High Anxiety for Plan Sponsors

It’s still unclear whether the incoming Trump administration will take aim at the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rules, which are slated to go into effect on April 10.  As Joseph Urwitz, a partner in McDermott Will & Emery’s Boston office, told us late last month: “While it’s not possible to predict the future, the new Congress and president may overhaul, eliminate or at the very least delay implementation of the fiduciary rule. Time will tell whether or not any of these moves will come to pass.”

thinkstockphotos-468426388But what we do know is that litigation continues to be very much on the minds of plan sponsors.

This fact received further support earlier this week, when Cerulli Associates, a global research and consulting firm, released the findings of a study—titled “The Cerulli Report: U.S. Retirement Markets 2016”—that found more than half (57 percent) of more than 800 401(k) plan sponsors questioned are concerned about potential litigation.

While much of the litigation has targeted large plans with deeper pockets, the research found that smaller plan sponsors are also paying attention to today’s litigious environment.  Nearly one-quarter of small plan sponsors—those less than $100 million in 401(k) assets—describe themselves as “very concerned” about potential litigation.

As most of you know (and the Cerulli report points out), fee-related lawsuits, in particular, have been something of a theme in 2016, putting added pressure on plan sponsors to find ways to reduce fees. “Plan-sponsor-survey results show that the top two reasons for which 401(k) plan sponsors choose to offer passive (indexed) options on the plan menu are because of ‘an advisor or consultant recommendation’ or because they ‘believe cost is the most important factor,’ ” according to the Cerulli press release. But there is also no denying that lowering the risk of litigation factors into the decision making as well.

The Cerulli report suggests that the rash of litigation that has occurred in recent times is stifling innovation. Jessica Sclafani, associate director at Cerulli, notes that “plan sponsors feel they have little to gain by appearing ‘different’ from their peers due to the risk of being sued. This mindset can make plan sponsors reluctant to adopt new products … .”