ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance

Following up on the theme I discussed about investment committee dynamics in "Decision Making When You Don't Like Your Colleagues" (September 9, 2014), Strafford Publications is sponsoring a related webinar. Entitled "ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance," this November 17 2014 continuing legal education event will address oversight and management issues from multiple perspectives. If you are interested in attending as my guest, the first ten people who email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com will be registered on a no-fee basis. If you have questions for the panelists, letting us know in advance will be helpful.

Speakers are Dr. Susan Mangiero (Managing Director - Fiduciary Leadership, LLC), Ms. Rhonda Prussack (Vice President and Fiduciary Liability Product Manager - Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance) and Attorney Richard Siegel (Alston & Bird LLP).

The panel will answer questions such as the following:

  • How important is investment committee governance?
  • How best must plan sponsors vet fiduciary risks when selecting an investment committee?
  • What is the role of ERISA fiduciary liability insurance?
  • What litigation techniques can be implemented to minimize the likelihood of a finding of breach of fiduciary duty by an investment committee?

Join us if you can. Click here to learn more.

UK Survey Highlights Fiduciary Management Trend

According to a September 8, 2014 press release, a survey of 359 UK pension professionals by Aon Hewitt suggests that investment complexity and a busy schedule are driving the increase in demand for outside help. Notably, researchers found that strategies such as liability-driven investing require a lot of analysis and that "trustees are spending less time dealing with these decisions, with 73% of trustees devoting no more than five hours each quarter to investment issues, up from 67% in 2013." Other highlights include an observation that larger plans may opt for some help whereas smaller plans, i.e. those with assets of 500 million GBP or less "are the most likely to opt for full fiduciary management." See "Aon Hewitt Fiduciary Management Survey 2014 finds the majority of schemes opting for tailored measurement of provider performance."

The issue of time and a long list of tasks that must be carried out is not unique to the UK. In "Beyond the Beauty Contest" (June 2014), Russell Investments describes its Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") solution for a Canadian defined benefit plan committee that was "spending most of their time hiring and firing managers."

Acknowledging that firms with third party service offerings have a vested interest in being hired by overloaded pension executives (many of whom have full-time jobs on top of committee work), the issue as to how persons with fiduciary responsibilities spend their time is an important one to discuss.

In "The Investment Committee: Pitfalls to Avoid," the Association of Governing Boards recommends that there not be "too many" members and to adhere to an agenda. Group think is discouraged as it "can result in bad decisions that reflect the prevailing consensus of what has worked recently..." Organizations with strong support staff enjoy the advantage of having a lot of time-consuming analyses done ahead of oversight and strategy meetings. Creating and then following documents such as a clear Investment Policy Statement and Committee Charter likewise has value.

There never seems to be enough time for any investment professional. When billions of dollars are at stake, effective scheduling and use of available resources is critical.

Asset Manager Talent and Pension Client Departures

As a trained appraiser, I have long considered the importance of key person risk when assessing the viability of an organization. A related critical issue is whether a succession plan exists and can be implemented with ease. This in turn depends on the existence and quality of talented professionals who understand how to grow a business, navigate complex regulations and focus on customer satisfaction. When a firm has too few successors who can assume a leadership role as needed, there is a risk of poor future performance and a worst-case scenario of not being able to maintain itself as an ongoing concern. On the other hand, installing new executives with a fresh perspective could lower business risks, especially if institutional investor clients have made it clear that they are unhappy with the status quo. A review of investment strategy alone seldom tells the complete story about an asset manager or advisory firm's acumen. An assessment of how the business is run and who is in charge is likewise important.

Consider the recent news about Pacific Investment Management Company, LLC ("PIMCO"). Established in 1971, this Allianz entity has grown into what many would describe as a bond market behemoth. According to a current press release, PIMCO had $1.876 trillion in assets under management as of September 30, 2014. A few weeks earlier, on September 26, 2014, it was announced that co-founder and Chief Investment Officer ("CIO") William H. Gross had resigned, adding that "The firm has a succession plan in place."

Since that announcement, some institutions have decided to terminate PIMCO or put the firm (or some of its funds) on watch, pending further analysis. According to "Arkansas Exits Post-Gross PIMCO as Pensions Review Money Manager" by Brian Chappatta (Bloomberg, October 13, 2014), the exit of Mr. Gross "caused $23.5 billion in redemptions in September from the $201.6 billion Total Return Fund." Skittish clients include the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System ($472 million), California's 529 college-savings program ScholarShare ($262 million) and Florida's State Board of Administration (withdrawing "more than $1 billion that the company manages for the 401(k)-style program that the state offers workers"). It is said that the Texas Municipal Retirement System and Indiana, North Dakota, Michigan and Illinois retirement plan decision-makers are mulling over how best to react to this staff change.

Although cited reasons vary as to redemption requests, at least some appear to be related to uncertainty about trading personalities. Reuters journalists Simon Jessop and Nishant Kumar warn that "With much of a mutual or hedge fund firm's value tied up in the brain power of its employees, as opposed to bricks, mortar and other hard assets, the loss of an important employee - known in the trade as 'key man risk' - exposes the firm to asset flight which can even force it to sell holdings at a loss." See "As PIMCO bleeds assets, Gross shows risk of star culture" (October 2, 2014).

Some companies have gone the route of having marquee employees sign non-compete contracts as a way to mitigate key person risk although they are not fail-safe protective mechanisms. Enforcement of a particular non-compete agreement can by legal venue. Signers sometimes get cold feet. "[S]tar trader Chris Rokos" is seeking to overturn what he deems overly harsh restrictions on his ability to start a new enterprise. See "Brevan's Ex-Star Trader Contesting Non-Compete Restriction" by Laurence Fletcher (Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2014).

Governance is an issue. For an institutional investor that relies on a disciplined selection and review process, a premature exit from a particular fund or fund company could be costly. In "Too Early to Hit the PIMCO Panic Button," Plan Sponsor journalist Jill Cornfield (October 9, 2014) describes the advantages of communicating the duties of an investment committee to plan participants. Such a letter or memo could include an explanation about how committee members pick and review asset management firms. This way, an exit from a fund when a key person leaves will not necessarily come as a big surprise.

The exertion of influence of third parties should not be ignored. In its Morningstar Stewardship Grade report about PIMCO dated September 29, 2014, Eric Jacobson and Bridget B. Hughes wrote that "Continued disruption among PIMCO's independent trustees raises significant concern about the board's independence as well as its long-established setup."

There is no doubt that more news will follow with respect to PIMCO and other investment management organizations that promote the use of individuals with the power to attract headlines.

Public Plans For Private Sector Employees - Say Whaaat?

The news about public retirement plans for private workers may not be as snappy as a dog with red sunglasses taking a selfie but it sure caught my attention.

On June 17, 2014, Pensions & Investments reported that efforts are underway to "provide retirement security for all New Yorkers - not just participants in the $150 billion New York City Retirement Systems." In "NYC comptroller to launch advisory panel for retirement security," writer Robert Steyer tells readers that Chief Investment Officer Scott Evans will lead the group, with members yet to be appointed. The Nutmeg State is on the same glide path with its creation of the Connecticut Retirement Security Board. Michelle Chen of The Nation applauds this initiative while Bill Cummings of the Connecticut Post decries the costs that small business owners will bear if a mandatory offering occurs.

In "State-based retirement plans for the private sector" (August 6, 2014), the Pension Rights Center lays out legislative happenings elsewhere as part of a "movement afoot to use the efficiencies of public retirement systems to administer new types of pension plans for private-sector workers." The list includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Certainly there is merit for any effort that helps to promote savings and financial independence. That said, there is a plethora of critical questions to be answered before any products are developed, let alone forced on taxpayers and employers. For one thing, who will serve as a fiduciary for each plan and what regulatory regime will prevail? ERISA does not extend to government plans. Will state trust law apply? Second, some of the aforementioned states are struggling with underfunded plans for municipal workers. If said deficits are revealed as the result of questionable investment and benefit mix decisions and/or limited oversight, does it make sense to put these same persons in charge of a new plan? Third, to the extent that state funding is used to install these new plans, how will fiscal policy change as a result? Fourth, are there true efficiencies to exploit and in what areas - investment, operational, technology, etc?

Maybe state delivery of private retirement benefits makes sense but I hope that a lot of important issues get vetted before too much big spending takes place.

Decision Making When You Don't Like Your Colleagues

As an independent economic consultant, I am fortunate to have flexibility as to project selection and the make-up of my team. From what I hear from colleagues, others don't feel as lucky. They tell me they feel stuck in a situation where they have important duties to carry out but do not necessarily trust or like their work mates. This could be dangerous, especially since plan fiduciaries are exposed to personal liability.

I've heard some say that you can dislike someone yet still have respect for their knowledge and integrity. Others suggest that you may want to break bread with an individual over lunch but want to avoid having to depend on their judgment about serious matters. I supposed the ideal is to both like and trust someone to be careful about things such as vendor selection, changing an investment line-up, freezing a plan and so on. When the perfect combination of sparkle, professionalism and gray matter is non-existent, what should a fiduciary do?

I haven't seen much on this topic about how to select someone to serve as a fiduciary of a pension fund with respect to their personality and integrity. One public plan trustee asked for my opinion about a committee on which he served. His concern had to do with what he deemed to be anemic attempts on the part of one of his colleagues to gather information about various asset managers and asset classes. His fear was that this person would vote "yea" or "nay" without a proper basis. I told him that his anxiety was far from trivial. Based on my experience, this gentleman was right to be scared. When a fiduciary breach complaint is filed, all past and present members of the investment committee are often cited as defendants. The notion is that the fiduciaries were making important decisions on a collective basis.

In my view, there is room for improvement as to how pension plan fiduciaries are selected, trained, monitored for appropriate performance and terminated, as needed. It wouldn't hurt to assess the friendliness factor of each candidate either. Not that everyone has to bond over Friday night pasta but the investment committee typically works as a team. It is important that the members of said team can have an open and meaningful exchange among one another, debate various topics in depth and decide what makes sense for participants thereafter. Speaking in plain language helps. See "Even Pension Board Members Can't Understand Pension Jargon" by Ari Bloomekatz (Voice of San Diego, September 5, 2014), for an interesting example of questions that fiduciaries are right to ask and the disparate level of investment knowledge reflected on a board.

If you have a good story to tell about investment committee dynamics, email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com.  

ERISA Pension Law Turns 40

Get out the party hats and horns. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") turns 40 years old today. Signing this legislation into law on September 2, 1974, U.S. President Gerald R. Ford proclaimed a new era, noting that "the men and women of our labor force will have much more clearly defined rights to pension funds and greater assurances that retirement dollars will be there when they are needed. Employees will also be given greater tax incentives to provide for their own retirement if a company plan is unavailable."

Since 1974, change has not been a stranger. In her testimony before the ERISA Advisory Council on June 18, 2014, Honeywell in-house counsel Allison Klausner talked about greater mobility of the work force and a significant reliance on technology over time. The use of third parties was another area of emphasis. She added that "As ERISA turns 40, to effectively deliver 'benefits' (perhaps best stated as 'the delivery of support for the well-being of our workers and retirees') in an employer-sponsored system, plan sponsors find that it cannot be done without outsourcing some (or all) of the administrative and other work associated with and necessary to operate employee benefit plans."

Statistics about plan design paint a dramatic picture of change as well. According to the Private Pension Plan Bulletin Historical Tables and Graphs (U.S. Department of Labor, June 2013), the number of single-employer sponsored defined benefit plans fell from 101, 214 in 1975 to 43,813 in 2011. In contrast, the number of single-employer defined contribution plans rose from 207,437 in 1975 to 637,086 in 2011. As plan design preferences reflect demographic and economic shifts, they also present new challenges for fiduciaries.

For those who want to learn more about the history of ERISA and predictions of things to come, the American Bar Association and various co-sponsors are offering a free webinar on the topic. Click to register for "ERISA Turns 40: The Past, Current and Future State of Pension Plans," The event will be held on September 9, 2014 from 1:00 to 2:30 PM EST and will feature speakers from the U.S. Department of Labor and ERISA attorneys in private practice.

Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and Implications for Institutional Investors

For those who don't know, I am the lead contributor to an investment compliance blog known as Good Risk Governance Pays. I created this second blog as a way to showcase investment issues that had a wider reach than just the pension fund community. While I strive to publish different education-focused analyses on each blog, sometimes there are topics that I believe would be of interest to both sets of readers. A recent article that I co-wrote is one example. Entitled "Avoiding FCPA Liability by Tightening Internal Controls: Considerations for Institutional Investors and Corporate Counsel" (The Corporate Counselor, September 2014), Mr. H. David Kotz and Dr. Susan Mangiero explain the basics of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. Examples and links to reference materials are included, along with a discussion as to why this topic should be of critical importance to pension funds and other types of institutional investors. Click to download a text version of "Avoiding FCPA Liability by Tightening Internal Controls: Considerations for Institutional Investors and Corporate Counsel."

U.S. Supreme Court and Tibble v Edison International

According to SCOTUSBLOG.com, Glenn Tibble, et al. v. Edison International, et al ("Tibble v Edison") is seeing continued action after a petition for a writ of certiorari was filed on October 30, 2013 by counsel of record for the petitioners. Click here to download the 319 page document. On February 7, 2014, attorneys for respondents filed a brief in opposition. On March 3, petitioners' counsel filed a supplemental brief. Thereafter, on March 24 of this year, the Solicitor General was asked to file a brief in this ERISA fee case. That brief has now been filed and can be accessed by clicking here. (Thank you to Fiduciary Matters lead blogger, Attorney Thomas Clark, for sending the file.)

According to this 29-page "Brief For The United States As Amicus Curiae," the Solicitor General, the Solicitor of Labor and others conclude that the petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted with respect to the question as to "[w]hether a claim that ERISA plan fiduciaries breached their duty of prudence by offering higher-cost retail-class mutual funds to plan participants, even though identical lower-cost institutional-class mutual funds were available, is barred by 29 U.S.C. 1113(1) when fiduciaries initially chose the higher-cost mutual funds as plan investments more than six years before the claim was filed."

As an economist who leaves the legal issues for attorneys to vet, it seems that this filing opens the door to another review of ERISA matters by the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether that is good or bad, depends on your perspective. I would like to think that further discussions about fiduciary best practices by the highest U.S. court would be a positive outcome.

Brown M&Ms and Investment Service Provider Due Diligence

 

According to marketing guru Steve Jones, parties seeking to do business with one another can learn a lot from rock musician David Lee Roth. As explained in "No Brown M&M's: What Van Halen's Insane Contract Clause Teaches Entrepreneurs" (Entrepreneur Magazine, March 24, 2014), each of their agreements included a rider that was designed to force a promoter to pay attention to the band's true objective about ensuring safety. By adding what may have seemed like a silly provision about "melt in your mouth" candies being unwelcome, Van Halen was testing whether the promoter had read the contract in its entirety and was therefore more likely to install equipment properly. "If any brown M&M's were found backstage, the band could cancel the entire concert at the full expense of the promoter," leaving him or her with a possible loss in the millions of dollars.

In institutional investment land, there are intriguing parallels. For one thing, there is the safety issue. If a pension plan is poorly managed, beneficiaries may suffer. Second, if there is confusion or ambiguity about who is supposed to do what, when, how and at what price, there are likely to be disputes and economic consequences. There is a growing number of lawsuits and regulatory investigations that are scrutinizing service providers and/or the pension plan trustees who are tasked with diligently selecting them.

The developing market in outsourcing various services to a third party is yet another reason for paying close attention to the quality of engagement letters and vendor contracts. Earlier this year, the ERISA Advisory Council announced its plan to study "current contracting practices with respect to outsourced services, including provisions such as termination rights, indemnification, liability caps, service level agreements, etc. that might assist plan sponsors and other fiduciaries in negotiating service agreements."See "Outsourcing Employee Benefit Plan Services."

As someone who has done business intelligence research and trained investment fiduciaries and their advisors, I often hear the same frustration being expressed about a gap in expectations. Budget-strapped buyers want more for less. Consultants, asset managers and banks say they are searching for ways to satisfy their clients while still being able to earn a reasonable rate of return for their efforts. One solution is to streamline operations, to the extent possible, while acknowledging any fiduciary implications associated with prevailing law and governance standards. If cutting corners to preserve a profit margin ends up sacrificing requisite quality, trustees could be at risk of being investigated for anemic oversight of service providers. Vendors could be at risk for failing to deliver contractual services.

Based on my work for both defense and plaintiff counsel (depending on the matter and whether there is a counterclaim), a poorly worded agreement can be a potential trouble spot. Another hugely important issue is whether a service provider has self-identified as a fiduciary. An attorney or judge may categorize a particular service provider as a functional fiduciary even if a written contract is silent on that point. Trust counsel can play a critical role in assisting with negotiations before authorized persons sign on the dotted line.

ERISA attorneys David C. Kaleda and Theodore J. Sawicki address the issue of fiduciary status in a 2012 article for the National Society of Compliance Professionals. See "Should You Have a Formal ERISA Compliance Program?" In a recent discussion about the best practices for creating and adhering to service level agreements, ERISA attorney Howard Pianko expressed his strong view that there are numerous ways to ensure "plausibility" and still be able to hire affordable outside organizations to assist. He went on to describe the advantages of having a systematic mechanism in place such as the Six Sigma type model that his firm employs. Click to read about Seyfarth Lean. (Having earned a Green Belt in Six Sigma, I can attest firsthand to the upside of developing a process to control quality.) 

For those involved in the selection and oversight of service providers or the delivery of said services, ask yourself if you know as much about an existing or anticipated contract as you should.

A Pension Rock and a Hard Place

Not surprisingly, the conversations about pension reform are getting louder and taking place more often. Calls for further transparency, political posturing and headlines regarding the link between municipal debt service and questions about the contractual nature of pension IOUs are three of the many factors that are being hotly debated, with no end in sight. Interested parties are invited to read "Muni Bonds, Pension Liabilities and Investment Due Diligence" by Dr. Susan Mangiero, Dr. Israel Shaked and Mr. Brad Orelowitz, CPA. Published by the American Bankruptcy Institute, the authors bring attention to the fact that courts are making decisions about critical issues such as whether creditors, in distress, can move ahead of public pension plan participants. Click here to read more about the article and the connection between retirement plan promises and municipal bond credit risk.

Others are approaching the topic of public and corporate pension plan obligations from the perspective of younger workers being asked to subsidize seniors. In "Why We Need to Change the Conversation about Pension Reform" (Financial Analysts Journal, 2014), Keith Ambachtsheer writes that "Pension plan sustainability requires intergenerational fairness." He adds that suggestions such as lengthening the time over which an unfunded liability can be amortized or assuming more investment risk "effectively pass the problem on to the next generation once again."

Legislators are slowing starting to act, in large part because they cannot afford not to do so. According to Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Dawsey, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has spent his summer with constituents, holding town hall meetings to explain his decisions about pension plan funding. See "Christie Plays Pension Issue Beyond N.J." (August 9-10, 2014). On August 1, 2014, he signed Executive Order 161 to facilitate the creation of a special group that is tasked with making recommendations to his office about tackling "these ever growing entitlement costs."

New Jersey is not alone. Prairie State politicos are attempting to forge reform. In "4 reasons you should care about pension reform in Illinois" (July 25, 2014, Chicago Sun Times reporter Sydney Lawson explains that the $175.7 billion owed to participants and bond investors will cost every taxpayer about $43,000 if paid today. According to its website, the Better Government Association estimates that replenishing numerous police and fire retirement plans in Cook County will "require tax hikes, service cuts or both."

The Big Apple retirement crisis  is no less massive. New York Times journalists David W. Chen and Mary Williams Walsh write that "the city's pension hole just keeps getting bigger, forcing progressively more significant cutbacks in municipal programs and services every year." A smaller asset base and decision-making that occurs across five separately managed funds are described as trouble spots for Mayer Bill de Blasio. Noteworthy is the mention of an investigation by Benjamin M. Lawsky, head of the Department of Financial Services, that seeks to understand how service providers were selected to work with New York City pension plans and the level of compensation they receive. See "New York City Pension System Is Strained by Costs and Politics" (August 3, 2014).

Curious about the extent of this New York City and New York State focused investigation, I asked one of my researchers to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to obtain details. We are awaiting the receipt of meaningful results. So far, we are being told that information is not available to send. What is known so far, based on an October 8, 2013 letter from Superintendent Lawsky to Comptroller of the State of New York, Thomas P. DiNapoli, is that questions will or are being asked about retirement plan enterprise risk management and "[c]ontrols to prevent conflicts of interest, as well as the use of consultants, advisory councils and other similar structures."

Pandering for votes by promising lots of goodies may not be a successful recipe for reforming pensions that need help. Moreover, judges are in the driver's seat once a dispute about contractual status is litigated. In a recent opinion, a federal court of appeals ruling about lowering cost of living adjustments overturned an earlier decision that such an action was unconstitutional. See "Baltimore wins round in battle over police, firefighters pension reform" (The Daily Record, August 6, 2014). Click to download the August 6, 2014 opinion in Cherry v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, No. 13-1007, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Like Homer's Odysseus who was caught between Scylla and Charybdis, policy-makers, union leaders and heads of tax groups are navigating some very rough waters indeed. We have not seen the end of these heated debates about what to do with underfunded municipal pension plans. Trying to align interests of seemingly disparate groups is only the beginning.