Tibble vs. Edison: What will it mean for plan sponsors and fiduciaries?

Conkel-DouglasThe U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the Tibble vs. Edison case, the first case in front of the Supreme Court dealing with excess fees within a qualified defined contribution (DC) plan, e.g., a 401(k) plan. In this case the plaintiff contends there was a fiduciary breach of duty by Edison because the plan continued to use retail share class funds when lower-cost share classes became available to the plan as it grew. However, the focus of the ruling may not focus on the excess fee component but more on the six-year statute of limitations under ERISA (the U.S. law that regulates qualified retirement plans and fiduciary responsibilities). The statute of limitation under ERISA is designed to prevent fiduciaries from never-ending risks arising from historical decisions. Congress specifically added this limitation to try to minimize the burden of a 401(k) plan to plan sponsors. For this reason, the scope of the ruling may be limited to the statute of limitations rather than specifics on the fee issue. However, this ruling will be significant in light of the $4.2 trillion in 401(k) plan retirement assets.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s ruling and comments could have a large impact on future litigation concerning participant grievance against plan sponsors—we will have to wait and see. Regardless of the ruling, this increased attention will hopefully promote more education and development of best practices when it comes to plan sponsors truly understanding their fee arrangements within their qualified plans. As an active relationship manager ensuring that my clients completely understand their “total” fee structure, there has been a focused effort on my part toward that end the last several years. I have written a couple of white papers discussing elements of qualified plan fees, which often are overlooked or not discussed in detail at the fiduciary/advisor/provider level:

Fees: What everyone is NOT talking about!

Fees: What no one is talking about, round 2

One of the fee elements I discuss in detail is the administrative fees (revenue sharing) embedded in the plan’s investment options. It often feels as if sponsors focus on implicit administration fees when usually 70% or more of the plan’s total cost comes from the expense ratios of the plan’s investment options. One important best practice is to ensure that any revenue sharing embedded in a fund’s expense ratio is used to benefit the participants invested in that fund (not at the plan level but to benefit the participants who actually pay that revenue-sharing amount via the expense ratio). This is referred to as “fee-leveling” and while it is becoming a best practice there are still a large number of sponsors who don’t understand the issue and simply don’t know the solutions.

Assuming that a plan levels fees by giving the participants in a fund the benefit of that fund’s revenue sharing, then once an investment option is chosen for a plan’s fund lineup selecting the share class of that fund becomes an easy choice. The sponsor simply needs to select the share class that provides the lowest net cost to the participant. In the example below, assume that a plan sponsor levels fees by taking any revenue sharing paid by an investment option and crediting that back to the participants in that fund as a revenue-sharing expense reimbursement (a credit).

Figure 1: Fund A, Various Share Classes

Expense Ratio Revenue Sharing Net Cost to Participant
Share Class A 0.75% 0.30% 0.45%
Share Class I 0.50% 0% 0.50%

In the example above, for this plan at its current provider, the lowest net cost to participants (once the revenue sharing is allocated back to participants in this fund) would be the Share Class A. This is not always the result, depending on the fund family and share classes. Sometimes, there is no difference in net cost so the conclusion would be to go with the zero revenue-sharing class so the plan doesn’t have to do a revenue-sharing credit allocation.

As this case progresses we will post more comments and updates, but, for now, I encourage sponsors to study up on their plan’s fee arrangements, fee-leveling, and other best practices within the industry. Sponsors should not rely too much on their current providers or advisors if some of the topics discussed above have never been mentioned in a retirement committee meeting, as they might lack the insight required to do a complete evaluation.

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