some consultants have conflicts in which they are compensated more for high fee non-index funds in backdoor payments. Plans blaming consultants on poor Target Date Fund choices does not absolve them from fiduciary liability, but in some cases they have been able to get conflicted consultants to pay a portion of the settlement. [x]
High fee Target Date Funds typically justify their existence by some manipulation of a benchmarks. They may hold investments which are not in the benchmark, which create different performance and risk characteristics. They may use different allocations, mostly to higher equity positions, to create the appearance of higher returns.
A 2020 study shows Target Date Funds ‘Create a Lack of Accountability”[xi] For example a 2040 T. Rowe or American Fund can appear to outperform a 2040 Vanguard fund because it has a 90/10 equity allocation compared to 80/20 with Vanguard. “Target Date Fund managers engage in fee-skimming by charging higher fees on the less observable, more opaque underlying funds” [xii] Opaque funds can be illiquid high-risk alternatives like private equity and hedge funds & annuities.
In some cases, the courts have given active managers the benefit of the doubt on their claim that it is conceivable they could outperform index plans, especially in down markets. The validity of this market-based argument has become harder. The recent Supreme Court decision letting the appeal in Brotherston vs Putnam Investments, LLC stand upholds the use of index funds for benchmarking purposes in calculating damages – regardless of performance.[xiii]
PLAN ACTIONS Plans should always document in their 401(k) plan minutes the following regarding Target Date Funds:
The plan’s investment policy statement should include provisions on selecting and monitoring Target Date Funds. Does it address each asset class involved in the plan including inside the Target Date Funds?
Each asset class in each Target Date Fund should be fully evaluated in terms of risk, fees, and performance as if they were a standalone option.
Assets that are not SEC registered mutual funds or registered securities such as private equity, annuities need additional scrutiny and documentation.
Additional documentation, including a Request For Proposals (RFP), should be required if the plan is using a recordkeeper vendor’s proprietary Target Date Funds.
Select an appropriate benchmark to evaluate each asset class in the funds. Compare and justify the attributes of your fund if it has differences with the benchmark
Understand the different fees and compare fund family fees, bearing in mind that Target Date Funds have multiple layers of fees.
Do a RFP for Target Date Funds at least every 5 years.
Carefully document the reasons that the fund was selected.
Regularly monitor the funds.
Document any and all reasons for not removing retained funds if performance has lagged peer funds.
Target Date Funds are now above 50% of all 401(k) assets.[xiv] They deserve a 50% level of fiduciary oversight or even more because of their lack of transparency.
401(k) Revenue sharing is a scheme that is sold to 401(k) plans sponsors who are too cheap to pay the administrative costs out of company funds, and thus are willing to trick participants into paying for it by an increase in fees in high-cost mutual funds and even higher cost annuities.
Heavy industry lobbying has kept this practice barely legal. However, I see Revenue sharing alone as a sign of a fiduciary breach since I have never seen it documented correctly, which turns into a shell game that increases fees, which has been confirmed in a 2021 study by experts from the Federal Reserve and leading Universities. Higher fees are not associated with better performance; to the contrary, “The future performance of revenue-sharing funds is weaker than that of non-sharing funds. The bulk of the under-performance is driven by higher fees, though revenue sharing funds display lower performance even after accounting for fees.”[i]
Revenue sharing does not hold up during litigation and this has been confirmed by Fiduciary Liability Insurance industry which put much higher litigation risk on plans with revenue sharing and either denying coverage or raising rates significantly. [ii]
There is no reason to go through the complicated non- transparent contortions of revenue sharing record-keeping if there is nothing to gain. In some cases, the rebates may be delayed, giving the float on the money. It is also unclear where rebates go if a participant leaves or transfers out of the fund. There is little or no accountability as the recordkeepers has unlimited ways to divert these rebates toward administrative expenses they set and control.
There are other forms of hidden revenue sharing in and out of 401(k)s such as shelf fees that firms like Wells Fargo require a manager to pay over $500,000 to just be considered. [iii]
The burden is on the plan and the recordkeeper to provide a full and transparent accounting of the entire revenue sharing process which we have not seen Revenue sharing will continue to be a litigation magnet.