If you haven’t noticed, there has been some turnover among the associations’ preneed fund managers. With the threat of additional litigation in Wisconsin, this trend could continue. But not all of the turnover has been as publicized as what we have seen in Illinois and Wisconsin. After 20 years at the helm, Merrill Lynch recently gave notice to the Michigan Funeral Directors Association of its resignation. There are no search protocols for preneed fund managers, and so Michigan borrowed from the retirement fund community by publishing a request for proposal (RFP). While the MFDA should be commended in their effort to bring transparency to their program’s asset management, they missed (or ignored) an opportunity to shift more investment responsibilities to the financial industry. Instead of using FINRA Rule 2111 (“know your client”) to their advantage, the MFDA structured the RFP to perpetuate (and extend) the funeral director’s controlling role in investment decisions.
Hidden investment charges have been ‘part of business’ in the death care industry for decades, and this author has contemplated whether ERISA’s fee disclosure requirements could ever be incorporated into preneed trusts by the Federal Trade Commission. The Michigan RFP focused on the same ERISA fee disclosure requirements, which could lead one to assume that association’s leaders did not want to make the same mistake again. The Michigan RFP also raised another ERISA concept worthy of the preneed industry’s consideration: the 401K approach to investment by individual contract. We too have wondered why larger programs have not looked at data from individual contracts and the sponsoring funeral homes to build an investment options matrix.
But, the Michigan RFP can be faulted for cutting off the diligence requirements of FINRA Rule 2111. To insulate the Association from solicitations, the RFP provided summary information about the program and required all inquiries to go through an ERISA consultant. Prospective fund managers were required to submit investment strategies on limited facts and without direct communications to the Association. It is understandable that the Association would want to narrow the field before initiating an exchange of confidential information with prospective managers, but the screening of candidates should have preceded the request for investment strategies. Subsequent to the screening, the MFDA should then have provided detailed information pursuant to a confidentiality agreement. Under FINRA 2111, this sequence would have expanded the fund manager’s diligence responsibilities regarding investment strategy recommendations. The nature of the questions posed by the candidates would also have helped the MFDA in its assessment of the candidates. Instead, the RFP narrowed the fund manager’s diligence to an old investment strategy with a history of mixed results and challenges.
Within the context of ERISA retirement funds, RFPs may take a formula approach to finding a replacement fund manager. But the preneed industry is fragmented by 50 different state laws, and by program issues such as whether non-guaranteed contracts are sold, the association’s role as a seller versus an agent, investment restrictions, and trusting percentages. Injecting preneed asset management with a dose of ERISA could help to discourage hidden fees and improve the quality of fund managers, but the industry also needs an alternative to the strategy of offering funeral directors three investment options to choose from.