Employers who sponsor retirement and savings plans for their employees should ensure that the fees paid by their employees within the plans are reasonable and adequately disclosed.  Lawsuits in the U.S., and a recent regulatory undercover investigation in Canada, serve as a reminder of the risk of employer liability regarding fees.  This article will describe the risks for Canadian employers, and suggest a few simple things that can be done to reduce those risks.

What kinds of plans expose employers to the risk of claims over fees?

The kinds of employer-sponsored plans at issue here are workplace plans known as “CAPs”, meaning “capital accumulation plans”.  These are plans that do not promise a defined benefit pension.  Instead, they provide an individual account for each employee, where contributions are made by the employees, the employer, or both.  CAPs sponsored by employers include defined contribution registered pension plans, Group RRSPs (group registered retirement savings plans), deferred profit sharing plans, non-registered savings plans and tax-free savings accounts.

The employer selects a service provider and the line-up of investment funds to be offered in the CAP.  Employees decide which investment funds they want their account balances to be invested in.

It is common for the costs of the plan to be paid by way of fees charged to the investment funds and accounts of the employee members.  It is also common for employers to rely on the service-providers they have hired to describe to their employees what the fees are.

Exactly what are the legal requirements?

The legal obligation of employers regarding fees is not set out in detail in legislation.  For registered pension plans, generally speaking, there are broadly-worded legislative requirements that employers who sponsor defined contribution registered plans act prudently.  There is little detail in pension legislation as to exactly what that means, with respect to fees paid by plan members.

Eleven years ago a significant document was issued by three Canadian regulators who have jurisdiction over various aspects of CAPs.  The 2004 document, known as the “CAP Guidelines,” says that employers should ensure that employees are provided with a description and amount of all fees and expenses that are borne by the members, including investment fund management and operating fees, record keeping fees and fees for services provided by service providers.

The regulators stated in the CAP Guidelines that fees can be disclosed to plan members on an aggregate basis, “provided the nature of the fees, expenses and penalties is disclosed”.  This means that it is not sufficient to refer in broad terms to an approximate amount of total fees that members will be charged for a vague summary of services.  Rather, there should be a description of what kinds of services are being provided for a fee, what kind of a fee is being charged (a flat fee per participant? a percentage of assets?), who is providing the service, and how much those services cost.

Regulators have not stood still on the issue of fees since the 2004 CAP Guidelines were released.  A few weeks ago the Ontario pension benefits regulator issued a draft guidance note for public comment.  The draft states that statements of investment policies and procedures for registered pension plans should include a description of fees, including:  “which expenses and fees will be paid by the employer and which will be borne by plan members; expectations or limits on total plan expenses and fees; and guidelines for monitoring expenses and fees”.  It is likely that this draft guidance note will be issued in final form in the near future.

Secret regulatory probe into investment fees

In an undercover operation, three Canadian investment regulators sent 105 mystery shoppers to a variety of vendors of investment products such as mutual funds.  The operatives posed as potential individual investor clients, and reported their experiences to the Ontario Securities Commission, the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada and the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada.  The regulators released their findings on September 17th, 2015.

The results of the investigation were troubling.  Only 25% of the mystery shoppers were told how the vendor of the investment would be compensated.  And only 56% of them were told anything at all about the fees associated with the investment products they were offered.  Where fees were disclosed, more than one-third of the shoppers were given inadequate information about fees.

The investigation uncovered proof that many investment advisors are not properly disclosing fee information to individual investors.  The probe did not examine employer-sponsored retirement and savings group plans.  Nevertheless, the results of the investigation should prompt employers to confirm that their employees are getting appropriate information about the fees they are paying in their workplace retirement and savings plans.

Employers sued in the U.S. over fees

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. against employers in the past few years regarding fees charged to employees in workplace retirement plans.  Allegations included claims that service providers were receiving “revenue sharing” payments, fees were excessive because the plan sponsor had selected actively managed mutual funds as plan investment options when identical, less expensive institutional funds were available, fees were improperly allocated among participants, service providers should not be paid fees based on a percentage of assets, and fees were “hidden”.  Several high-profile cases were settled on the basis that employers agreed to pay amounts to plan members, and to change to the structure and disclosure of fees going forward.

What’s an employer to do?

Review the fees.  Benchmark them against fees charged in other employers’ plans; your service provider should have access to that industry information.  Are they equitably allocated among participants?  Are any service providers getting a percentage of assets when a less expensive, fixed fee is available in the marketplace?

Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure.  Ensure that information about the fees appears prominently in communications to your employees.  Can employees see who gets their money, and what services they receive for their fees?

Statement of Investment Policies and Procedures.  If you have a policy, or governance guideline of some kind relating to your CAP, include a description of the type and amount of fees charged, and how the fees are allocated among the various players (investment managers, record keepers, auditors, consultants, etc.).

Get it in writing.  Ask your service provider, or consultant, to confirm in writing that the fees are reasonable, and properly disclosed.  Ask for that comfort at least annually.

Employers rarely play a role in negotiating and disclosing fees charged to employees in their retirement and savings plans.  Employers usually rely on their service provider to do so.  Given the spate of lawsuits in the U.S., and the results of the recent regulatory undercover operation in Canada, it would be prudent for Canadian employers who sponsor CAPs to periodically review the information provided to members of their CAPS, in order to ensure that fees are reasonable, and that complete information about fees is being provided.