IMHO: Tractor “Trailer”

About a week ago, Caterpillar agreed to a $16.5 million settlement of one of those allegedly excessive fee/revenue-sharing lawsuits.

It was the first of these suits—launched in September 2006—to come to some sort of “resolution” though, IMHO, it hardly qualifies as such (see “Caterpillar Ready to Finalize $16.5M Fee Lawsuit Settlement“). 

That said, the settlement’s terms were not just financial; it also included a series of changes in how Caterpillar agreed to administer the plan and monitor its investments.  First off, during a two-year settlement period, Caterpillar agreed to “increase and enhance communication with employees about 401(k) investment options and associated fees,” as well as hiring an independent fiduciary (at least during that same two-year period)—and it has also apparently said that it would detail specific fees charged to participants.  Caterpillar says it will avoid retail mutual funds as core investment options for the plans, and that the plan’s recordkeeping fees would be “limited,” specifically calculated on a flat or per-participant basis, rather than drawn from asset-based fees (which can go up—or down—with, IMHO, little correlation to the recordkeeping services associated with those asset values).

Caterpillar also committed to not allowing investment consultants to also serve as investment managers and to not receiving compensation from plan investments.  Note that from 1992 to 2006 (actually up till about four months before the revenue-sharing suit was brought), the company offered plan investors a group of mutual funds that were advised by a wholly owned subsidiary (that subsidiary now sold off). 

So, who are the winners—and losers—here?  

Well, while it surely will be categorized as a “win” by those pursuing these suits, and it’s certainly not a loss for them, IMHO, it’s more accurately described as the other party saying “uncle.”  In fairness, these suits haven’t fared too well in court—actually, they have had a hard time getting past the hearing stage (see “IMHO:The “Burden” of Proof“).  That doesn’t mean they don’t cost the firms being sued time and money; as a mentor of mine once cautioned, “You can spend a lot of money in court being right.”  Doubtless, Caterpillar, whatever it saw as the merits of pursuing its defense (admittedly, because for a long period of time, the firm’s money management unit oversaw some of the funds in question, it might have been more vulnerable to charges of excessive fees) eventually figured there were better ways to spend its time and money. 

Presumably the Caterpillar participants will benefit as well—from whatever part of the monetary settlement doesn’t go to the lawyers, as well as from the changes in operation agreed to by Caterpillar.  Some will no doubt argue that the terms agreed to by this employer will hereafter become something of a talisman for other firms to contemplate, if not adopt, in their own programs.  And, talisman status notwithstanding, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

However, for those of us on the outside, a settlement is something of a disappointment.  Whatever the basis in fact of these lawsuits, they have now, IMHO, put in play legitimate issues of concern for plan sponsors, advisers, and providers—issues that extend well beyond the “starter set” of firms currently involved in this litigation.  Issues that, admittedly, the courts have largely dismissed to date, but issues that one senses (if only because the Department of Labor seems not to fully concur with the judicial renderings to date) remain an unsettled area—and one therefore still ripe for litigation.  Litigation that, ironically, might later point to plan changes adopted in the wake of these developments as some kind of “smoking gun” admission of impropriety. 

So, while the decision to settle may well mark the end of uncertainty for one employer in such matters, it seems to me that it leaves the situation even more UNsettled for the rest of us. 

The settlement announcement is online here 

See also “Case Sensitive, “Limit” Ed ,” PLANSPONSOR