Fiduciary Burden of Participant-Directed Investment Plans

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An Emerging Issue for Physician-Executives

[By Jeffery S. Coons; PhD, CFP]

Managing Principal-Manning & Napier Advisors, Inc


The goal of designing a participant-directed investment menu should be to provide enough diversification of roles to allow participants to make an appropriate trade-off between risk and return, without having so many roles as to create participant confusion. 

Medical Administrative Burden

Ultimately, the burden on plan administrators and physician executives is to adequately educate employees and is largely driven by the investment decisions we require them to make in the plan, with more choices necessitating a greater understanding of the fundamental differences between and appropriate role for each choice.  The logical questions that arise when selecting options on a menu are:

  • Are there clear differences among the options?
  • Are these differentiating characteristics inherent to the option or potentially fleeting?
  • Are the differences among options easily communicated to and understood by the typical plan participant?
  • Most importantly, if participants are given choice among these different options, can the decisions they make reasonably be expected to result in an appropriate long-term investment program?

Fiduciary Concerns and Liabilities

All this adds up to additional fiduciary concerns for the health care entity and plan sponsor. 

For example, can the typical participant understand growth and value as concepts when even the experts can not agree on their definitions? The use of style based menus for self-directed plans bring this issue to the forefront. What about investment strategy?  What choices are we expecting the participant to make when offering growth and value styles for one basic asset class role? 

Finally, beyond the responsibility to provide effective education, what other fiduciary issues are associated with style categorization for a participant-directed investment menu?

Effective Style Communications

Consider whether the differences among manager styles can be effectively communicated to the average participant.  Because the general style categories of “growth” and “value” are not well defined, we are expecting the participant to understand how the manager is making investments in a fundamental manner and the differences in risk/return characteristics of these alternative approaches.  This exercise is difficult for investment professionals and trustees, so it will be even more unlikely to be properly understood by an average participant.

Given Assumptions

Let’s assume for the moment that there is an effective means for understanding the different risk and return characteristics of two managers investing in what is ultimately the same basic asset class.  When allowing the choice of these two differing approaches, what decision can the participant make?  There are four possibilities:

  1. Select the single manager whose investment philosophy makes the most sense overall to the participant;
  2. Time the decision of when to move from one management philosophy to another;
  3. Split the allocation between the two managers; or,
  4. Give up from confusion and do not participate in the plan.

We have already discussed the difficulty of the first choice, so let’s consider the second possibility.  This decision is an extremely risky choice that typically leads to poor or even catastrophic performance. 

Why?  Timing decisions such as this are typically based upon recent past performance, which is cyclical in nature.  In essence, investors generally chase after yesterday’s returns and invest in funds after their period of strong relative performance.  The strong flows into S&P 500 Index funds and growth/momentum firms of today were preceded by flows into value/fundamentally-oriented investment firms a few years ago. 

In fact, a Journal of Investing academic article in the Summer of 1998 (“Mutual Fund Performance: A Question of Style”) found that mutual funds changing their investment style had the worst performance of any style individually.

Allocation Choices

The next choice is to split the allocation between growth and value.  While this approach may mean that the participant will not under-perform significantly when any one style is out-of-favor, it also means that the participant will generally never out-perform either.

Nevertheless, by combining two halves of the same basic universe within an asset class, it is likely that the basic performance of the asset class will result (i.e., index-like returns).  Since the participant is paying the higher expenses of active, value-added mutual funds, the end result is likely to be index-like returns less the significantly greater fees and consistent under-performance over the long-term.


While there may be participants who can handle the investment process, the previous discussion illustrates why it remains an open question whether educational efforts and typical menu choices provided by plan fiduciaries will be adequate from a regulatory and legal standpoint.

However, while it is unreasonable for participants to select the single best manager, it is reasonable for trustees to choose managers by defining investment policy and objectives that focus on characteristics like broad asset classes. 

And; do you think that by creating an investment menu that removes soft, overlapping, and largely qualitative distinctions such as style; plan sponsors can take a significant step toward mitigating the potential for participant confusion that inevitably could lead to litigation?


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