The Social Costs of Choice, Free Market Ideology and the Empirical Consequences of the 401(k) Plan Large Menu Defense
36 Pages Posted: 12 May 2013
Date Written: May 10, 2013
Regulatory reforms have recently improved 401(k) plan participation rates, but recent decisions by certain courts threaten to reverse that trend. These courts have substituted their free market ideology for fiduciary duties under ERISA in dismissing claims against plan sponsors on the ground that the menu offered was so large as to abrogate the sponsors’ ERISA duties. Under the “large menu defense,” courts have held that, even assuming a failure to exercise due care in selecting plan options, the employer can nonetheless claim the protection of the employee-control safe harbor under ERISA because, when the plan’s menu is sufficiently large, the plan participant is deemed to have exercised legal control over the relevant investment decision. The courts’ interpretation of the control safe harbor contradicts the plain meaning of the statute. Far worse, the courts’ free market assumption that large menus will increase participants’ wealth is empirically false. Research has shown that large 401(k) menus result in lower participation rates, overly conservative allocations, inferior investment options and other adverse effects that, collectively, cost workers billions of dollars every year.
Keywords: pension, 401(k), participate rate, free market, rational actor, rational choice, ERISA, fees, sponsors, 404(c), control
JEL Classification: G18, G28, K22, K23, L51, J26, E61, D83, D78, D11
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation