Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Open Architecture

Nicholas Zaiko
Investment Consultant
Bridgebay Financial, Inc.

As fiduciaries, plan sponsors must act for the sole benefit of their plan's participants. Decisions born of the need for corporate convenience may lead to less-than ideal arrangements or investment options for plan participants. Sponsors need to evaluate whether the convenience of one-stop shopping is worth the potential fiduciary risk of foregoing open architecture.

The conventional wisdom regarding bundled service providers is that the convenience offered by an all-in-one solution is particularly attractive to smaller 401k plan sponsors who might not have the scale or staffing necessary to administer the plan in-house. These types of companies are typically spread thin already, with many individuals wearing many hats. Tight resources tend to push plan sponsors to make the easy choice of working with bundled service solutions. These service providers come in several forms. They can be a broker, a mutual fund firm, a payroll processor or an insurance company.

Truly open architecture goes well beyond the simple ability to add non-proprietary funds to a plan's line-up. In a open architecture, all of the service providers are either unbundled or entirely separate entities. The goal of open architecture is to have the flexibility to monitor and trade out each individual component, independent of the other services with a minimal amount of disruption to the plan. The primary service providers to a typical DC plan include the recordkeeper, investment or fund managers, custodian or trustee, plan investment consultant, managed account provider, and the education/communications provider. Ideally, each of these service providers is a separate, unaffiliated entity without any vested interest in the actions of any of the other providers.

The key is to then take a "best-of-breed" approach and select only the best recordkeeper, TPA, mutual funds and investment consultant. A recent study which compiled the characteristics of an ideal 401k plan supported this approach and demonstrated that such plans do not use bundled providers. By managing each component individually, the sponsor maintains the flexibility to replace any element that may suffer from poorer or declining quality service without disturbing any of the other services. The modular nature and the ability to use best-in-class providers are the major strengths of open architecture.

In contrast, bundled service providers typically rely on investment products to drive revenues, making other peripheral services an afterthought and generally a loss leader. Ancillary services such as plan administration and recordkeeping tend to suffer when pushing investment products is the primary source of revenue.

Additionally, by obscuring the actual cost for each service in the bundled fee, such providers make it difficult to accurately benchmark total plan fees. Independent providers bring with them a built-in check-and-balance mechanism regarding the quality and fees of other service providers. Though many bundled providers may tout the benefits of the "economies-of-scale" that come with their arrangements, the inherent conflicts of interest may actually result in higher fees than a truly open architecture solution.

In recent years we have seen numerous lawsuits brought against plan sponsors for various breaches of fiduciary duty. In 2011 we witnessed the result of the high-profile class action suit against Walmart for breach of duty regarding the investment choices in the 401k plan. The plaintiffs discovered that het plan's bundled service provider had placed high-fee funds into the plan and the broker was receiving trailing commissions for having placed those funds in the plan.

The mere fact that it took plan participants so long to discover the breach of fiduciary duty indicates how well high fees can be hidden within the bundled arrangement. 2012 promises to be a year of greater disclosure and transparency on behalf of bundled service providers. The new fee disclosure requirements outlined under sections 408(b)(2) for provider to plan sponsor disclosures and 404(a) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) offer to shed light on the bundled service provider. This has the potential to reshape the bundled provider industry and reinvigorate plan sponsors' interest in pursuing open architecture.

While a bundled solution may work for plans of a relatively small size, the modular and best-in-class approach afforded plan sponsors by using open architecture and the potential for lower, more competitive fees must not be ignored.