Educational Webinar About Pension Risk Management

Please join Dr. Susan Mangiero on November 2, 2016 for a one hour online program about pension risk management. The webinar is sponsored by the Professional Risk Managers’ International Association (“PRMIA“) in recognition of the importance of the subject. This learning event qualifies for one Continuing Professional Education (“CPE”) credit.

A program description is shown below. You can register by clicking here. If you have specific questions ahead of November 2, please call 1-612-605-5370 and ask to speak to someone in Learning and Development.

Program Overview: According to estimates, global retirement assets are huge at $500 trillion. Improper decision-making about plan design, investment and risk mitigation could have an adverse impact on millions of individuals to include employees, retirees, taxpayers and shareholders. Service providers such as asset managers, banks and insurance companies are likewise impacted by bad governance and unchecked risk-taking. Everyone has a stake in the financial health of the worldwide retirement system and whether uncertainty is being adequately identified, measured, managed and monitored, especially now. New regulations, a flurry of fiduciary breach lawsuits, low interest rates, the complexity of modeling longevity, increased risk-taking, need for liquidity, cost of capital and worker mobility are just a few of the challenges that keep retirement plan executives, participants and their advisors up at night.

This one hour webinar will present an overview of retirement plan risk management to include the following:

  • Description of economic and regulatory trends that influence retirement plan management liability and asset decisions;
  • Discussion about retirement plan risk-taking, fiduciary liability and increased need for effective risk management protocols;
  • Explanation of different categories of retirement plan risks;
  • Discussion about the interrelationships of different categories of retirement plan risks; and
  • What can be done, process-wise, to establish and maintain an effective retirement plan risk management program.

Improving the RFP Process

A few months ago I was asked to complete a Request for Information ("RFI") by the sponsor of a large pension plan. Their goal was to hire an independent outside party to vet the investment management policies and procedures of its outsourced manager. I've long maintained that it is an excellent idea to have someone review operations and render a second opinion about how asset managers perform relative to a retirement plan's objectives, how much risk is being taken to generate returns, the extent to which the asset manager is mitigating risks and much more.

While this type of "kick the tires" engagement is not as common as many think it should be, that could change quickly. The Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") business model (sometimes referred to as the Delegated Investment Management or Fiduciary Management approach) is rapidly growing at the same time that recent mandates such as the U.S. Department of Labor's Fiduciary Rule, along with a flurry of lawsuits that allege breach, call more attention to how in-house plan fiduciaries hire and monitor their vendors.

Given the relative newness of this type of engagement and the fact that a review can mean different things to different people, I strongly recommend that the hiring party consider how much work they want done and what budget applies. In the case of the aforementioned invitation to submit a work plan and detailed budget, my colleagues and I were told by the plan sponsor they weren't really sure what should be done. Our suggestion was to carry out a preliminary review of existing policies, procedures and operations, report the findings to the trustees and then discuss what could be done as a subsequent and more granular assessment, if needed. This would get the ball rolling in terms of identifying urgent concerns and avoid having to write a big check. Even with an opportunity to ask questions of the hiring plan, there were still many unknowns. For example, would the plan sponsor be willing to pay for a complete investigation of items such as vendor's data security measures, adherence to its compliance manual, growth plans, risk management stance, employee personal trading safeguards, measures to avoid conflicts of interest, business strength, type of liability insurance in place and verification (if true) that back office cash management was separate from trading or instead have an examiner concentrate on a subset? When the plan sponsor said it wanted to have an outside reviewer look at historical investment performance numbers, was its goal to assess data frequently or over a longer period of time, relative to a selected benchmark, relative to an asset-liability management hurdle, based on risk per return units and so on?

Anyone who has reviewed bid documents from public and corporate plan sponsors will likely conclude that there is not much consistency, especially for due diligence and governance assignments. That's not ideal. Yes, it's true that facts and circumstances will differ but clarity in terms of what a hiring plan wants can be a plus for everyone. I think it would likewise be helpful for the bid document to state a budget number or "not to exceed" range and let the respondents suggest what work could be reasonably done for that fee. Both the buyer and seller would know at the outset whether it makes sense to proceed with discussions. Another way to go would have the plan sponsor hire someone to interview its in-house fiduciaries, identify and rank their major concerns and then use that information to create a structured Request for Information or Request for Proposal ("RFP") that would be distributed to potential review firms. This exercise would entail a short-run expense but could save money in the long-run by ensuring that the plan sponsor and the review team are in sync about expectations and deliverables.

The bidding process is often a tough one for both buyer and seller. In 2015, I interviewed the co-CEO of a company called InHub, Mr. Kent Costello. I have no economic connection with this company. I had asked for a demo after reading about the use of technology to help fiduciaries with their search and hiring of third parties. In answer to my question about the limitations of the existing RFP process for the buyer, Kent said "It can be difficult for investment committees to put together a list of questions that will help them to effectively compare firms and service offerings ... Poorly crafted, irrelevant, or repetitive questions will lead to a weak due diligence process and leave the committee confused and frustrated. Worse yet, it could mean the selection of an inadequate vendor." Just as important, he pointed out that sellers could be reluctant to take the time and money to prepare a detailed proposal, "given the low likelihood of winning the business..." Click to read "Electronic RFP Process and Fiduciary Duty."

Process improvement is always a plus, whether applied to crafting a bid document, responding with a proposal or implementing the work, once hired.

Surveys Highlight Importance of Fiduciary Focus When Hiring Advisors

According to an August 17 press release from Fidelity Investments, "fiduciary responsibility tops plan sponsors' reasons for hiring advisors." What's more, this poll of nearly 1,000 defined contribution plan decision-makers makes clear that knowledgeable third parties have an edge in being hired and retained, especially if they can offer input about plan design and investment selection. Cited areas of concern include the following:

  • Increasing employee participation;
  • Properly measuring investment performance; and
  • Making sure that investment risk goals are heeded.

A 2016 Mass Mutual survey reveals similar findings that plan sponsors want help with plan design, discharging fiduciary duties and investment selection. Moreover, about two-thirds of respondents said they want an advisor who works with companies like theirs. 

It's no surprise then that educational initiatives continue to develop in response to changing regulations and an enhanced focus on fiduciary duties. As announced last month, the American Retirement Association has partnered with Morningstar "to develop a fiduciary education and best practices program for advisors."

April 2017 will be a busy month for many as they seek to comply with large chunks of the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule.

State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees

After posting "Public-Private Retirement Plans and Possible Fiduciary Gaps," a senior legal expert kindly informed me that Connecticut's legislation draws extensively from U.S. federal pension law. (ERISA does not directly apply to most government plans and the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a safe harbor that would exempt states from being tagged as ERISA fiduciaries.) Interestingly, a word search for "fiduciary" in the Public Act No. 16-29 document comes up empty. Specifically, as laid out in Section 6, entitled "Board Duty To Act With Prudence And In Interest of Participants," the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority board of directors are to act with the "care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of like character and with like aims" and solely "in the interests of the program's participants and beneficiaries."

Regarding legal redress, my understanding is that individuals who allow their employers to deduct three percent of their taxable wages to be placed in an "age-appropriate target date fund" or similarly allowed investment will not have the right to sue individual members of the Connecticut Retirement Security Authority Board nor will they have the right to sue the State of Connecticut. They will have to rely on authorized directors and the Attorney General to properly oversee selected service providers and take corrective action to improve things going forward. However, even if participants can demonstrate economic harm, they would not be able to recover past damages.

Programs offered by other states vary. One would have to research dozens of legal documents to compare and contrast governance, investment opportunities and conflict of interest avoidance mechanisms. Interested parties can visit the Pension Rights Center's State-based retirement plans for the private sector or the AARP's State Retirement Savings Resource Center. I am not sure how often these websites are updated.

I remain skeptical and am not alone. Michael Barry, president of the Plan Advisory Services Group, explains his reservations in "Are State Plans the Answer?" (Plan Sponsor, November 2015). Paul Schott Stevens, president and CEO of the Investment Company Institute, gives a thumbs up to private initiatives such as expanding multiple employer plans or MEPs to include smaller companies. Another way forward would be to simplify 401(k) plan regulations to encourage employers to better help their workforce save for retirement. See "State-Run Retirement? Better to Go Private" (Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2016).

My lack of enthusiasm for these state-run programs has more to do with philosophy and a desire to encourage economic growth. Here is some food for thought.

  • Small businesses around the world are drowning in a sea of regulations. According to an article in Small Business Trends, there is an inverse relationship between company formations and the number of pages in the Federal Register. These "little engines that could" create jobs are not leaving the train station, discouraged by too many rules.
  • As any free market economist can handily demonstrate, unintended consequences often occur, resulting in added expense and unwelcome behavior. Instead of spending X hours per month on growing sales and profit, a small business owner that is obliged to complete paperwork may now forego hiring new employees or cut back on existing perks.
  • Some of the states that are setting up retirement programs for private company workers have a poor track record as evidenced by underfunded pension plans for municipal staff.
  • Unless one is convinced that small company employees are unable or unlikely to set up an IRA on their own, these state-involved arrangements are not needed. CNBC reports that "Employees participating in auto enrollment tend to contribute less than people who sign up for 401(k) plans on their own, often because their employers set a low default contribution level."
  • It's not clear to me that individuals will have a better level of consumer protection by being part of a state-run program versus setting up an IRA account directly with a reputable financial institution. So far, no one has convinced me to the contrary.

I'm all for encouraging individuals to save for the long-term but I seriously wonder why government has to be involved with every decision someone makes. Hopefully I will be proven wrong and these state programs for private company employees will succeed.

Note: I welcome insightful essays and commentaries on this and other relevant pension governance topics. If you would like to be a guest contributor, please email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com with your idea or write-up.

Susan Mangiero, PhD Joins Financial Women's Association Panel About Fiduciary Rule

Dr. Susan Mangiero will join a panel of esteemed experts to talk about the U.S. Department of Labor's Fiduciary Rule on June 21, 2016. Sponsored by the Financial Women's Association, New Jersey chapter, CPE credit is available (CLE credit is pending). Meeting at the Seton Hall School of Law in Newark, this timely event features the following speakers:

  • Gregory F. Jacob, Esquire - Moderator - Former Solicitor of the U.S. Department of Labor, Partner in the Washington, DC office of O'Melveny & Myers and a member of the Financial Services and Labor and Employment Practices;
  • Susan Mangiero, PhD and Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst - Panelist - Forensic economist, investment risk governance expert and author/researcher with a focus on ERISA and non-ERISA fiduciary best practices;
  • Kathleen M. McBride, AIFA - Panelist - Founder of The Committee for the Fiduciary Standard and The Institute for the Fiduciary Standard, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to providing research, education and advocacy on the fiduciary standard's impact on investors, the capital markets and society; and
  • Margaret Raymond - Panelist - Vice President of T. Rowe Price Group, Inc. and T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and managing counsel with a focus on legal matters relating to retirement savings, including ERISA fiduciary principles and other retirement plan administration topics.

 Some of the many topics to be addressed include the following:

  • Features of the Fiduciary Rule and how different market segments are likely to be impacted;
  • Past, present and future characteristics of the IRA marketplace;
  • Use of robo advisors;
  • Product availability and asset allocation, post regulation; and
  • Legal challenges being filed to forestall the implementation of the DOL Fiduciary Rule.

For further information and to register, click here. A special thanks to Dr. Dubravka Tosic and Attorney Gregory Jacob for putting this event together and arranging for continuing education credit.

Note: Prior to June 21, it was decided to reschedule this event in the fall of 2016.

The DOL Fiduciary Rule, Seller's Exception and Independent Fiduciaries

How does a service provider determine whether it is making a recommendation to "independent fiduciaries of plans and IRAs with financial expertise?" This is a key question that could determine whether an organization or individual is tagged as an ERISA fiduciary and subject to added liability as a result.

According to "Chart Illustrating Changes From Department of Labor's 2015 Conflict Of Interest Proposal To Final," one of several modifications includes the following: "Providing an expanded seller's exception for recommendations to independent fiduciaries of plans and IRAs with financial expertise and plan fiduciaries with at least $50 million in assets under management is not fiduciary advice."

As always with legal issues, I defer to knowledgeable attorneys to parse this language. However, given an implementation deadline, compliance professionals of firms that sell to ERISA plans and IRA owners no doubt want to clarify definitions and concepts such as "independence" and "financial expertise."

One attorney with whom I spoke suggested the intent is to lower the chance of a conflict such as when a fiduciary receives compensation for a vendor or product he helped put in place. Another attorney put forth the notion that fiduciaries of a "larger" plan (in this case, a trust with assets above $50 million) could be seen as more "sophisticated" and "informed." I'm not convinced that the ambiguity of the final language can be dispatched without addressing a series of questions, some of which are listed below.

  • Is a consulting firm that seeks an exception and wants to sell its delegated investment management or Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") services thereby prohibited from pitching any of its own proprietary products and using them if it wins a contract?
  • When a C-level executive such as a Chief Financial Officer sits on a plan investment committee, who will assess whether her decisions are made solely in the interest of plan participants and not to plump up a bonus tied to a particular decision or outcome?
  • Can a seller avoid fiduciary classification if the client is a plan or IRA with assets less than $50 million but managed by knowledgeable fiduciaries?
  • Might a seller fail to procure an exception if it is later shown that a plan or IRA with more than $50 million in assets is "large" but managed by fiduciaries who do not possess financial expertise?
  • How do sellers intend to determine whether "financial expertise" exists and can they do so without insulting potential buyers?
  • How will existing "know your customer" guidelines change to accommodate the notion of "financial expertise?"
  • How do regulators intend to determine whether "financial expertise" exists?
  • If there are multiple fiduciaries and some possess "financial expertise" but others do not, is the seller at risk for losing the exception or not obtaining it in the first place unless it can verify that all in-house fiduciaries are competent?
  • If a plan fiduciary or IRA owner or manager changes, does the seller need to assess "financial expertise" for the replacements? Does the U.S. Department of Labor need to do likewise? 
  • On what basis is the $50 million determined? At a point in time or as a rolling average? Are assets to be based on market value or book value or something else? Will regulators review Form 5500 numbers to determine if the $50 million test has been met?

If anyone knows of an article or webinar that addresses these issues, please kindly email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com. I would like to share resources about "independence" and "financial expertise" with readers of Pension Risk Matters.

Note: Interested persons can click to download "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Dr. Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management). The phone number listed on the article is not current. 

Fiduciary Certification and Training

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. Anna Tilba with the Newcastle University Business School in the United Kingdom ("UK"). A mutual colleague had suggested we speak since we both work in the governance area. Dr. Tilba has studied the fiduciary practices of investment intermediaries. Her report fed into the UK's Law Commission publication about current fiduciary standards and areas for improvement.

One of the topics that arose during our conversation was the need for adequate fiduciary education and what she referred to as the professionalism of investment stewards. I agree that having experienced and knowledgeable individuals in place is critical. Even if the intent is to outsource certain services to others, investment committee members are tasked with making an informed decision about what to delegate and to whom.

Stateside, the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") continues its Fiduciary Education Campaign. Each seminar covers topics such as those listed below:

  • Comprehend the nature of each ERISA plan offered;
  • Apply rigor in selecting and monitoring service providers; and
  • Steering clear of prohibited transactions.

DOL website visitors can access something called the ERISA Fiduciary Advisor for information and answers to questions about duties. It's a tool that should help beginners although the DOL cautions that content is not "intended to be a substitute for the advice of a retirement plan professional."

So far, there is no uniform set of answers to questions such as the following:

  • How should in-house fiduciaries be selected?
  • How should in-house fiduciaries (individually and as a group) be assessed in terms of demonstrating procedural prudence?
  • Should in-house fiduciaries receive a bonus for achieving certain plan-specific goals?
  • Does everyone on an investment committee need to be equally proficient in a particular subject area or should someone serve as a Sarbanes-Oxley type of "financial expert?" 
  • Do in-house fiduciary term limits make sense?
  • How do variables such as plan design and characteristics of the workforce impact the kind of fiduciary education needed?
  • How should training differ for small to medium sized plans as addressed by the "Report of the Working Group on Fiduciary Education and Training?"

The good news is that data exists to benchmark myriad types of retirement plan decisions in terms of process and not just outcomes. Furthermore, there is a large array of training opportunities. Click here to download the "Retirement Plan Professional's Designation & Certification Guide" to learn about several dozen available offerings. Note that this document has a 401k focus. The bad news is that not all programs are created equal in terms of topic coverage. Even if they were sufficiently similar, facts and circumstances for a given retirement plan often dictate the need for specialized training not required elsewhere. 

Although fiduciary training is uneven across plans, sponsors and geographic location, I predict that lawmakers here and outside the United States will eventually impose universal certification requirements for retirement plan fiduciaries. I don't think a "one size fits all" approach to fiduciary training is ideal but political pressures will almost surely prevail. As the collective pension crisis worsens (and I acknowledge that lots of plans are in great shape), participants and taxpayers will want to know who was in charge of troubled schemes and how they made decisions. Proverbial heads tend to roll when voters' wallets shrink.

Hard to Value Assets, Hedge Funds and Investment Fiduciaries

As I have pointed out on multiple occasions, valuation is an integral part of investment risk management for several reasons. First, fees paid to asset managers are frequently linked to performance and performance calculations depend on reported values. If values are artificially inflated, returns are likely to be inflated as well. Second, imprecise values can skew asset allocation decisions, lead to hedges being too big (or too small) and possibly cause an investor to breach trading limits that are part of an Investment Policy Statement. It's no surprise then that valuation process questions about who does what, when and how continue to surface.

According to a May 9 Wall Street Journal article, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") is investigating "the way hedge funds value their thinly traded holdings and how they respond when investors ask for their money back." The SEC has been vocal about its concerns regarding asset valuations for awhile. In December 2012, Bruce Karpati, then Chief of the Asset Management Unit of the SEC Enforcement Division (and now in private industry), talked about a focus "on detecting fraudulent or weak valuation practices - including lax valuation committees and the use of side pockets to conceal losing illiquid positions - and the failure to follow a fund's stated valuation procedures." Click to read "Enforcement Priorities in the Alternative Space." (As an aside, some hedge funds buy and sell actively traded securities for which there is a ready market and full price transparency.)

The U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") regularly broadcasts its concerns about "hard to value" assets, including financially engineered products that show up in certain defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plans. In September of 2008, I spoke before the ERISA Advisory Council, by invitation, to address valuation issues from the perspective of a trained appraiser and fiduciary best practices expert. Click to read "Testimonial Remarks Presented by Dr. Susan Mangiero." I talked at length about valuation questions to ask of service providers and procedural prudence considerations for institutional investors.

A few weeks ago, senior attorney Fred Reish addressed monitoring and uncertainty in his April 19, 2016 newsletter. He directed readers to Fiduciary Rule preamble text that urges an advisor and his financial institution to install an adequate monitoring process before recommending "investments that possess unusual complexity and risk, and that are likely to require further guidance to protect the investor's interests." Click to read "Interesting Angles on the DOL's Fiduciary Rule #1." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to conclude that a "complex" and "risky" investment could be hard to value and not particularly liquid. (I have purposely not defined the terms in quotes herein as they are often related to facts and circumstances for a particular investor.)

Expect to read more about this important topic of valuation, especially as applied to those investors in search of higher returns. In a "no free lunch" world, risk and return go hand in hand. It's not necessarily a bad thing to take on greater risk as long as there is an understanding at the outset as to what gives rise to uncertainty and how risks are being mitigated.

Fiduciary Rule and Small Businesses

Given the newness of the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") Fiduciary Rule, many still have questions about both content and implementation. One such inquiry arose during a workshop I was asked to create for members of the CT chapter of the National Institute of Pension Administrators ("NIPA"). During our discussion, an audience member wondered out loud if small businesses would be sufficiently overwhelmed that they decide to jettison plans to offer benefits to employees. The reasoning is that compliance costs could dwarf any perceived upside associated with creating retirement arrangements for workers.

As we celebrate National Small Business Week from May 1 through May 7, 2016, the issue of disproportionate impact is certainly relevant. As with any regulation, there are winners and losers. Critics have been vocal about what they see as flaws. Last June, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report entitled "Locked Out of Retirement: The Threat to Small Business Retirement Savings" that predicted a fallout for small business owners who "provide roughly $472 billion in retirement savings for over 9 million U.S. households" via SEP and SIMPLE-type IRA plans. Its author, Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP attorney Bradford Campbell, wrote that "Main Street advisors will have to review how they do business, and likely will decrease services, increase costs, or both." As the U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet points out, the final rule covers IRAs, 401(k) plans and many other types of employee benefit plans, some of which were already regulated pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

Talk about deja vu. Investment News just published an article about the Fiduciary Rule effect on small broker-dealers as relates to documentation and other elements of compliance. The author, Attorney Ross David Carmel, worries that the DOL Fiduciary Rule could be catnip to the plaintiffs' bar because it is vague, "with no definition of best interest or reasonable compensation." He adds that increased costs will likely be passed along to consumers. Of course, buyers of any services have the right to decline or go elsewhere if competitors are willing to sell.

Only time will tell how things materialize for companies that rely on IRAs and will therefore be impacted by the Fiduciary Rule. In aggregate, economic consequences could be large if small business compliance hits the bottom line hard. Statistics from the U.S. Small Business Administration website show that 28 million small businesses contribute 54 percent of U.S. sales.

National Institute of Pension Administrators Workshop About Fiduciary Issues

In a few weeks, on April 27, Dr. Susan Mangiero will address the Connecticut chapter of the National Institute of Pension Administrators ("NIPA"). The educational workshop entitled "Impact of Final DOL Fiduciary Regulation" will address topics such as service provider due diligence and plan participant communication from an economic perspective. Interested persons should email clawton@retirewelltpa.com with questions or to register.

According to the NIPA website:

"The National Institute of Pension Administrators (NIPA) is a national association representing the retirement and employee benefit plan administration profession. It was founded with the idea of bringing together professional benefit administrators and other interested parties to encourage greater dialogue, cooperation and educational opportunities. NIPA’s goal is to improve the quality and efficiency of plan administration.

From its beginning in 1983, the founding concepts and specific purpose of NIPA is to educate and train plan administrators. NIPA started as an outgrowth of an eight person work study group. It is now a 1000-member national organization. NIPA's educational forums include courses, workshops and seminars focusing on the various aspects of plan administration."

We hope to see you there. 

Court Says Private Equity Funds Are Liable For Pension Liabilities of Portfolio Company

If you open a box and a dog pops out, your enthusiasm will be curbed if you were expecting something else. Surely this is how several private equity funds must feel now about one of their investments. According to "Private Equity Funds Liable to Union Pension Plan" by Jacklyn Wille (Pension & Benefits Daily, March 30, 2016), a federal judge recently ruled that several Sun Capital funds are "jointly liable for more than $4.5 million in withdrawal liability" that one of its portfolio companies, Scott Brass, "owed to a Teamsters pension fund." (You can visit Bloomberg Law to read the March 28, 2016 decision by clicking here.)

I will defer to attorneys to address the legal issues. So far, I found two commentaries on the heels of this 2016 legal decision. See "District Court Concludes Private Equity Fund Is Liable for Pension Obligations of the Portfolio Company" (Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP, March 30, 2016) and "Private Equity Funds Held Liable for Pension Liabilities of a Portfolio Company" (Sullivan & Cromwell, March 31, 2016).

From my perspective as an economist, any surprise claim on future cash flows could be disastrous if it is large enough to jeopardize the ongoing viability of a business. Even if a business has sufficient resources to maintain itself as an ongoing concern, utilizing cash for something that was not planned for could lead to a lower growth rate than originally expected. Keep in mind that pension funds, endowments and foundations frequently allocate monies to private equity on the basis of expected returns for this asset class.

Projecting cash flows as part of due diligence is nothing new for many investors. That said, I am not convinced that all enterprise investigations fully address the impact of an underfunded defined benefit plan. I was recently contacted by a firm that was tasked to render a fairness opinion and wanted my views about pension math. The investment bankers were reviewing documents from bidders that radically differed with regard to the treatment of the target company's benefit plan burden. When I was asked to speak and also write about pensions and enterprise value, the invitation came from a senior valuation executive who felt that the topic was not being adequately addressed. See "Pension Plans: The $20 Trillion Elephant in the (Valuation) Room" by Dr. Susan Mangiero (Business Valuation Update, July 2013). Email me if you would like a copy of my 2013 slides about this topic.

In 2013, when this Sun Capital case originally made its way to the court, it struck me as an important issue. (I was not involved in this matter as an expert.) Several editors agreed and I ended up co-writing two articles with Groom Law Group partner David Levine. I've uploaded one of these articles to this pension blog. Click here to read "Private Equity Funds and Pension Plans: A Changing Dynamic" (CFA Institute Magazine, March/April 2014). At my request, Attorney Levine responded to this 2016 decision by emailing the following: "In short, while some private equity firms have already moved to evaluate and, in some cases, clarify their fund structures, this case is likely to lead to a second look at their structures and methods of involvement with their portfolio companies."

If certain limited partners are not already asking questions of their private equity fund general partners about the nature of portfolio company pension plans, controlling interest status and deal structure, their due diligence could quickly change in the aftermath of the 2016 Sun Capital litigation.

Interested persons can click on the links provided below to read earlier blog posts about this topic:

Financial Technology and the Fiduciary Rule

Whether the proposed U.S. Department of Labor so-called fiduciary rule becomes law this year remains to be seen. Many in the industry think its passage is nigh. Critics hope for a reprieve, asserting that costs are likely to outweigh benefits.

One oft-repeated concern is that small savers will be harmed if financial service companies decide to jettison accounts that fall below target asset levels. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association ("SIFMA") explains "Because they cannot afford a fiduciary investment advisory fee, they will instead be forced to solely rely on a computer algorithm known as a 'robo-advisor.'"

Financial technology enthusiasts will counter that a more automated approach to retirement planning is a good thing for big and small savers alike. Certainly the topic merits review for at least two reasons.

  • The use of machines has exploded in recent years. In her November 9, 2015 speech about technology, innovation and competition, U.S. Securities and Exchange ("SEC") Commissioner Kara Stein foretells buoyant growth with an expected $2 trillion in assets under management by robotized advisors by 2020.
  • There are central questions about the fiduciary obligations of a company that concentrates on algorithmic advising and money management. Besides seeking to contain model risk, there is a need, at a minimum, for a vendor to regularly review client objectives and constraints. Click here to access a white paper on this topic by National Regulatory Services.

A few weeks ago, a handful of venture capitalists and prominent angels announced a $3.5 million capital round for a financial technology company called Captain401. Its stated goal is to help small businesses streamline the creation and administration of 401(k) plans that the founders argue would be too expensive to offer without automation. A cursory review of the company website makes it impossible to know much about its business model, technology safeguards or compliance infrastructure. Nevertheless, the funding of this and other "Fin Tech" organizations augurs favorably for added growth in this area.

As the global retirement marketplace adapts to regulatory and economic realities, it will be interesting to watch (or perhaps lead) what unfolds in terms of innovation, service provider competitiveness, cost tiers and other outcomes that impact savers and those who have already retired.

Investment Management and Stress

The fact that some people thrive on stress could be a plus if you want to work in the financial services industry. According to "The most (and least) stressful jobs in banking and finance" (efinancialcareers.com, December 31, 2015), careers that were ranked as most stressful to least stressful are as follows:

  • Investment banker;
  • Trader;
  • Risk management and compliance;
  • Wealth management/private banker;
  • Institutional sales;
  • Management consulting;
  • Private equity;
  • Equity research;
  • Fund manager; and
  • Accounting.

Interviews with recruiters and employees mentioned long hours and a lack of control over issues that create problems and demand solutions. Respondents who work in the risk management and compliance areas talked about their frustration when they call out areas in need of improvement but then "nothing is done." 

Other professionals, such as those who work in wealth management, talked about competition as being a source of stress. Making money only occurs after an advisor expends considerable effort to build a big client base but then more time is needed to prevent an aggressive peer from taking assets away.

Besides job-specific concerns, industry changes can be a source of worry if they are expected to radically transform the way business is conducted. Consider the rise of financial technology ("FinTech") or what Inc. Magazine referred to as "One of the Most Promising Industries of 2015." According to a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled "Can Robo Advisers Replace Human Financial Advisors?", assets managed without human intervention grew from $3.7 billion to $8 billion between July 2014 and July 2015. Although critics counter that robots cannot offer individualized advice about specialties such as estate planning, a reliance on automation, if substantial, will result in winners and losers.

Regulatory changes can raise stress levels too, especially if one has little latitude to adapt to a new rule at the individual level. The U.S. Department of Labor's proposed fiduciary rule is already showing up in the form of strategic corporate decisions that are moving people from one place to another. This week's announcement about a sale of MetLife's U.S. advisor unit to the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. comes on the heels of the American International Group's decision to sell its broker-dealer unit rather than potentially incur added compliance costs. See "MetLife exits brokerage business as DOL rule looms" (Investment News, February 29, 2016).

Although not specifically mentioned in articles about stressful jobs, ERISA retirement plan fiduciaries are surely aware of their personal and professional liability exposure. Add the complexities of new legislation and economic challenges such as negative interest rates and it's not a stretch to understand why some fiduciaries might need to take a few deep breaths to relax. No doubt their public pension colleagues may need a zen moment as well.

February 2 Hearing On New Fiduciary Bill

Grab the popcorn. At 10 am EST on February 2, 2016, the Education and Workforce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives will live stream its hearing on H.R. 4293, the Affordable Retirement Advice Protection Act. Click here to access the website if you want to watch the hearing in real time. Click here to download the text of H.R. 4293.

The event promises to be lively. Already, industry whisperers portend an expedited 50-day review by the Office of Management and Budget ("OMB") instead of its customary 90 days of this well-watched legislation. (The U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") sent its Conflict of Interest Rule - Investment Advice, Regulation Identifier Number ("RIN") 1210-AB32, last week.) Click here to download various proposed text.

Some still question the costs associated with compliance. According to "Bills to Replace DOL Fiduciary Rule to Get Marked Up on Tuesday" by reporter Melanie Waddell (Think Advisor, January 29, 2016), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would like the OMB to ask DOL to rethink its economic analysis of the rule's impact. Stephen Ellis with Morningstar estimates that adhering to the fiduciary standard could cost $2.4 billion or twice the "$1.1 billion price tag" that shows up in official studies. See "Morningstar Details DOL Impact" (Think Advisor, February 1, 2016).

Others think this new mandate, if passed into law, is long overdue. Read "Fiduciary rule could make 2016 good for investors" by Mark Miller (Reuters, January 7, 2016).

Whatever happens tomorrow, there are more headlines to follow.

ERISA Investment Committee Governance

For those who missed the January 27 webinar entitled "ERISA Plan Investment Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims," click here to download the slides for this educational program. There were three presenters, each of us sharing a different perspective about this important topic. I spoke about economics and governance. Executive Rhonda Prussack (Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance) provided information about ERISA fiduciary liability insurance. Attorney Richard Siegel (Alston & Bird) offered his takeaways for investment committee members as the result of recent litigation decisions.

As with most discussions about fiduciary considerations, there never seems to be enough time to address core concepts. So it was with this Strafford CLE event. Ninety minutes quickly came and went. Here are some of the highlights from my talk.

  • Expect more surveillance of ERISA investment committee decisions. A $25+ trillion retirement money pot and regulatory developments are two reasons. Just a few days ago, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations ("OCIE") of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") emphasized conflicts of interest and disclosures as two components of its Retirement-Targeted Industry Reviews and Examinations Initiative.
  • It is a good idea to regularly review the Investment Policy Statement for each plan and either revise asset class limits or rebalance to reflect material changes such as rating downgrades of securities owned, changes in company ownership, large reported contingencies that could adversely impact cash flow or corporate recapitalization.
  • Consider crafting a companion Risk Management Policy Statement or beef up the risk sections in the Investment Policy Statement(s).
  • Document the process that dictates how new investment committee members are selected, whether they are trained (and by whom) and how they are reviewed, by whom and how often.
  • Consider installing a central figure or team to negotiate all vendor contracts and clarify exactly who does what. The goal is to avoid an expectation gap that arises when a contract is ambiguous or silent on tasks that an investment committee needs to have done but a service provider does not want to do or thinks it is not obliged to perform. 
  • Double check the compensation of investment committee members to minimize the risk of conflicts of interest. Suppose for example that a Chief Financial Officer ("CFO") sits on an ERISA plan investment committee at the same time that he is eligible for a bonus if he can cut costs.
  • Engage ERISA plan counsel to put together a "kick the tires" team of economists and attorneys who can render an objective assessment of existing internal controls, governance structure and investment policies and procedures and then recommend changes as needed. 

As with any exercise in good stewardship, taking (and documenting) relevant precautionary actions can be a good defense for an ERISA plan investment committee, especially at a time of heightened scrutiny.

Chief Retirement Officer Redux

Skittishness about an individual's financial ability to retire is one factor that I believe underlies continued ERISA litigation activity. As I suggested to Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Tergeson, "'There has been quite a focus on the retirement crisis which has created significant nervousness about this gigantic pool of' 401(k) money and whether it is being managed properly." See "Lawsuit Alleges Anthem 401(k) Plan Exposed Participants to Higher Fees," January 8, 2016. (As an aside, I am not involved in this litigation and did not comment on this case for the article.)

Perhaps these same jitters about retirement readiness explain why some might consider the installation of a Chief Retirement Officer. Senior ERISA attorney Stephen D. Rosenberg writes that this idea is "so simple...and so brilliant..." in his commentary entitled "What Can a Chief Retirement Officer Do for You?" (December 9, 2015). In my piece about the same topic, I countered that hiring this kind of C-level executive may still prevent ERISA puzzle pieces from snapping easily into place. In "Chief Retirement Officer and a Seat at the Table," I cite the challenges of finding someone knowledgeable enough to navigate complex issues that transcend law, corporate finance, human capital enhancement, governance and investment management. I further question whether a Chief Retirement Officer would help or hinder the work of a Chief Risk Officer if one exists.

Stirring the pot further, Dr. Richard Glass, president of Investment Horizons, shared with me his view that a Chief Collaboration Officer may be a smarter move. Such a person would have a "primary duty" "to break down corporate and consulting silos." His view is that "These silos prevent the successful implementation of talent management (including engagement efforts) and business strategies and thus the level of profitability." Coincidentally, I spent nearly an hour on the phone today in a lively discussion about how to adjust enterprise value to reflect defined benefit plan underfunding. Earnings, share price and overall corporate worth is impacted by ERISA plan economics.

A "silo mentality," as defined by BusinessDictionary.com, is "A mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce the efficiency of the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture." A reasonable person could quickly conclude that a failure to communicate across functions is fraught with problems. Using case studies and her knowledge of anthropology, prominent Financial Times editor Dr. Gillian Tett makes the case for getting rid of organizational walls in her 2015 book entitled The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers.

Fortunately, there is a solution as long as corporate management has the will to create a unifying vision and motivate management teams to work towards common goals. Forbes contributor and management consultant Brent Gleeson adds that people must be properly incentivized and that goals must be measurable. Read "The Silo Mentality: How to Break Down The Barriers" (October 2, 2013) for more of his insights.

Applied to ERISA plans, the temptation to hoard information is ill-advised. If true that corporate power grabs exist and impede the ability for investment fiduciaries to carry out their duties, a Chief Retirement Officer might not have the clout to coalesce competing interests. Unlike a Chief Risk Officer who reports to a corporate board to ensure her authority and independence, a Chief Retirement Officer would likely wear the hat of fiduciary and have to put participants' interests ahead of those of shareholders. (The plot thickens when plan participants are contemporaneously shareholders by virtue of investing in company stock as part of a 401(k) line-up.) I defer to ERISA attorneys to address the separation of fiduciary "church and state" but could see someone crying foul if a Chief Retirement Officer communicates too often with company directors. Interested readers can download "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Dr. Susan Mangiero for comments about two-hat conflicts. (Note that my work affiliation is Fiduciary Leadership, LLC.)

One step in the right direction towards effective pension governance is to appoint fiduciaries who have different backgrounds and can therefore facilitate a thorough discussion of various and important topics around the unifying theme of duty and care. Other ingredients of a well-baked set-up include having sensible metrics in place to assess whether fiduciaries are doing a good job. Rewarding them when they step around silos to make better decisions is likewise needed.

Whether a Chief Retirement Officer can assist here is unclear. Surely more discussions about this role make sense.

Chief Retirement Officer and a Seat at the Table

Credit to retirement industry executive Steff C. Chalk for his article entitled "The Advent of the Chief Retirement Officer" and to senior ERISA attorney Steve Rosenberg for sharing his insights on his blog. The notion that a C-suite executive (or a government equivalent position) should be installed to oversee all things related to benefit plans merits consideration, especially if a plan's fiduciaries are short on time and/or expertise or have a conflict of interest.

According to Mr. Chalk, another advantage is that the Chief Retirement Officer ("CRO") can negotiate vendor contracts "for the prudent oversight of fees, services and all plan related expenses." He references ERISA litigation in his mention of a "professional purchaser." Attorney Rosenberg is more emphatic when he writes that those cases that make it to summary judgment often unpeel the fiduciary breach onion to reveal actions that were taken "with limited discussion, limited knowledge and with a limited investment of time." (As an aside, and from my perspective as an expert witness who has worked on both plaintiff and defense cases, there are lots of situations where fiduciaries have acted with care and diligence. Facts and circumstances must be thoroughly evaluated.) 

The challenge - and I think it is a big one - is to find someone who possesses knowledge and experience in a variety of areas such as law, Human Resource strategy, investment management and governance. Then there is a question about reporting lines. Should a CRO properly report to the Board of Directors (or in the case of a government fund, report to the Mayor or Governor)?

Regarding compensation, Mr. Chalk asks whether linking a CRO's pay to performance makes sense. His suggestion is that an appropriate performance metric be something that reflects retirement readiness of plan participants. At first blush, this sounds good but could be called into question if exogenous factors make it hard for a CRO to deliver. Factors such as family circumstances, age, risk tolerance and education can drive seemingly inappropriate retirement investment decisions made by individuals even when copious education has been provided by a sponsor to defined contribution participants. For a defined benefit plan, what if an actuary or consultant provides misleading information (such as lowballing lifespan) and a sponsor discovers down the road that participant benefits are at risk? Is it right to tag the Chief Retirement Officer with that mistake?

Something not addressed by either gentleman but near and dear to my heart is the idea that retirement plans should be overseen by the Chief Risk Officer (if one exists at an organization) as part of enterprise risk management. Headlines are replete with news about the adverse impact on the sponsor, whether corporate or government, when there are problems associated with one or more retirement plans offered by the employer. Capital may become more expensive, if available at all. There could be a liquidity crisis that soaks up cash that would otherwise be used to invest in shareholder wealth creation or provide municipal services. Reputation risk could increase. Costly litigation may follow. The diminution of employee benefits could lead to a loss of talented staff or make it hard to attract new workers. I have written and spoken about this interconnectivity at length. Links to a few of my articles are provided below:

With an expectation of "when" and not "if" an enhanced fiduciary standard will get passed into law, a discussion about the advantages of hiring a Chief Retirement Officer are timely. 

ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance Webinar

Back by popular demand, a panel of esteemed speakers will present on January 27, 2016 about the fiduciary risks and litigation trends faced by ERISA investment committee members. Sponsored by Strafford Publications, Inc. and eligible for Continuing Legal Education ("CLE") credits, the program is entitled "ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims."

Faculty speakers include:

  • Dr. Susan Mangiero - Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC;
  • Ms. Rhonda Prussack - Vice President and Fiduciary Liability Product Manager with Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance; and
  • Richard Siegel, Esquire - ERISA attorney with Alston & Bird.

The panel will review key issues such as those listed below:

  • What are the ERISA regulations with which investment committees must comply?
  • How should plan sponsors vet fiduciary risks when selecting an investment committee?
  • What litigation techniques can be implemented to minimize the likelihood of a finding of breach of fiduciary duty by an investment committee?
  • What is the role of the economic expert in assessing investment committee performance and investment monitoring, post-Tibble?
  • What is the role of ERISA fiduciary liability insurance?

Inasmuch as many ERISA lawsuits cite the entire investment committee as defendants, there is a need for each member to understand her personal and professional liability as well as the risks that arise if other members are ill-prepared, are conflicted and/or lack sufficient knowledge and experience. In other words, a best practice is for the entire committee to recognize the seriousness of fiduciary obligations and behave accordingly.

Investment Monitoring, Post Supreme Court Decision

As mentioned in "ERISA Litigation and Investment Monitoring" (October 22, 2015), Dr. Susan Mangiero, Attorney James Fleckner and Dr. Lee Heavner will discuss economic and governance ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court "Tibble" decision on December 3, 2015 from 11:00 am to 12:30 pm EST.

To register for this educational webinar entitled "Life After Tibble: Investment Monitoring and Litigation Defense Considerations for ERISA Fiduciaries," click here. The sponsor, Bloomberg BNA, has arranged for continuing legal education ("CLE") credits to be offered.

Educational objectives are listed below:

  • Identify the main tenets of the Tibble decision and understand the implications of likely future litigation and enforcement;
  • Distinguish investment monitoring done in-house or by third parties;
  • Discover preemptive measures for effective investment monitoring;
  • Learn how to mount a defense against lawsuits; and
  • Cover the components of economic damage estimates as part of an investment monitoring lawsuit or regulatory enforcement action.

Given the importance and relevance of the topic, there are numerous individuals who can benefit by attending this program such as:

  • Asset manager and financial service company attorneys;
  • Auditors;
  • Banks that sell to ERISA plans;
  • Corporate board members;
  • Corporate counsel;
  • ERISA fiduciaries;
  • ERISA fiduciary liability insurers;
  • ERISA litigators;
  • ERISA transactional attorneys;
  • Financial analysts;
  • Financial regulators;
  • Financial industry journalists;
  • Investment advisors and consultants;
  • Mutual fund directors;
  • ERISA plan policymakers; and
  • ERISA plan researchers.

ERISA Litigation and Investment Monitoring

Please save the date for an educational program entitled "Life After Tibble: Investment Monitoring and Litigation Defense Considerations for ERISA Fiduciaries." Produced by Bloomberg BNA, this webinar event will take place on December 3, 2015. Speakers are listed below:

  • James O. Fleckner, Esquire - Chair - ERISA Litigation, Goodwin Procter LLP;
  • Dr. D. Lee Heavner - Managing Principal, Analysis Group, Inc.; and
  • Dr. Susan Mangiero - Managing Director, Fiduciary Leadership, LLC.

In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court "Tibble" decision, there are numerous questions as to what exactly comprises effective investment monitoring from a procedural prudence perspective. Given the newness of this important legal decision and little formal guidance from the High Court, the panel will present economic perspectives about what ERISA fiduciaries should do to assess, and possibly improve, their current investment monitoring process. Attention will be paid to related topics that include the delegation of investment monitoring to third parties (such as advisors, asset managers and consultants) and the kinds of information that should be communicated to plan participants about investment monitoring activities. The role of the economic expert and the factors that need to be considered in estimating damages will be addressed, along with a discussion of available industry resources. The panel will use examples from casework to illustrate some of the key points.

Further details will be posted shortly.

Fiduciary Frenemies

As senior ERISA litigation attorney Steve Rosenberg points out in a recent blog post, a service provider with a wayward institutional client could end up in a lose-lose situation. Ignore questionable or illegal conduct and co-fiduciary liability might lead to allegations of breach and a costly fallout for the advisor. Inform authorities and one is likely to lose that client and accompanying revenue.

Referencing a Plan Adviser article entitled "Do Retirement Plan Advisers Have a Duty to 'Rat?'," Attorney Rosenberg describes this dilemma as a real problem. I concur and offer that the growth in outsourcing arrangements could be a catalyst for further friction unless all parties understand how work is to be allocated and are equally committed to a high standard of care. With over $1.2 trillion categorized as "outsourced assets," there is a lot at stake.

In 2014, the ERISA Advisory Council had an entire forum on the topic of outsourcing of employee benefit plan services. On the topic of duties, law professor Colleen E. Medill testified that "... the courts have not provided much guidance on whether one fiduciary has the right to sue another fiduciary for equitable relief under ERISA.  She noted that this issue will be of increased importance as more employers and other named fiduciaries look to outsource fiduciary functions.  Likely, in a co-fiduciary situation, one fiduciary is more culpable than the other.  Thus, while both fiduciaries are jointly and severally liable under ERISA, the less culpable fiduciary may wish to sue the other fiduciary for damages in a contribution or similar action."

Based on my experience as an expert witness, service provider disputes can arise for a number of reasons, including, but not limited to, what I call an expectations gap wherein some task is left undone because it has not been formally assigned. In other situations, a conflict may exist that makes it hard for a third party to act independently on behalf of its institutional client. Of course, an investment committee member(s) may likewise have a conflict that impedes the advisor's ability to do what he or she is supposed to do. A pay-to-play kickback that involves a trustee with authority to hire an advisor is one example.

As I've written about many times, vetting and overseeing service providers by an investment committee is critical. As Attorney Rosenberg reminds his Boston ERISA Law blog readers, knowing one's customer is likewise important. After all, some lawsuits are brought by plan participants against both internal and outsourced fiduciaries. It is not unreasonable to conclude that working with a governance-focused client and vice versa redounds to the advantage of both buyer and seller.

Fiduciary Education Considerations

Rumor has it that regulatory exams of retirement plans continue to include explicit questions about whether a formal education program exists and, if it does, what it contains. Certainly the topic is not new. In 2002, the Working Group on Fiduciary Education and Training made recommendations to the U.S. Department of Labor to include the following:

  • Ensure that everyone understands that a fiduciary must "perform competently" which means, by extension, that he or she must be educated about duties and responsibilities;
  • Appoint someone to lead fiduciary education and outreach on a national basis;
  • Expand guidance as to what constitutes "best practices," adding to guidelines such as "A Look at 401(k) Fees for Employers";
  • Recognize that fiduciaries of smaller plans will likely have different training needs than those of larger plan fiduciaries; and
  • Provide helpful tools such as a dedicated hotline, a primer about fiduciary duties and conferences. 

A visit to the U.S. Department of Labor website entitled "Getting it Right - Know Your Fiduciary Responsibilities" yields a treasure trove of educational publications and hyper links to various online tools such as The ERISA Fiduciary Advisor. In addition, there are countless organizations that provide extensive fiduciary programs, some of which lead to certifications should one pass exams and meet experiential mandates. I myself have both taken and led various workshops about investment fiduciary subjects and continue to satisfy the requirements to be an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst.

Yet with the plethora of available information about what it takes to carry out one's fiduciary duties, allegations of breach continue and on a grand scale. During a recent program entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors," my co-presenters and I talked about the importance of education and the consequences of not being up to speed on what has to be done on behalf of participants.

Some have suggested that formalizing a training requirement makes sense, adding that guidelines can demonstrate good faith and thereby serve as a defense in the event that a lawsuit is filed against investment fiduciaries down the road. Others counter that too much specificity may not allow for changes in circumstances or be inadequate to the multiple tasks of selecting advisors for more than one specialized asset class or strategy. 

Based on my experience, documentation about how internal fiduciaries are selected, let alone developed, is something of a rare bird. Likewise uncommon is a written policy that explains how investment committee members should be evaluated in terms of performance and by whom. In contrast, nearly all jobs have a specified description, an established pay scale and clear criteria about what makes for a "good" job versus performance that is deemed "unacceptable." Though one might be tempted to conclude that the absence of a formal procurement protocol for a retirement plan fiduciary means that the role is unimportant, nothing could be further from the truth. Serving as a fiduciary is a real job in every sense of the word and should be acknowledged accordingly.

Fiduciary Standard TV Ads

I have long professed my concern that retirement issues get short shrift when it comes to political speeches and public discourse. I am not talking about industry discussions which occur all the time. I am referring instead to Main Street outreach. Even today, there seems to be scant mention by U.S. presidential candidates about how to strengthen programs like Social Security and reform tax laws to encourage savings. Of course what the pundits call the "silly season" has just begun, with many months of campaigning to go. Imagine my surprise then when, in between news segments this week, several ads appeared on television about impending changes. In one ad, a man and a woman are chatting in a car about their concern that talking to their advisor will become more expensive and they will end up talking to a robot. Another ad showcases a small business owner who worries that new regulations will make it harder for him to keep offering a 401(k) plan to his employees. Viewers are urged to call their lawmakers.

Research suggests that the ads are sponsored by the Secure Family Coalition. Its website lists organizations that include the following:

  • American Council of Life Insurers;
  • Association for Advanced Life Underwriting;
  • Insured Retirement Institute;
  • National Association for Fixed Annuities;
  • National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies; and
  • National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are groups such the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard. Its website cites advocacy, research and education of the public as ways for "all those willing to help" to get involved.

Regardless of one's stance about the U.S. Department of Labor proposal (and discussions by other regulators and lawmakers), the hope is that further conversations about retirement planning will encourage a long overdue focus on the abysmal state of readiness in this country and around the world.

If ads are hitting the airwaves now, is a Hollywood movie next?

Fiduciary Standard Thrust and Parry Continues

In the aftermath of the recent U.S. Department of Labor hearings about the fiduciary standard, the debate continues with fervor. In the last few days, I have seen television ads that are subtle but seem to impugn attempts at getting a final rule in place. Elsewhere, estimates suggest that regulations could be costly. According to "SIFMA: DOL Fiduciary Rule To Cost Firms Over $5 Billion" (Wealth Management, July 20, 2015), the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association posits that broker-dealers will incur a large start-up outlay of about $5 billion and then ongoing costs thereafter in excess of $1 billion. Others counter that the benefits are considerable and worth the incremental expense.

Ongoing lively debates may not make a difference if Plan Sponsor's John Manganaro is correct. In "DOL Stands Firm on Fiduciary Rule Despite Negative Comments" (August 12, 2015), the point is made that Secretary Perez feels strongly that the U.S. Department of Labor (a) has been diligent in vetting critics' comments and (b) making modifications to hopefully ensure flexibility.

School is still out as to the "what, when and how." I predict that the aftermath may offer unexpected surprises. As with so many mandates, there are plenty of people who immediately look for the loopholes and act accordingly.

U.S. Department of Labor Hearings About Conflict of Interest and Fiduciary Role

Though it may seem arcane to those outside of the financial services industry, the current debate about who serves as a fiduciary, compensation and duties is a big deal. Depending on what you read and with whom you speak, millions of retirees could be materially impacted. In the spirit that what happens next is newsworthy, you may want to tuck the hearing URL away and check back often. As the four days of public hearings proceed, the U.S. Department of Labor is expected to publish a transcript of what witnesses say. Besides a chance to know what professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds aver (both pro and con), interested parties can download nearly 2,600 comment letters. Click here to access the Public Hearing Agenda for the period from August 10, 2015 through August 13, 2015. Click here to download and read the following: (a) requests to present during public hearings (b) comment letters and (c) petitions.

Investment Fiduciary Monitoring, Economic Damages and Tibble

Following the publication of "An Economist's Perspective of Fiduciary Monitoring of Investments" by yours truly, Dr. Susan Mangiero (Pensions & Benefits Daily, May 26, 2015), I decided to write a second article on the topic as there is so much to say. This next article is co-authored with Dr. Lee Heavner (managing principal with the Analysis Group) and continues the discussion about investment monitoring from an economic viewpoint. Entitled "Economic Analysis in Fiduciary Monitoring Disputes Following the Supreme Court's 'Tibble' Ruling" (Pensions & Benefits Daily, June 24, 2015), we address the case-specific nature of investment monitoring by fiduciaries and the complexities of quantifying possible harm "but for" alleged imprudent monitoring.

Noting the discussion of changed circumstances by the High Court as part of its Tibble v. Edison International decision, it is imperative to understand that investment monitoring involves multiple steps, each of which takes a certain number of days to complete. "In the world of dispute resolutions, every complaint, expert report, and decision by a trier of fact is specific to a date or period of time. Time is no less a crucial variable with regard to the creation and implementation of an adequate investment monitoring program." While "changed circumstances" are likely to vary across plans and plan sponsors, exogenous events can spur further monitoring. "The departure of a key executive, a large loss, or a government investigation for malfeasance are a few of the events that may lead plan fiduciaries to subject an investment to enhanced scrutiny."

The expense of monitoring is another issue altogether, one that is nuanced, important and necessary to quantify. We point out that (a) there are different types of costs (b) expenses occur at different points in time and (c) some costs may be difficult to assess right away. "For example, when monitoring leads to a change in vendor or investment that in turn results in participant confusion, blackout dates, account errors, or a lengthy delay in setting up a new reporting system, the true costs may not be known until well after the transition is completed."

There are no freebies. There is a cost to taking action as the result of monitoring. There can be a cost to inaction as well. Investment selection and investment monitoring are different activities. Categories of investment monitoring costs include: (a) use of third parties (b) search costs (c) change costs and (d) opportunity costs. Any or all of these categories may come to bear in a calculation of "but for" economic damages. As a result, "there may be substantial variation to when prudent fiduciaries would act let alone how long it would take an investment committee to complete each action." An assessment of economic damages - whether for discovery, mediation, settlement or trial purposes - requires care, consideration and an understanding of the complex investment monitoring process.

For further insights and to read about this timely topic, download our article by clicking here.

National Doughnut Day and Retirement Plans

In case you didn't know, today is National Doughnut Day. According to ABC News, Cumberland Farms and Krispy Kreme are a few of the sellers that are giving out freebies in celebration of this longstanding holiday. In its May 28, 2015 press release, Dunkin' Donuts (another participating retailer) informs that the holiday has been around since 1938, having been created "to honor women who served donuts to soldiers during World War I." The history of this sweet treat goes back even further. Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the popularity of the doughnut, citing its introduction to Americans by the Dutch when Manhattan was called New Amsterdam. Since then, sales have soared with 2012 doughnut store revenue reported at $11.6 billion.

Presumably free doughnuts generate sales of other products like coffee or tea and that is one motivation for holiday largesse. Another motivation for giving things away has to do with product branding. The Chief Marketing Officer Council website touts a 2015 global estimate of $540 billion as the amount that companies expect to spend on advertising. I experienced this firsthand when I recently spoke at the Government Finance Officers Association annual conference. Before my session, I perused some of the booths in the exhibition hall. I now have stress balls, pens and tote bags that sponsors gave away in droves to ensure continued name recognition. Two days ago, the subject of branding came up again when I met with the general counsel of a large financial institution. He specifically used the term "building the brand" when describing transparency and good governance as a way to differentiate his firm's offerings to pension funds, endowments and family offices.

This got me thinking about benefits that employers offer to attract new employees and retain existing talent. Jen Schramm writes about a 2014 survey in "Which Benefits Attract Highly Skilled Workers?" (Society for Human Resource Management, April 1, 2015), stating that health care, retirement and leave arrangements "were the top benefits used to retain employees at all levels of an organization." This finding leads to logical questions about (a) how employers are branding the benefits offered in seeking to fill jobs and (b) whether only well-funded and viable plan benefits get promoted to newcomers and existing workers.

Understanding some basics about branding helps. Mark Di Somma recently addressed the seven R's of a powerful branding strategy to include the following:

  • Resonance - Does a brand "talk to people's needs in ways that feel personal, relevant and wonderful?"
  • Resilience - Does the brand create a competitive advantage?
  • Results - Will the brand add to the bottom line?
  • Resolution - Is the brand inspiring and "Does it align with the vision and the purpose?"
  • Radiation - Will the brand generate positive conversations?
  • Redefinition - Does the brand dazzle or simply move the deck chairs around?
  • Recognition - Does a brand build on what customers (in my example, employees and prospects) already know?

His points can be applied to the offering of various benefits and related communications with participants. Based on my experience as a forensic economist, numerous cases on which I have worked in the last few years allege poor communications and rescinded benefits (even when perception differs from reality). In brand parlance, this means there is low resonance, low resilience and low resolution. Participants do not feel that the benefits meet their needs. Increased costs relating to factors such as longevity are reducing the bottom line and forcing lots of companies to rethink whether certain benefit programs should be maintained. Underfunded and badly managed benefits can lead to negative "radiation" as reflected in the growth of putative ERISA class actions with multiple disgruntled employees willing to serve as plaintiffs.

The topic of benefits "branding" (i.e. using benefits to attract and retain talent as a way to create enterprise value) is far from trivial. Companies throughout the world are seeking to balance the costs of offering benefits against the hope that a generous HR mix helps shareholders too. It is certainly food for thought, in between bites, for those who plan to munch on a free doughnut today.

An Economist's Perspective of Fiduciary Monitoring of Investments

I am delighted to share my recent article with readers of this pension blog. Entitled "An Economist's Perspective of Fiduciary Monitoring of Investments" (by Dr. Susan Mangiero and published in Bloomberg BNA Pensions & Benefits Daily, May 26, 2015), I wrote this article in the aftermath of the May 18 Tibble v. Edison decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A central thesis is that "ongoing oversight is an exercise in risk management" and that "[r]isk management is a never ending process." The article emphasizes the importance of (a) examining multiple risk factors and not relying on performance numbers alone (b) understanding the presence of financial leverage (should it exist) (c) clarifying the role of a service provider when an outside party is used and (d) letting participants know about the type of monitoring being done by an investment committee.

The topic of this article readily lends itself to at least one lengthy book as there is a considerable amount to say. I am co-writing a sequel article with fellow economist, Dr. Lee Heavner.

If you are interested in discussing investment fiduciary monitoring as relates to trustee training, compliance or dispute resolution, please email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com.

Free Continuing Legal Education - Pension De-Risking Webinar

There are seven complimentary passes left for anyone who is interested in attending "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors: Avoiding Litigation and Enforcement Action." This educational webinar is sponsored by Strafford Publications, Inc. and will take place on May 27, 2015 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST. Speakers include:

  • Maureen J. Gorman - Partner with Mayer Brown;
  • David Hartman - Vice President and General Counsel with General Motors Asset Management; and
  • Dr. Susan Mangiero - Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC.

If you would like to attend (whether you need continuing legal education or not), please email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com. The remaining passes will be distributed on a "first come, first serve" basis.

ERISA Litigation Webinar Transcript Now Available

Seeking to accomplish a goal without having the right tools can result in frustration and possible failure. One solution is to get outside help when needed as long as the party being hired is knowledgeable and independent. Otherwise, what looks like a solution could quickly become a problem. Applied to ERISA plans, trouble might take the form of costly and time-consuming enforcement and/or litigation. Over the last few years, that reality has set in for more than a few employers.

Recognizing the importance of abiding by good governance principles, several of us agreed to speak as part of an educational webinar on April 8, 2015 about fiduciary tools, pitfalls and lessons learned. Sponsored by fi360 and entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors," this webinar joined Attorney Tom Clark (Counsel with the Wagner Law Group), Dr. Susan Mangiero (Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC) and Mitchell Shames, Esquire (Partner with the Harrison Fiduciary Group) to address the (a) use of an independent fiduciary (b) clarifying what an outside vendor should be doing and (c) avoiding legal and economic landmines that have revealed themselves in prominent court cases and regulatory examinations.

If you missed the event, email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com for a copy of the slides. Click here to download the written transcript. Edited for clarity (and because the audio file is spotty in some places), this fourteen page document lays out cornerstone concepts and includes suggestions for plan sponsors and the advisers who serve them. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The outsourced fiduciary market is growing in the United States and elsewhere.
  • When an outside party is hired by a plan sponsor, it is critical to specify responsibilities and contract accordingly. When an "expectations gap" exists, some critical tasks may be left wanting or not addressed at all.
  • When multiple fiduciaries are in place, a plan sponsor must ensure that a central person or team is adequately coordinating the efforts of all fiduciaries.
  • The newly proposed Conflict of Interest rule is predicted to materially change the landscape of fiduciary relationships between plan participants and retirement advisers.
  • A fiduciary status may exist due to either a contractual agreement or by virtue of the functions assumed by an individual or organization.
  • ERISA litigation is getting more attention these days, with a particular focus on fees, use of proprietary funds, revenue-sharing and disclosure of compensation paid to investment consultants, advisers and asset managers.
  • Demonstrating procedural prudence in part depends on what others in the industry are doing (or not doing as the case may be) and whether actions make sense for a given plan.
  • A renewed focus on disclosure and transparency is in the works according to comments made by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged for a singular transaction or for a task that continues over a long period of time.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged by either a defined contribution plan or defined benefit plan or both.
  • When there is a perception or reality of a conflict of interest, it may be prudent for an independent fiduciary to be engaged. The participants pay for said party because the independent fiduciary works on behalf of the participants.
  • The concept of co-fiduciary status is important and should be paid heed by any adviser who has an ERISA plan as a client.
  • Before delegating duties (to the extent allowed) to a third party, a plan sponsor should decide what financial issues should be vetted. Liquidity, the use of leverage by asset managers and asset allocation are a few of the many topics that a delegated fiduciary could be asked to measure, monitor and manage.
  • A fiduciary audit can be extremely helpful as a tool for identifying areas of improvement for an ERISA plan sponsor.

It may be no surprise that over 500 people registered for this educational webinar about fiduciary foibles. After forty years since its inception, ERISA remains a force that cannot be ignored.

ERISA Litigation Predicted To Rise

I have just returned from Chicago where I spent two days listening to transaction attorneys, litigators and insurance company executives talk about trends in ERISA enforcement and legal disputes. Sponsored by the American Conference Institute, this assembly about ERISA litigation included sessions on class actions, Employer Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") problem areas, the role of economic experts in litigation, challenges to the church plan exemption, questions about excessive fees, de-risking, stock drop defense strategies, health care reform, how much ERISA fiduciary liability insurance to purchase and much more.

I took a lot of notes and intend to write about implications for plan sponsors and their service providers through an economic and governance lens.

It may be coincidental but certainly not trivial that the United States Department of Labor released its fiduciary proposed rule about conflicts of interest on the second day of this important ERISA litigation convening, i.e. on April 14, 2015. The thinking is that the adoption of a more rigorous rule could open the door wide to a multitude of further disputes and heightened examinations. Click here to access the language of the proposed rule and supporting documents.

It sounds like many will be even busier in the coming months.

Calvin Ball and ESOP Governance

Calvin and Hobbes has long been a favorite treat of mine. (I don't have permission to embed a likeness but you can click here for a peek.) This long-running cartoon strip ceased in 1995, ten years after the creation of a mischievous six-year old and his furry feline friend. The brainchild of cartoonist Bill Watterson, Calvin entertained and moralized at the same time, charming a global audience of adults and children alike. In a rare interview, Washington Post reporter Michael Cavna (March 10, 2015) learned from the somewhat reclusive Mr. Watterson that "fantasies are drawn more realistically than reality, since that says a lot about what's going on in Calvin's head." In "America's Most Profound Comic Strip" (Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2015), senior editor at the Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell, adds that "...Calvin keeps running into evidence that the world isn't built to his ... specifications" and that his "favorite sport is 'Calvinball,' in which he is entitled to make up the rules as he goes along."

I thought of Calvin and his world views yesterday as I listened to ERISA attorney Ted Becker talk about Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") governance. As the lead speaker for an NCEO-sponsored webinar entitled "What the DOL v. GreatBanc Trust Co. ESOP Court Settlement Means for ESOPs," this Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP partner gave some nuts and bolts recommendations that are concrete and therefore radically different from the actions of ERISA trustee "Calvins" who comfort themselves that sloppy work is okay.

Mr. Becker and co-speaker Loren Rodgers (Executive Director of the National Center for Employee Ownership) explained that changing regulatory emphasis on employer security valuation led to what is known as the Fiduciary Process Agreement. Described as a "playbook," the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") and "GreatBanc Trust Company agreed that it could be used for future transactions by an ESOP fiduciary in which the ESOP purchases or sells employer securities that are not publicly traded." Engaging an independent and qualified valuation advisor and then adequately reviewing (and understanding) the resulting information used to carry out the valuation are two of the recommendations for trustees.

In the official source file ("Agreement Concerning Fiduciary Engagements And Process Requirements For Employer Stock Transactions" dated June 2, 2014), readers are reminded of the importance of process for multiple tasks. Among other things, this roadmap details what should be documented by the ESOP Trustee when choosing a valuation advisor, to include:

  • "The reason for selecting the particular valuation advisor;
  • A list of all the valuation advisors that the Trustee considered;
  • A discussion of the qualifications of the valuation advisors that the Trustee considered;
  • A list of references checked and discussion of the references' views on the vauation advisors;
  • Whether the valuation advisor was the subject of prior criminal or civil proceedings; and
  • A full explanation of the bases for concluding that the Trustee's selection of the valuation advisor was prudent."

This guiding document likewise lays out suggestions about process regarding the fiduciary review of any potential transaction such as buying or selling employer securities that are not publicly traded, the reliance on the valuation report and much more. As independent fiduciary Mitch Shames writes in "Once Again, Strong Process and Substance Matters" (September 11, 2014), "... DOL requires that the fiduciary be an active participant in an ESOP transaction...far from a passive role."

Having been trained as an appraiser and someone who has (a) rendered opinions of value (b) reviewed others' valuations (c) critiqued valuation models (d) taught valuation courses and (e) served as an expert witness, I know firsthand that inappropriate assumptions, bad data and short cuts are likely to create headaches. Quality of valuations that are used for statutory and commercial reasons can and do vary - sometimes materially so. A "quickie" appraisal that ignores fundamentals about an industry let's say or proceeds from grossly inflated management projections are two potential vulnerabilities. The danger is that an inadequate valuation report potentially creates a domino effect of unwanted outcomes because it is used as a driver to make subsequent decisions. For example, ESOP trustees with multiple suitors may select the "wrong" buyer or approve a recapitalization that would not otherwise occur had a better valuation assessment been used. Valuation numbers are frequently inputs as opposed to the end goal.

Big numbers are involved so it's no surprise that ESOP governance is garnering close scrutiny. According to "The Current State of ESOPs," 2012 ESOP assets exceeded $1.059 trillion with 13.824 million participants in 6,908 plans.

On a separate note, I am speaking at the annual conference of the National Center for Employee Ownership, to be held this year in Denver from April 20, 2015 to April 23, 2015. Entitled "Effective Boards of Directors: Obligations, Recruitment and Compensation," my panel will "cover the standards and responsibilities of directors in the board room, how committees function, building a sustainable board structure and standards and surveys for establishing and measuring compensation to reward the performance of directors." Attorney Kevin G. Long (Shareholder with Chang Ruthenberg & Long PC) and Ms. Nancy Wiefek (Research Project Director with NCEO) will co-present.

ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: Role of Independent Fiduciary and Financial Advisor Best Practices

Mark your calendars to attend an educational webinar entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors." Sponsored by fi360 and eligible for continuing education credit, this April 8, 2015 event will take place between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm EST and address important and timely issues for plan sponsors and their advisors. Details are provided below.

Description: ERISA litigation and enforcement increasingly involves allegations of conflicts of interest and imprudent decision-making on the part of advisors, consultants, banks and asset managers. In several recent matters, regulators and judges have made it clear that the use of an independent fiduciary would be interpreted as a reflection of procedural prudence and the absence of an independent fiduciary could hasten a decision of fiduciary breach.

Learning objectives:

  • Learn about relevant cases and regulatory actions that involve third parties such as financial advisors;
  • Hear a discussion about how advisors, consultants, banks and asset managers can work effectively to demonstrate procedural prudence; and
  • Better understand what state trust law and ERISA oversight activity means for advisors and consultants who work with non-ERISA trusts.

Speakers:

  • Thomas Clark, Esquire (Counsel - The Wagner Law Group)
  • Susan Mangiero, PhD, AIFA, CFA, FRM, PPC (Managing Director - Fiduciary Leadership, LLC)
  • Mitchell Shames, Esquire (Partner - Harrison Fiduciary Group) 

Please join as your schedule permits. Click here to register.

Fiduciary Outsourcing Considerations

I try hard to avoid duplication when contributing to this retirement plan blog (www.pensionriskmatters.com) versus writing about investment compliance on a broader scale (www.goodriskgovernancepays.com). However, there are times when I believe a topic has equal appeal to both plan sponsors and their advisers, attorneys, asset managers and other types of vendors.

With that in mind, I invite you to read "Fiduciary Outsourcing Considerations." As I have said both in private conversations and in public speeches, my work as a forensic economist (and sometimes testifying expert witness) leads me to predict that disputes between institutional investors and service providers are unlikely to disappear any time soon. The good news is that those who take governance seriously have a wonderful opportunity to develop and maintain business with risk management focused pension funds, endowments, foundations and other types of buyers.

ERISA Litigation Costs

After having just blogged about the April 13-14, 2015 American Conference Institute program about ERISA litigation in Chicago, it was somewhat coincidental that an article on the same topic crossed my desk today, painting a grim picture of what could happen to a plan sponsor in the event of a lawsuit.

While only two pages long, "An Ounce of Prevention: Top Ten Reasons to Have an ERISA Litigator on Speed Dial" invites readers to consider the advantages of staying abreast of increasingly complex rules and regulations as part of a holistic prescription for mitigating legal risk. Authors Nancy Ross and Brian Netter (both partners with Mayer Brown) cite "heightened interest" in ERISA by U.S. Supreme Court justices, a rise in U.S. Department of Labor enforcement and court decisions about the importance of having a prudent process. They add that de-risking compliance, disclosure requirements, conflicts of interest, large settlements and attorney-client privilege restrictions are other potential landmines for a public or private company that offers retirement benefits.

Elsewhere, Employee Benefit Adviser contributor, Paula Aven Gladych, predicts that the U.S. Supreme Court review of Tibble v. Edison International ("Tibble") could increase ERISA litigation risk for plan sponsors, regardless of its decision. In "Edison decision could be 'slippery slope' for plan fiduciaries" (February 26, 2015), she writes that "the court focused its attention on duty to monitor fees and investments, generally by investment committees and plan administrators of 401(k) plans." Interested readers can download the February 24 2015 Tibble hearing transcript.

Recent events reflect multi-million dollar resolutions, even when an ERISA litigation defendant feels strongly that it is in the right. In "Settlements offer lessons in breach suits" (Pensions & Investments, February 23, 2015), Robert Steyer reports that publicly available documents can shed light about what types of disputes are being settled, the dollar amounts involved and any non-monetary requests made by the plaintiffs. Competitive bidding as part of selecting a vendor is one example. He goes on to say that regulatory opinions are thought to be particularly helpful when they are viewed by the retirement industry as de facto guidance.

I will report back after attending the ERISA litigation conference in a few weeks although I suspect that judges, litigators and corporate counsel who speak will convey a similar message with respect to fiduciary scrutiny. As Bob Dylan sang, "the times they are a-changing."

ERISA Litigation Conference Addresses Timely Fiduciary Issues

Dr. Susan Mangiero announces the sponsorship of a forthcoming conference about ERISA litigation and regulatory issues by Fiduciary Leadership, LLC. Produced by the American Conference Institute ("ACI"), this mid-April event pairs attorneys (including corporate counsel) with jurists to address timely topics that include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Excessive fees;
  • Church plan lawsuits;
  • Fiduciary liability insurance;
  • Use of independent fiduciaries;
  • Enforcement risk;
  • Ethics;
  • Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") litigation;
  • Proceedings related to company stock in ERISA plans; and
  • Health care mandates and related compliance.

Interested readers of www.goodriskgovernancepays.com or www.pensionriskmatters.com can read more about the program, speakers and venue by downloading the ERISA litigation conference brochure. There is a $200 discount off the current price for any blog reader who calls 888-224-2480 or visits http://www.americanconference.com/ERISA.

I look forward to seeing you in the Windy City in a few weeks. With the just announced push by the White House for fiduciary conflict of interest rules, U.S. Supreme Court activity in Tibble v. Edison International and news of multi-million ERISA litigation settlements, this conference is expected to be informative and important.

X Marks The Spot Approach to Pension Risk Management

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of major surgery may tremble after reading "How to Make Surgery Safer" (Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2015). Journalist Laura Landro describes a panoply of horribles such as operating on the wrong body part or leaving a foreign object inside a patient's body. Honing in on "never events" (i.e. those that are serious and should never occur), she describes attempts by hospitals to reduce human error in a quest to contain the rate of injury, minimize the number of deaths and avoid the billion dollar whack for serious faux pas. Besides the collection and analysis of big data to glean lessons learned and track performance, the writer describes how operating room teams are being prepped to emphasize safety in numerous ways. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Adding radio frequency tags to instruments and sponges;
  • Empowering nurses to override a doctor's orders to wrap up if questions exist about missing items;
  • Convening as a team to agree on strategy before any cuts occur;
  • Identifying ahead of time what procedure should take place and on what part of the body;
  • Training all staff about how to use electrical equipment;
  • Creating, and then following, an appropriate checklist; and
  • Asking patients to actively participate by getting into good shape ahead of time and scrubbing with anti-bacterial soap prior to surgery.

In the pension world, setting a risk management objective by proverbially marking the target spot with a big X merits consideration. After all, if the goal (or set of goals) is vague or flat out wrong, chances are that the "operation" will fail. Should that happen, the "patient" (i.e. participants) could suffer.

The concept of proper goal-setting is far from trivial. Fiduciary breach allegations are undeniably here to stay, courtesy of an increasingly active plaintiffs' bar. Settlements can cost sponsors millions of dollars, even when a company feels strongly that it has done everything correctly. Changing regulations could up the ante. According to "President Obama to Address DOL Fiduciary Redraft at Monday AARP Meeting" (Think Advisor, February 22, 2015), proposed standards put forth by the U.S. Department of Labor appear to be moving closer towards some type of final conflict of interest rule. In a January 13, 2015 memo, the White House seems to be taking the view that retirement plan fees are often too high and have cost savers more than $6 billion. No doubt the financial industry will continue to rebut these estimates.

Based on my experience as a forensic economist and someone who has served as a testifying expert, goal-setting is hugely important when it comes to resolving disputes. An inevitable question is whether something went awry and, if so, what monetary damages should be paid (and to whom). Answering inquiries about whether wrongdoing occurred (and its magnitude) has to start with identifying the objective(s) and then examining the achievement of said goals (or lack thereof).

Similar to the health care profession, continuing to up its game in terms of process improvement, retirement plan sponsors (and their service providers) have a vested interest in creating goals that are (a) clear (b) measurable (c) realistic and (d) appropriate for the situation at hand.

Dr. Susan Mangiero Invited to Speak About ESOP Governance

Dr. Susan Mangiero is delighted to announce that she has accepted an invitation from The National Center for Employee Ownership ("NCEO") to speak at its upcoming annual conference in Denver. She will be joined at the podium by employee benefits attorney Kevin G. Long (Shareholder with Chang Ruthenberg & Long PC) and Ms. Nancy Wiefek (Research Project Director with NCEO). The panel will address "Effective Boards of Directors: Obligations, Recruiting & Compensation."

Dr. Mangiero is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst®, CFA® charterholder, Financial Risk Manager - Certified by the Global Association of Risk Professionals and Professional Plan Consultant™. She is frequently engaged to carry out fiduciary-related analyses for compliance purposes or as an expert witness.

Join us at this important conference. Click to learn more about this year's NCEO event.

Santa Claus and the Fiduciary Standard

At this time of the year, when Santa Claus is making his list of who has been naughty and nice, optimists rub their hands in glee, anticipating a stocking full of goodies. Pessimistic believers resign themselves to something worse. In pension land, if you embrace fiduciary change, the incoming head of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee may be about to hand you the proverbial lump of coal.

According to Washington Bureau Chief Melanie Waddell, Senator Orrin Hatch intends to push anew for the passage of his Secure Annuities for Employee Retirement or "SAFE" Act. He spoke about pension reform and the "pension debt crisis" on July 9, 2013 in his "Introduction of the SAFE Retirement Act of 2013."  His objective is to "stop the Department of Labor from writing fiduciary rules for individual retirement accounts" and "over-regulating IRA investment advice." See "Sen. Hatch's 2015 Priority: Torpedo DOL Fiduciary Efforts" (Investment Advisor Magazine, December 15, 2014).

Put forward as a Conflict of Interest Rule-Investment Advice, the U.S. Department of Labor seeks to "reduce harmful conflicts of interest by amending the regulatory definition of the term 'fiduciary' set forth at 29 CFR 2510.3-21(c) to more broadly define as fiduciaries those persons who render investment advice to plans and IRAs for a fee within the meaning of section 3(21) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and section 4975(e)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The amendment would take into account current practices of investment advisers, and the expectations of plan officials and participants, and IRA owners who receive investment advice, as well as changes that have occurred in the investment marketplace, and in the ways advisers are compensated that frequently subject advisers to harmful conflicts of interest."

As with any mandate, if approved, some will be impacted more than others. In its "DOL 2014 Fall Regulatory Agenda," ERISA attorneys Fred Reish, Bruce Ashton and their Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP colleagues assert that broker-dealers and their registered representatives will likely bear the brunt of new rules. They write that "Adoption of an expanded definition will likely affect both the status for broker-dealers as fiduciaries and their compensation (due to the fiduciary prohibited transaction rules of ERISA). In response, these broker-dealers may need to develop RIA fiduciary programs for advisors who focus on retirement plans and decide how to manage the plan business of those who do not."

Whatever your holiday preference may be, keep a look out for the "gifts" that 2015 has in store for plan sponsors and their service providers.

Taxpayer Bailout of Underfunded Pension Plans

Over dinner last night with friends, my husband told a joke about Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton (or whomever you want to designate as fact-challenged individuals). The hotel heiress asks "Which is closer to us - Florida or the moon?" The reality star replies - "Hello, can you see Florida from here?" Unfortunately, this type of silliness has reared its head often over the years with regard to the topic of promising too much and funding too little. The math just does not work. To the logical observer, this flight of fantasy was always destined to self-destruct. It was more a question as to how long the downward spiral would take for impacted U.S. and non-U.S. government plans.

On July 27, 2006, I wrote "Tea Party Redux: State Pensions in Turmoil." It was blatantly clear that trouble was heading our way. Since then, headlines about retirement plan gaps continue to dominate the news.

In what could be a bellwether situation, the State of Illinois wants to address a shortfall that is referred to as "the biggest in the U.S" and is fighting the court system to be empowered to do so. See "Illinois Fights Court Block of $111 Billion Deficit Fix" by Andrew Harris (Bloomberg, November 27, 2014). In "Why Illinois pension reform may be constitutional" (Crain's Chicago Business, December 6, 2014), Joe Cahill explains that "important state interests" may justify the limiting of pension contracts that are deemed constitutional and therefore inviolable. He references Felt v. Board of Trustees. Those who disagree that reform is legally possible suggest that taxpayer hikes and/or reduced overall municipal spending are inevitable.

Now it appears that U.S. lawmakers may have their sights set on private pension plans too. In "Congress could soon allow pension plans to cut benefits for current retirees" (December 4, 2014), Washington Post journalist Michael A. Fletcher describes a move that, if enacted, would see lower payouts for plan participants of multi-employer plans in distress. The alternative is to have the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") take over any failed plans. As stated in "Solutions not Bailouts" (February 2013), Randy G. Defrehn and Joshua Shapiro write that benefits would be lowered anyhow in the event of a PBGC assumption of plans deemed as insolvent. In "The lame-duck Congress plots to undermine retiree pensions," Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik urges readers to stay tuned as the December 11, 2014 vote on an omnibus spending bill may contain language that, if passed into law, would snip dollars from union retirement arrangements. He quotes advocates of defined benefit plans as pushing for careful deliberation instead of rushing ahead.

Expect lots of changes in 2015 and thereafter. The pension crisis (at least for some sponsors and their employees) is not going away anytime soon. In the meantime, smart cookies are invited to the negotiations table. The worst thing that could happen is to ignore reality. Leave that to Kim and Paris. 

ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance

In case you missed "ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims" with Dr. Susan Mangiero (Fiduciary Leadership, LLC), Ms. Rhonda Prussack (Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance) and Attorney Richard Siegel (Alston & Bird), click to download the November 17, 2014 presentation or visit the Strafford CLE website to obtain the audio recording.

Given the importance of the investment committee governance topic and emerging market trends in the area of outsourcing, my comments focused on committee structure, guiding documents, training and implications when third parties sign on as fiduciaries. Points I made during the webinar include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The ERISA Advisory Counsel, in its 2014 Issue Statement about outsourcing employee benefit plan services, cites a desire to understand how vendor contracts address provisions such as termination rights, indemnification, liability caps and service level agreements.
  • An evaluation of the outsourcing business model is not surprising given a service provider push to serve as an Outsourced Chief Investment Officer or Fiduciary Risk Manager. (An Asset International publication refers to the OCIO movement as a fast-growing segment of investment consulting.)
  • Once an investment committee has been authorized by the sponsor's board of directors, a core set of qualifications and experience needs can be assembled. Plan counsel can play a vital role in explaining fiduciary obligations.
  • Beyond that core base, facts and circumstances such as plan design, company size, industry structure and investment strategy should be taken into account as part of determining requisite training and experience.
  • Regular meetings are encouraged with frequency being determined in part by what has to be done by the investment committee and related time sensitivity of completing a task(s).
  • Notwithstanding the voluntary nature of having an Investment Policy Statement ("IPS") in place, an ERISA plan investment committee should establish one nevertheless that makes sense for a particular plan. Some organizations have been questioned after creating an IPS but not following it.
  • Creating (and following) an appropriate Risk Management Policy can likewise be useful, especially for ERISA plans that utilize derivative instruments and/or allocate money to more complex products or strategies.
  • Training is another mission-critical area. (According to "DOL Investigators Quiz Plan Sponsors On Training of Fiduciary, Attorneys Say" by Bloomberg BNA contributor Joe Lustig, fiduciaries are being asked by regulators whether training programs exist.)
  • Continuing education is beneficial since regulations, market conditions and plan-related objectives and strategies can change over time.

Someone from the audience asked whether it made sense for an investment committee to consist of a senior corporate executive such as a Chief Financial Officer and her direct reports. The point is that each fiduciary is equal at the investment committee "table" but otherwise unequal. This can present a big problem if any or all of the investment committee members disagree with the Chief Financial Officer. Worse yet, a subordinate (in corporate organization terms) may be reluctant to whistle blow about an imprudent decision made by the CFO while wearing her hat as ERISA fiduciary. I will leave the question as to legal protection to attorneys. However, in doing some research, it turns out that U.S. federal pension law does address whistle blower protections. Interested persons can click to read "ERISA Has a Whistleblower Provision? Yep." by Seyfarth Shaw attorneys Ada Dolph and Robert Szyba (June 19, 2014).

There is a lot more to say on the topic of investment committee governance, notably because ERISA lawsuits that are adverse to a plan sponsor tend to include all investment committee members as defendants. An effective infrastructure and good governance policies and procedures can help to mitigate fiduciary personal and professional liability and position the investment committee to better serve participants.

Susan Mangiero of Fiduciary Leadership, LLC Earns the "Professional Plan Consultant" (PPC) Credential

Trumbull, CT (November 6, 2014) – Dr. Susan Mangiero is pleased to announce her designation by Financial Service Standards, a division of fi360, Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA) in the area of retirement plan consulting.  She is the recipient of this specialized designation known as the Professional Plan Consultant or PPC.

Recent regulatory changes to the qualified retirement plan industry have sparked an urgency to ensure that retirement plan service professionals have specialized training and resources to help sponsors meet their fiduciary obligations and a means of documenting that prudent practices are being followed in the management of an employer-sponsored plan.  Those professionals that help retirement plan fiduciaries and their counsel are seeking accreditation and certification to demonstrate a high level of knowledge and the ability to provide sponsors with the tools necessary to manage their plan effectively.

The Professional Plan Consultant™ designation was developed by Financial Service Standards with a goal of helping professionals that work with employer-sponsored retirement plans specialize in this increasingly regulated niche of the financial industry.  Program graduates must sit for either a two-day training class or complete the equivalent web-based training program, pass a comprehensive final exam, sign off on the FSS Code of Ethics, and commit to ongoing training in retirement plan management. 

Susan Mangiero is a Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC. She is a CFA charterholder, certified Financial Risk Manager and Accredited Investment Fiduciary AnalystTM. Dr. Mangiero has been working within the investment management industry for over twenty years. She provides a variety of investment risk governance and valuation services to attorneys, regulators, asset managers, investment committees and other types of fiduciaries. Services include board training, business intelligence surveys, calculation of damages for dispute resolution purposes, expert witness testimony, investment best practices research, white papers, financial model reviews and procedural prudence assessments. She is the author of Risk Management for Pensions, Endowments and Foundations and the lead contributor to the award-winning blog, www.pensionriskmatters.com.

According to Dr. Mangiero, she is proud and excited to have received this distinguished designation. "It requires industry experience and reflects my dedication to raising the service standards in the retirement plan industry, whether for 401(k) plans, defined benefit ("pension") plans, Employee Stock Ownership Plans ("ESOP"s) or other types of employee benefit arrangements. This designation is an indicator that a professional has added to her knowledge and can access unique tools and resources that can help plan sponsors meet certain industry requirements."

Sharon Pivirotto, Founder & Managing Director of Financial Service Standards of Pittsburgh congratulates Dr. Mangiero on this achievement and "applauds her initiative to help customers plan, build and maintain a successful and compliant company-sponsored retirement plan. This kind of commitment and service approach ultimately means better retirements for many employees."

The 40lk Service Training Program, sponsored by Financial Service Standards, has been accepted for 12.5 continuing education credits by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. The PPC designation is listed on the FINRA website.

Fiduciary Leadership, LLC is an investment risk governance and forensic economic analysis consulting company. Clients include asset managers, transactional attorneys, litigation attorneys, regulators and institutional investors.

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.

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.

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.

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.

ERISA Advisory Council Investigating Fiduciary Management

According to a 2014 statement, the ERISA Advisory Council intends to investigate the nature of retirement plan outsourcing and report its research to the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). "Outsourcing Employee Benefit Plan Services" cites objectives to include the following:

  • Discussion about current practices in outsourcing and whether variables such as plan size or type impact the services provided to ERISA plans;
  • Clarification of "the legal framework under ERISA for retaining outsourced service providers..." and possible areas for regulatory guidance;
  • Getting suggestions about the management of potential conflicts of interest;
  • Further discussing the "scope of co-fiduciary liability in the outsourcing context" for 3(16), 3(21) and 3(38) relationships;
  • Discussion about how contracts are put together between an ERISA plan and a service provider to address issues such as termination rights, indemnification, liability caps; and
  • Examination of insurance coverage and ERISA bonds when an outsourcing arrangement exists.

This news is not particularly surprising. The topic of fiduciary management continues to attract attention, in part because it appears to be growing as a business model in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere. According to a survey of 73 pension plans and their advisors, Buck Consultants found that 70% "had at least considered going down that route." For those schemes that that had engaged a fiduciary manager, they cited motivations such as "improved speed in the decision making process, greater focus on the end game, and improved expertise." At the same time, UK-based Brian McCauley, Head of Fiduciary Evaluation at Buck Consultants, added that the governance burden is still "huge." In "Perceptions of Fiduciary Management," Stephenson Harwood attorney Fraser Sparks addresses concern about conceivable conflict of interest trouble spots when "an advisor turns into a provider." One offered solution is to engage an independent third party to evaluate the qualitative and quantitative characteristics of fiduciary manager short list candidates.

Stateside, ERISA legal experts debate the pros and cons of the outsourced fiduciary approach. In "New flavor of outsourced fiduciary for retirement plans hits the market" Investment News reporter Darla Mercado writes that "This latest service offering is popping up in an era when plan sponsors have a heightened awareness of their fiduciary responsibilities and are looking to offload some of them so that they can get back to the day-to-day work of running their business." Drinker Biddle & Reath attorney, C. Frederick Reish, talks about "3(16) lite" and the need to "[r]ead the fine print." The April 2, 2014 piece emphasizes that "...plan sponsors still have the responsibility of choosing and monitoring their service providers."

In "Expert Q&A on Outsourcing Fiduciary Investment Responsibilities" (Practical Law, February 2014), Groom Law attorneys David N. Levine and Allison Tumilty explain the legal dimensions of outsourcing fiduciary investment responsibilities and the advantages and disadvantages of passing the baton for certain delegated tasks. They add that outsourcing "can be appropriate for defined benefit and defined contribution plans of all sizes."

From my perch as a forensic economist who is sometimes hired to give expert testimony, I have observed a larger number of cases being filed that address the relationship between plan sponsor and service provider. Whether that trend continues remains to be seen. Given the foregoing, the ERISA Advisory Council inquiry is likely to be both timely and informative.

ACI ERISA Litigation Conference - New York City

I have the pleasure of announcing that Fiduciary Leadership, LLC is one of the sponsors of this recurring educational conference. For a limited time only, I am told that interested parties can register early and receive a discount. Contact Mr. Joseph Gallagher at 212-352-3220, extension 5511, for details.

Besides two full days of interesting and timely presentations, the American Conference Institute conference about ERISA litigation gives attendees a chance to hear different perspectives. Scheduled speakers include investment experts, corporate counsel, defense litigators, plaintiffs' counsel, class action specialists, judges and fiduciary liability insurance executives, respectively.

Click to download the ACI ERISA Litigation Conference agenda or take a peek at the list of topics as shown below:

  • Fifth Third v. Dudenhoeffer and the Impact of the Decision on the Future of Stock Drop Case and Litigation Regarding Plan Investments;
  • ERISA Class Actions Post-Dukes and Comcast: Standing, Commonality, Releases and Arbitration Agreements, Monetary Classes, Issue Certification, Certification of “Class Of Plans”, Class Action Experts and Halliburton, and More;
  • The Affordable Care Act, Health Care Reform and New Claims and Defenses in Workforce Realignment Litigation;
  • 401(k) Fee Cases: Current Litigation Landscape and Recent Decisions, Evolving Defense Strategies, DOL Enforcement Initiatives, Impact of Tussey and Tibble, Excessive Fund Fees, and More;
  • Retiree Health and Welfare Benefits: M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett and the Yard-Man Presumption;
  • Multiemployer Pension Plan Withdrawal Liability;
  • Independent Fiduciaries: Working with Them to Manage Plan Assets, Handle Administrative Functions and Authorize Transactions; and the Latest Claims Involving Failure to Monitor Independent Fiduciaries and/or Keep Them Informed;
  • ESOP: New and Emerging Trends in Private Company ESOP Litigation, Lessons Learned from Recent Decisions in ESOP Cases, and the Latest on DOL Investigations and Enforcement Priorities;
  • Benefit Claims Litigation: the Latest on ERISA-Specific Case Tracks Aimed at Discovery Disputes, Attorney Fees Post-Hardt, Limitation Periods in Plans, Addressing Requests for Evidence Outside of the Record in “Conflict” Situations, Judicial Review of Claims Decisions and the Battle Over Discretion, and More;
  • Fiduciary Liability Insurance: Assessing Current Coverage and Future Needs & Strategic Litigation and Settlement Considerations;
  • New Trends in Church Plan Litigation;
  • New Trends in Top Hat Plans: The Latest Litigation Risks;
  • Public Pension Developments and Trends; and
  • Ethical Issues That Arise in ERISA Litigation: The Fiduciary Exception to Attorney-Client Privilege, the Question of Who Really Is Your Client.

In April of this year, I presented at the ACI ERISA Litigation conference in Chicago about working effectively with an economic and/or fiduciary expert. Click to access the slides entitled "Expert Coordination: Working With Financial and Fiduciary Experts" by Attorney Joseph M. Callow, Jr. (Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL), Attorney Ronald S. Kravitz (Shepherd, Finkelman, Miller & Shah, LLP) and Dr. Susan Mangiero (Fiduciary Leadership, LLC). For a recap of this session, click to read "ERISA Litigation and Use of Economic and Fiduciary Experts" (May 5, 2014).

On October 28, 2014, I will be part of a panel about public pension fund issues. I will be joined by Attorney Elaine C. Greenberg (Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP) and Attorney H. Douglas Hinson (Alston & Bird LLP). Topics we plan to cover are shown below:

  • Overview of Public Pension Market - Scope, Size and Funding Levels;
  • Government Plan Hot Button Issues;
  • Pension Reform:
  • Pension Obligations and Bankruptcy, With Discussion of Detroit;
  • SEC Enforcement Actions, With Discussion About the State of Illinois;
  • New Accounting and Financial Reporting Standards;
  • Use of Derivatives by Municipal Pension Plans;
  • Fiduciary Breaches as They Relate to Due Diligence; and
  • Suggestions for Risk Mitigation and Best Practices.

I hope to see you in the Big Apple in a few months!

Making Bets on U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

If I ever earn a spot on a game show like Jeopardy, answering questions about sports will be a challenge. I recognize that, unlike me, there are serious fans who spend more than a few hours each week, vetting all sorts of statistics and data points about what team is likely to win and by how much. At family gatherings, I hear nephews and in-laws waxing poetic about games such as Fantasy Football. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association ("FSTA"), only skilled parties need apply, adding that there is no gambling.

Big money is at stake. According to "Industry Demographics: At A Glance," nearly 34 million individuals, mostly men, played fantasy sports in the United States in 2013. Canada counts roughly 3.1 million fantasy sports players. Over a twelve month period, aggregate league fees for fantasy games tallied $1.71 billion. For information materials, the spend was $656 million. It was $492 million for challenge games. (For us neophytes, what is a challenge game?) Decade-long performance reflects "explosive absolute growth" of 241 percent or an annualized growth rate of 13.1 percent for 2008 through 2018. See "Top 10 Fastest Growing Industries" (April 2013).

So here I am, sitting at my computer, researching certain ERISA litigation matters, and lo and behold, what do I find? You guessed it - FantasySCOTUS. According to its dedicated website, over 20,000 lawyers, law students and "other avid Supreme Court followers" have opined as to how they believe cases will be decided. Click to view a short video about this Harlan Institute initiative.

For those who are waiting with bated breath for commentary about stock drop cases, fear not. Of 53 predictions, as of today, 23 votes are for affirmation by the U.S. Supreme Court and 30 votes are for reversal. There is even a breakdown of votes as to how each justice is expected to respond to the April 2, 2014 hearing about prudence. Click to check out the Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer roster of votes. Click here to download a transcript of the hearing.

What will they think of next?

2nd Annual Tri-State Institutional Investors Forum

I have the pleasure of moderating a timely and topical panel on June 11 for US Markets Center for Institutional Investor Education. Entitled "Fiduciary Responsibility for Management & Trustees," this session will focus on the importance of the Board in creating good governance practices. Topics to be discussed include the role of audits as a way to monitor activities, creating proper standards that allow for stakeholder transparency and lines of authority and reporting. The role of staff, the investment consultant and investment manager will likewise be covered. Panel participants are shown below:

Moderator:

  • Dr. Susan Mangiero, Managing Director, Fiduciary Leadership

Panelists:

  • Charles Tschampion, Director of Special Projects, CFA Institute
  • Edward M. Cupoli, Board Member, New York State Deferred Compensation Plan
  • Patricia Demaras, Senior Counsel, Xerox Corporation.

Click to download the entire program for the 2nd Annual Tri-State Institutional Investors Forum. Click to register. I hope to see you there!

Pension Usage of Swaps

I have been writing, training and consulting about the use of derivatives by pension plans for many years. There is no shortage of topics, especially in the aftermath of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection ("Dodd-Frank") and the fact that pension investing and derivatives trading are significant elements of the capital markets. The OECD estimates the size of the private pension system in 2012 at $32.1 trillion. The Bank for International Settlements estimates the June 2013 global derivatives market size at $692.9 trillion.  

Given the importance of the topic of pension risk management and the evolving regulatory landscape, it was a pleasure to have a chance to recently speak with Patrick S. Menasco. A partner with Steptoe Johnson, Attorney Menasco assists plan investors, investment advisers and broker-dealers as they seek to navigate the laws relating to hedging, swaps clearing and much more. Here are a few of the take-away points from that discussion.

Question: Do the swaps provisions embedded in the Dodd-Frank legislation contradict the netting rules that are part of U.S. bankruptcy law?

Answer: No, the netting provisions of the Bankruptcy Code remain intact and should be taken into account in negotiating swap agreements. To the extent feasible, a performing counterparty wants to be able to net obligations in the event of a counterparty insolvency and default.

Question: Your firm obtained Advisory Opinion 2013-01A from the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") on February 7, 2013 regarding swaps clearing, plan assets and ERISA fiduciary duties. Explain the importance of identifying plan assets in the clearing context.

Answer: ERISA, including its prohibited transaction rules, governs "plan assets." Thus, it is critical to determine whether margin posted by a plan in connection with swaps clearing and the swap positions held in the plan's account are considered "plan assets" for ERISA purposes. Among other things, Advisory Opinion 2013-01A gives comfort that (1) margin posted by the investor to the clearing agent generally will not be considered a plan asset for ERISA purposes and (2) clearing agents will be able to unilaterally exercise agreed-upon close-out rights on the plan's default without being deemed a fiduciary to the plan, notwithstanding that the positions are plan assets.

Question: The headlines are replete with news articles about swap transactions with pension plans that could be potentially unwound in the event of bankruptcy. Detroit comes to mind. Should non-pension plan counterparties be worried about a possible unwinding in the event of pension plan counterparty distress?

Answer: Yes and no. The case in Detroit (which is currently on appeal) illustrates the risk that, notwithstanding state or local law to the contrary, federal bankruptcy judges may disregard the legal separation between municipal governments and the pension trusts they sponsor, treating those trusts as part of the estate. This may present certain credit and legal risks to the trusts' swap counterparties, although the Bankruptcy Code's swap netting provisions may mitigate some of those risks. I doubt that we will see anything similar to Detroit in the corporate pension plan arena because ERISA not only recognizes, as a matter of federal law, the separate legal existence of such plans, but also affirmatively prohibits the use of plan assets for the benefit of the sponsor. Separately, many broker-dealers negotiate rights to terminate existing swaps upon certain credit events, including the plan sponsor filing for bankruptcy or ceasing to make plan contributions.

Question: How does Dodd-Frank impact the transacting of swaps between an ERISA plan and non-pension plan counterparties such as banks, asset managers or insurance companies?

Answer: Dodd-Frank does a number of things. For one, it adds a layer of protection for ERISA and government plans (and others), through certain "External Business Conduct" standards. Generally, these standards seek to ensure the suitability of the swaps entered into by the investors. Invariably, swap dealers will comply by availing themselves of multiple safe harbors from "trading advisor" status, which triggers various obligations relating to ensuring suitability. Very generally, these safe harbors seek to ensure that the investor is represented by a qualified decision-maker that is independent of, and not reliant upon, the swap dealer. Under protocol documents developed by the International Swaps & Derivatives Association ("ISDA"), the safe harbors are largely ensured through representations and disclosures of the plan, decision-maker and swap dealer (as well as underlying policies and procedures).

Question: Dodd-Frank has a far reach. Would you comment on other relevant requirements?

Answer: Separately, Dodd-Frank imposes various execution and clearing requirements on certain swaps. These requirements raise a number of issues under the prohibited transaction rules of ERISA and Section 4975 of the Internal Revenue Code. Exemptions from those rules will be needed for (1) the swap itself (unless blind) (2) the execution and clearing services (3) the guarantee of the trade by the clearing agent and (4) close-out transactions in the event of a plan default. This last point presents perhaps the thorniest issue, particularly for ERISA plan investors that direct their own trade swaps and thus cannot avail themselves of the Qualified Professional Asset Manager ("QPAM"), In-House Asset Manager ("INHAM") or other "utility" or "investor-based" class exemptions. The DOL expressly blesses the use of the QPAM and INHAM exemptions in the aforementioned Advisory Opinion 2013-01A, under certain conditions. Senior U.S. Department of Labor staff members have informally confirmed that the DOL saw no need to discuss the other utility exemptions (including Prohibited Transaction Class Exemption ("PTCE") 90-1, 91-38 and 95-6) for close-out trades because they assumed they could apply, if their conditions were met.

Question: Is there a solution for those ERISA plans that direct their own swap trading?

Answer: It is unclear. There are only two exemptions, at least currently, that could even conceivably apply: ERISA Section 408(b)(2) and Section 408(b)(17), also known as the Service Provider Exemption. The first covers only services, such as clearing, and the DOL has given no indication that it views close-out trades as so ancillary to the clearing function as to be covered under the exemption. In contrast, the Service Provider Exemption covers all transactions other than services. But it also requires that a fiduciary makes a good faith determination that the subject transaction is for "adequate consideration." If the close-out trades are viewed as the subject transaction, who is the fiduciary making that determination? The DOL's Advisory Opinion 2013-01A says that it isn't the clearing agent. Thus, to make the Service Provider Exemption work, you have to tie the close-out trades back to the original decision by the plan fiduciary to engage the clearing agent and exchange rights and obligations, including close-out rights. That argument has not been well received by the DOL, at least so far.

Many thanks to Patrick S. Menasco, a partner with Steptoe & Johnson LLP, for taking time to share his insights with PensionRiskMatters.com readers. If you would like more information about pension risk management, click to email Dr. Susan Mangiero.

Fifth Third Bancorp v John Dudenhoeffer

For those unable to attend the April 2, 2014 U.S. Supreme Court hearing, a review of the transcript of Fifth Third Bancorp et al v. John Dudenhoeffer et al (No. 12-751) may be of interest. Appearances were made by Robert A. Long, Esquire and partner with Covington & Burling LLP (on behalf of Petitioners), Ronald Mann, Esquire and Albert E. Cinelli Enterprise Professor of Law with the Columbia Law School (on behalf of Respondents) and Edwin S. Kneedler, Esquire, Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice (on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting Respondents.)

I will leave the legal interpretation to attorneys. The bullet points shown below are excerpted from the transcript and by no means reflect the totality of today's discussion. No doubt we will soon get insights from practicing attorneys who can properly parse the legal issues, ahead of a formal opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court bench.

From my perspective as an economist, I think it is always good whenever further guidance is provided about the important role of the ERISA fiduciary. Notwithstanding this notion of "more is better" in terms of shedding light on fiduciary duties, I envision a kerfuffle as it relates to the discussion about stock valuation. Encouraging the use of an independent appraiser makes sense. However, the valuation community has already been vocal about its fears that an expanded fiduciary standard could increase its liability and thereby cause some firms to exit the market and push up the price of an appraisal as a result. As an aside, during her April 1, 2014 presentation before Practising Law Institute pension plan investment workshop attendees, Counsel for Appellate and Special Litigation, Elizabeth Hopkins mentioned that ESOP enforcement continues to be an active area for the U.S. Department of Labor, with a particular emphasis on the valuation of company stock.

  • There were several questions about what constitutes "prudence," along with comments about the value of a stock that is issued by the plan sponsor and related disclosure requirements if the price of said stock is deemed to be "overvalued".
  • Throughout the proceeding, there were questions and comments about ERISA versus SEC Rule 10b-5 with respect to the use of information known by company executives.
  • Justice Kennedy asked about the landscape relating to the use of an independent fiduciary. Attorney Long commented that not all problems would be solved that way since "you'd have to have a monitoring trustee who would have to give the independent trustee any inside information that they had."
  • Justice Alito asked if an ERISA fiduciary can "take into account the interests of the participants as employees as opposed to their interests as investors" and offered that "It doesn't seem to me that those will necessarily be the same. And there may be situations in which something that would be potentially good for the participants as investors would be quite bad for them as employees." For example, individuals could lose their jobs if decision-makers for an Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") stop buying company stock and this signal possibly leads to "bankruptcy and liquidation for the company."
  • Attorney Mann started to address what he called a "rock and a hard place" issue. Various justices commented thereafter, asking what a fiduciary is supposed to do when they have information about a stock. His reply was that, similar to a "corporate context where directors ordinarily are protected by the business judgment rule, if a situation arises in which their interests patently diverge from the interests of the shareholders, they don't simply decide to represent both interests but pick one over the over. They instead step aside and appoint...allow independent people to represent the shareholders."
  • Justice Kennedy asked Attorney Mann how he would write a statute to promote employee ownership of company stock.
  • Attorney Kneedler began his comments with a reference to Section 1104 and the focus of "operating the plan for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits to participants and their beneficiaries, which means the interests of employees are taken into account only insofar as they are participants in the plan, not more generally." He agreed with Justice Sotomayor that a "stock drop in and of itself" is not necessarily proof of poor procedural prudence. He added that "fiduciaries have an obligation to actually exercise their discretion and actually investigate...monitoring of the ... investment."
  • Justice Breyer inquired about the materiality issue, i.e. how much "in assets is accounted for by the ownership" of company stock by an ERISA plan.
  • Subsequent questions and comments focused on the notion of selling existing positions of company stock versus not buying anymore when material information suggests that the stock is expensive relative to its intrinsic worth.
  • When the podium returned to Attorney Long, he stated that "There is no circuit split on the issue that we've spent all our time discussing this morning. The only circuit split is on whether this presumption applies at the motion to dismiss stage." He cited the intent of Congress to encourage company ownership and suggested that rendering ESOPs "unworkable" would "basically cause many companies to say we can't put fiduciaries in that situation, so we're not going to have ESOPs at all."

The case was submitted at 11:30 a.m. Click here to download the Fifth Third Bancorp v. John Dudenhoeffer hearing transcript.

Pension Risk Blog Is Eight Years Old

Wow - eight years and counting since I started www.PensionRiskMatters.com. I have worked with the Lex Blog team for half a dozen years and credit them for wonderful technical support and customer service.

Well over a million viewers and nearly a thousand posts later, I am told that my analyses and educational insights about a host of timely topics have been helpful to others. As I look back on what I have written over the years, I am struck by how much of what was deemed critical in its day remains immensely important now. Indeed, one might assert that topics such as pension risk management, service provider due diligence, fiduciary education and fee benchmarking have taken on a new life. There is more scrutiny of what goes on inside the investment committee meeting room and litigation seems to be on the rise. According to the producer of the upcoming American Conference Institute about the topic of ERISA litigation, he is facing a sell-out crowd this year. (I am happy to announce that I will be a co-panelist for a session at this conference and will address the topic of how to work effectively with an economic expert.)

I am deeply grateful for the feedback from this blog's many readers and always welcome comments and suggestions.

Happy 8th birthday PensionRiskMatters.com!

Peanuts and Pensions

In case you missed it, Kraft Foods Group Inc. ("Kraft") reported a fourth quarter 2013 increase in profit and a $1.11 per share accounting gain, due in part to its pension plan. Higher discount rates and bigger returns on its portfolio were cited factors, with a nod to the company's use of "some of the cost savings to boost marketing behind brands like Jello-O dessert and Planters peanuts." See "Kraft Net Soars on Pension-Related Gain" by John Kell (Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2014). Other news, straight from its earnings call, describes the use of roughly $600 million of the company's free cash flow to add contributions to the pension plans in 2013. The result is a rise in the funded ratio to 96 percent at calendar year-end, up from 77 percent one year earlier. Expected contributions for 2014 will run around $200 million, with $60 million of that number representing required cash to fund Kraft's Canadian pension plans. See "Q4 2013 Earnings Call Transcript," February 13, 2014 and "Kraft Foods Group Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2013 Results," February 13, 2014. Noteworthy is that Kraft commenced a liability-driven investment ("LDI") strategy, to be phased in over multiple years, (and I am paraphrasing here) as a way to more appropriately line up "pension assets with the projected benefit obligation to reduce volatility" by moving towards an 80% fixed income, 20% equity securities mix. See page 62 of the latest Kraft 10-K filing.

This alert from Kraft is yet another example of the link between pension management and corporate finance. There are lots of other companies that have made similar declarations about the relationship between employee benefit plan economics and company operations. As I wrote in "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management, 2012), private sector plan sponsors are acutely aware of the economic and legal aspects of offering ERISA plans to their respective work force. A dollar paid by shareholders for benefits could be seen as a cost that takes away from growing the enterprise or an investment in happy workers who add to the bottom line. Either way, the Treasury and Investor Relations teams are increasingly involved in discussions and related action steps to address the management of retirement plans. This is no coincidence. Liquidity, enterprise risk management, valuation, shareholder relations, talent retention and capital adequacy are a few of the numerous touch points that bring together the worlds of Human Resources ("HR"), the board and C-level officers such as the CEO and the Chief Financial Officer. This trend is unlikely to go away any time soon. To the contrary, expect more interactions across company functions and around the world.

To read a related blog post, see "Pension Risk, Governance and CFO Liability," PensionRiskMatters.com, March 4, 2012.

Private Equity Fund Limited Partners and Pension Funding Levels

Some pension plans invest in private equity funds or funds of funds. Certain private equity funds invest in companies with pension plans. This means that pension funds that invest in this asset class need to be aware of any deficiencies in their plans as well as those portfolio company plans to which they are likewise exposed. While the notion of "my brother's keeper" may not resonate well with stewards of billions of dollars, it is a reality. This is especially true, in the aftermath of the Sun Capital Partners III LP v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund decision, No. 12-2312 (1st Circuit, July 24, 2013).

Despite the "record year" described by Wall Street Journal reporter Ryan Dezember, private equity investments, like any other, necessitate careful due diligence on the part of institutional investors that seek a seat at the limited partner table. (See "Private Equity Enjoys a Record Year: Firms That Buy and Sell Companies Are Set to Return More Than $120 Billion to Investors in 2013," December 30, 2013). A critical question is whether continued gains will be diminished if a portfolio company has to divert cash to top off an underfunded pension plan. One way to address the issue is for a pension plan, endowment or foundation to ask the private equity fund general partner how much attention they pay to ERISA economics.

There are numerous other queries to make. In the March/April 2014 issue of CFA Institute Magazine, ERISA attorney David Levine (with Groom Law Group, Chartered) and Dr. Susan Mangiero, CFA (with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC), provide insights for improved due diligence, in a post-Sun Capital world. Suggested action steps include, but are not limited to, the following items:

  • Ask whether a private equity fund is "relying on the position that it is not a 'trade or business' and is therefore not subject to liability for a portfolio company's" ERISA plan deficit;
  • Request to see a list of the holdings for purposes of knowing whether a particular private equity fund has a majority ownership in any or all of its portfolio companies;
  • Investigate whether the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") has red flagged any of the pension plan(s) of a business that is part of a private equity fund's portfolio;
  • Understand how, if at all, a private equity fund is planning to solve a pension plan underfunding problem;
  • Acknowledge that a portfolio company's ERISA liabilities could make an exit difficult, whether via an Initial Public Offering or an acquisition, and that this in turn could lengthen the time before a limited partner can cash out;
  • Identify the extent to which a private equity fund regularly examines the degree to which any or all of its portfolio companies are parties to labor contracts that may be difficult to modify; and
  • Be aware that this important legal decision could invite more litigation and regulatory actions that, regardless of outcome, have a cost and therefore a potential impact on future private equity fund returns.

If you have any difficulty in accessing our article, please send an email request to contact@fiduciaryleadership.com.

Pensions, Politics and the ERISA Fiduciary Standard

Thanks to the folks at the Mutual Fund Directors Forum for disseminating a January 13, 2014 letter from members of the New Democrat Coalition to the Honorable Thomas Perez, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). The gist of the four-page communication is that these members of the current U.S. Congress would like to see regulatory coordination in order to "protect investors while reducing confusion." They add that they are still concerned that a new version of the fiduciary standard, when proposed anew, might discourage plan participant literacy and disclosures. The worry seems to be that individuals with low or middle incomes as well as small businesses could be adversely impacted, depending on the ultimate version.

According to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association ("SIFMA") website, Republicans have likewise communicated their concerns to the U.S. Department of Labor as well as the Office of Management and Budget. These ranged from "the impact on an individuals' choice of provider to potential unintended consequences limiting access to education for millions of individuals saving for retirement." Click to access SIFMA's DOL Fiduciary Standard Resource Center.

On October 29, 2013, the Retail Investor Protection Act (H.R. 2374), sponsored by U.S. Congresswoman Ann Wagner (Republican, 2nd District of Missouri), was approved by the United States House of Representatives in a vote of 254 to 166. According to the Gov Track website, U.S. Congressman Patrick Murphy (Democrat, 18th District of Florida) joined as a co-sponsor on September 19, 2013. The stated legislative intent is to preclude the "Secretary of Labor from prescribing any regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) defining the circumstances under which an individual is considered a fiduciary until 60 days after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issues a final rule governing standards of conduct for brokers and dealers under specified law." It further prevents the SEC from implementing a rule "establishing an investment advisor standard of conduct as the standard of conduct of brokers and dealers" prior to assessing the likely impact on retail investors. Click to read more about the Retail Investor Protection Act. Click to read the mission of the United States Department of Labor which states "To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights."

As I have repeatedly predicted in this pension blog and elsewhere, the retirement crisis, not just in the United States but around the world, is increasingly showing up as a political hot button issue. No one wants to lose votes from retirees who are struggling and employees who cannot afford to stop working any time soon. In his State of the Union address, U.S. President Obama described a new type of retirement account, i.e. "myRA," that is meant to help millions of individuals whose companies do not offer retirement plans. See "What you need to know about Obama's 'myRA' retirement accounts" by Melanie Hicken (CNN Money, January 29, 2014). More details will no doubt follow.

There is a lot we don't know about how politics will impede or enhance the state of the global retirement situation. As a free marketeer, I am not particularly optimistic about new rules and regulations that prevent an efficient supply-demand interaction from taking place. However, this is a lengthy topic and the hour is late so I will leave a discussion about the positive and normative aspects of capitalism for another day.

Dodd-Frank, Swaps Clearing and Compliance for Pension Plan Asset Managers

According to the Bank for International Settlements, the notional amount outstanding, as of June 2013, of global over-the-counter derivatives exceeded $692 trillion. Interest rate swaps reflect the largest category at about $425.6 trillion. Given the jumbo size of this market, it is no surprise that regulators have demanded more transparency about the mechanics of the global swaps market, including reporting to regulators and the public dissemination of reported information. It is also no surprise that regulators have demanded what they deem to be risk-reducing measures such as the clearing of these instruments and collateral collection. With the promulgation of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”), numerous market participants are now required to clear their swaps. Click here to learn about the three categories of organizations that are required to adhere to swap clearing and trade execution requirements under Section 2(h) of the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”). Given the complexity of the prevailing swaps-related rules and regulations as well as the evolving nature of these mandates, any educational insights are welcome.

As an economic consultant, trainer and expert witness who regularly does work in the pension risk management arena and author of Risk Management for Pensions, Endowments and Foundations, I was delighted to have a chance to get comments about this important topic of swaps clearing and trade compliance from Davis Polk attorneys Lanny A. Schwartz and Gabriel D. Rosenberg. Mr. Schwartz is a partner, and Mr. Rosenberg is an associate in Davis Polk’s Trading and Markets practice. Besides the questions and answers provided below, and acknowledging that there is a lot to learn about swaps-related compliance, readers may want to download "Are You Ready? New Swap Trading Requirements For Pension Plan Asset Managers" (August 2013) by Attorneys Schwartz and Rosenberg, in conjunction with BNY Mellon.

Question: What is your motivation for writing about this topic as well as offering educational webinars?

Answer: We continue to receive numerous inquiries from swap market participants, many related to clearing. Swaps dealers were the first to have to demonstrate compliance with Dodd-Frank's swaps clearing mandate in March of last year. Most asset managers were required to clear specified types of interest rate swaps and credit default swaps as of June 2013. Other entities, including ERISA plans, had a deadline of September 2013.

Question: What areas have you identified as requiring more time and attention?

Answer: We are still mid-stream in terms of implementing a wide array of rules. Compliance is not a simple “check the box” exercise. Some swaps are now subject to mandatory clearing, but this is a relatively small part of the universe in terms of instruments traded in the market. Trading on a regulated futures exchange or swap execution facility is currently voluntary. Margin requirements are not yet final. Documentation requirements are similarly critical and require significant attention.

Question: What is a qualified independent representative and why is that important to an asset manager that has pension plan clients?

Answer: Before a swap dealer can act as an advisor to a pension plan regarding swaps, which in this context means making customized recommendations, the plan manager must verify that the pension plan has a qualified independent representative ("QIR") in place. A QIR is an agent of a Special Entity (such as a corporate or public pension plan) that is knowledgeable and independent of any swap dealer counterparty.

Question: It sounds like there is a large amount of due diligence that must be carried out by swaps dealers, asset managers and end-users such as pension plans, respectively. Would you elaborate?

Answer: You are correct that each category of swap market participant has a large amount of due diligence to carry out in order to ensure that they are compliant with Dodd-Frank's trading, clearing and other provisions. Swap dealers will generally require counterparties to adhere to one or more of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (“ISDA”) protocols and other documentation as relevant to their activity. For example, suppose Big Bank X is a leading dealer of swaps and has been approached by Global Asset Management Firm Y to handle its trades on behalf of various end-users such as pension plans of Fortune 500 companies. Before Big Bank X will speak in detail about swaps with Global Asset Management Firm Y, it generally will need to make sure it has proper documentation in place. Unless Global Asset Management Firm Y can demonstrate adherence (or enters into alternative documentation developed by the swap dealer, Big Bank X will generally not transact with them.

Question: What are some of the action steps that a pension plan must take?

Answer: A pension plan, whether a corporate ERISA plan or government employee benefits plan, must have an account with a Futures Commission Merchant (“FCM”) in order to enter into swaps trades that are subject to clearing. This requires diligence and negotiation of important documentation about the clearing relationship. Pension plans should also consider the trade-offs between using swaps and nearly equivalent futures contracts.

Question: Are there areas of vulnerability that need to be better addressed?

Answer: A firm needs to have people in place who are experienced and knowledgeable about Dodd-Frank, operational processing, legal documentation and the use of technology for data inputting and report generation. None of these areas are trivial and require care and diligence. Additionally, since things are in flux as new rules are being adopted, it is critically important for any swap market participant to stay abreast of compliance mandates.

Question: Headlines are replete these days with news about regulatory investigations and lawsuits about how London Interbank Offer Rates (“LIBOR”) are determined by quoting banks. Inasmuch as the majority of swaps are tied to some type of LIBOR fix, how is swaps trading likely to be impacted?

Answer: The increased scrutiny about LIBOR could result in increased regulatory interest in other indexes that are referenced by swaps.

Question: What is the role of external counsel versus the internal General Counsel?

Answer: It is critical for asset managers to develop an educational program that allows front, middle and back office professionals to understand what rules, policies and procedures need to be established and followed. External counsel can add value by explaining the ISDA Protocols and other documentation and compliance requirements to clients. An end-user’s General Counsel should make sure that everything is in place in order to comply with Dodd-Frank. Plenty of clients say they don’t even know where to start and feel overwhelmed.

Question: There is so much more to discuss. Readers should stay tuned for further updates. At the client level, it sounds like you will both remain quite busy.

Answer: Susan, we appreciate the opportunity to share our insights with readers of your blog. We urge everyone with a stake in good governance to pay attention and do whatever is needed to comply with Dodd-Frank's swaps rules.

Institutional Asset Allocation

My comments about institutional asset allocation, along with those made by Mr. Ron Ryan (CEO, Ryan ALM) and Lynn Connolly (Principal, Harbor Peak, LLC), were well received on January 8, 2014. Part of a joint program that was sponsored by the Quantitative Work Alliance for Applied Finance, Education and Wisdom ("QWAFAFEW") and the Professional Risk Managers' International Association ("PRMIA"), our audience of investment professionals added to the lively debate about topics such as strategic versus tactical asset allocation, fees, role of the pension consultant and the likely capital market impact due to the implementation of strategies such as liability-driven investing ("LDI") and/or pension risk transfers ("PRT"). 

With the size of the U.S. retirement market at $20 trillion and counting, big money is at stake. Bad asset allocation decisions can lead to a cascade of economic woes. It is no surprise that fiduciary breach allegations in the form of ERISA lawsuits are increasingly focused on questions about the appropriateness of a given asset allocation mix and whether an investment consultant or financial advisor has helped or hindered the way that pension monies are allocated. Noteworthy is that scrutiny about the efficacy of the asset allocation process and resulting money mix can, and has been, applied to both defined benefit and defined contribution plans. Keep in mind that asset allocation decisions are likewise central to assessing popular financially engineered products such as target date funds. Accounting issues and how changing rules influence asset allocation decisions are yet another topic that we will tackle in coming months.

Click to access Susan Mangiero's asset allocation slides, distributed to members of the January 8 audience, and meant to peturb a discussion about this always essential topic. Interested readers can check out "Frequently Asked Questions About Target Date or Lifecycle Funds" (Investment Company Institute) and "Annual Survey of Large Pension Funds and Public Pension Reserve Funds: Report on pension funds' long-term investments" (OECD, October 2013).

If you have a specific question about asset allocation and/or the procedural process associated with asset-liability management, send an email to me.

Working With Financial and Fiduciary Experts

I am delighted to join the panel about how to work with financial and fiduciary experts on ERISA (and more broadly, investment management) cases. This panel, entitled "Expert Coordination: Working With Financial and Fiduciary Experts," is part of the upcoming 7th National Forum on ERISA Litigation. Produced by the American Conference Institute, this Chicago event will run from April 28 to April 29, 2014. I will speak from 10:45 am to 11:35 am on April 29, 2014. See below for more details.

Many ERISA litigators will admit that the quality and communication skills of an economic expert can greatly impact the outcome of a case. Getting the right expert(s) in place sooner than later can be a distinct advantage. When that does not occur, important items may be excluded from discovery or pre-motion analysis. This panel will focus on the challenges associated with tight client budgets, working with multiple experts, knowing when to bring an expert(s) on board and evaluating how much information to share.

Private Equity Performance and Underfunded Pensions

Adopting a "half glass full" attitude, my co-author and I wrote about the business opportunities for private equity fund general partners ("GPs") with portfolio company problems. In "GPs Eye New Ruling" (Mergers & Acquisitions, December 2013 Issue) by ERISA attorney David Levine and Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst, Dr. Susan Mangiero, we talk about the aftermath of a recent legal decision that has the private equity world on high alert.

By way of background, in Sun Capital Partners v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that a private equity fund can be held liable for the pension obligations of a portfolio company. If left unchecked, private equity funds (and their limited partners such as pension plan investors) could see a diminution of performance for any number of reasons. For one thing, a GP may be unable to exit a position within a reasonable period of time if potential buyers get scared of being saddled with an expensive, underfunded retirement plan. In addition, cash that was otherwise earmarked to finance new growth projects may be used instead to comply with statutory contribution rules. Indeed, I have carried out financial analyses for prospective buyers on the basis of how much "extra" a pension problem is likely to cost.

While the downside possibilities are real, Attorney Levine and I point out that "lessons learned" from the Sun Capital decision enable a GP to take action preemptively as a way to potentially "maximize value from portfolio companies while also mitigating future risk." Savvy asset managers can adapt their due diligence process to help avoid any issues that could preclude an exit within the typical three to seven year time period from an initial funding round. Some of the many steps that a GP can take include, but are not limited, to the following:

  • To the extent that a private equity fund is relying on the position that it is not a “trade of business” and is therefore not subject to liability for a portfolio company’s pension underfunding, it is wise to review the potential economic, fiduciary and legal risks should this position be challenged in court.
  • Review its holdings that are at least 80 percent owned by the private equity fund. Total equity exposure should include common stock, preferred stock and possibly economic rights associated with warrants and/or equity derivatives such as swaps. Although a core focus of any such review should be with respect to holdings subject to jurisdiction in the First Circuit (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island), a broader review of holdings elsewhere might also be considered.
  • Review underfunded pension plans before and after each acquisition of a portfolio company in order to develop strategies for addressing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s aggressive litigation positions that it has been taking lately. Failure to do so could result in unnecessary delays in connection with corporation transactions, including the sale of portfolio companies. Examine the collective bargaining agreements for any or all portfolio companies. Although the Sun Capital Partners case was about liability for pension funding obligations under a multiemployer pension plan (i.e., a pension plan maintained independent of an employer pursuant to collective bargaining), there is some concern that the logic of Sun Capital Partners might be extended to conclude that a private equity fund is conducting a “trade of business” under the Internal Revenue Code through its management and oversight of portfolio companies. A decision concluding that a fund is a trade or business for Internal Revenue Code purposes could impact a fund’s representations of its attempts to minimize its unrelated business income tax liability and/or its acceptance, pursuant to the Internal Revenue Code, as a trade or business.
  • Assess the economic, fiduciary and legal attractiveness of all employee benefit plans that are offered by private equity portfolio companies. This includes traditional defined benefit pension plan, 401(k) plans, and health and welfare arrangement. Individually and collectively, ERISA plans can carry significant liabilities that have the potential to (a) materially reduce overall business profitability (b) increase insurance premiums (c) lead to expensive litigation and/or regulatory enforcement (d) impede liquidity and (e) hamper capital raising. As a result, a general partner may never be able to realize the growth targets that motivated a particular investment in the first place. Just as significant, a private equity fund may find itself limited in its ability to exit a particular investment.
  • Meet with retirement-focused advisers, actuaries and counsel before investing in a new portfolio company. The due diligence analysis should be comprehensive. This means that a private equity fund will want to assess both the current and projected pension plan liabilities for a portfolio company as well as the riskiness of its investments in its pension and 401(k) plan. If a pension plan’s assets are illiquid or overly conservative, a deficit may occur or grow bigger. It is likewise important to understand whether the assumptions underlying actuarial calculations are overly optimistic. The objective is to understand the seriousness of a given situation in terms of economic, fiduciary and legal vulnerability.
  • Assess the accounting impact for any and all retirement plans. Be prepared to explain performance volatility to LPs as the result of an ERISA problem.
  • As the family of “de-risking” products continues to expand, consider restructuring a portfolio company’s ERISA plan if, by doing so, a private equity fund owner can improve the likelihood of an exit within its target time horizon. However, because ERISA’s fiduciary rules impose a duty of loyalty to participants and beneficiaries, decisions on de-risking should be evaluated under these standards.
  • Determine, in conjunction with ERISA counsel, whether to engage an “independent fiduciary” for purposes of evaluating an array of possible restructuring solutions. Buying annuities to settle pension liabilities or investing in employer securities or other “hard to value” assets are examples.
  • Recognize that the Sun Capital Partners decision could encourage further litigation and regulatory activities. Private equity funds might be well served to consider whether minor tweaks to their structure merit use, including the creation of additional services entities that are commonly used in operating company structures. Clarification of offering documents, careful monitoring of activities and/or comprehensive documentation of its involvement with portfolio companies can go a long way to help insulate a private equity fund from a finding that it is engaged in an Internal Revenue Code trade or business.

For further reading about this important legal decision and the economic and compliance imperatives, you can read earlier blog posts and link to various law firm memos on this topic. See "Pension Liability Price Tag For Private Equity Funds and Their Investors". Also see "More About Private Equity Funds and Pension IOUs."

Pension De-Risking For ERISA Plan Sponsors

I am delighted to join the speaker faculty for a December 10, 2013 webinar entitled "Pension De-Risking for Employee Benefit Sponsors: Minimizing Risks and Ensuring ERISA Compliance When Transferring Pension Obligations to Other Parties." If this topic is of interest to you, send me an email. I can make ten (10) guest passes available on a complimentary, first come, first served basis. Otherwise, you and your colleagues can register by visiting the Strafford Continuing Legal Education site. This topic is important and timely. I look forward to having you join us on December 10, 2013.

As U.S. pension plans face record deficits, options for transferring some or all of a sponsor's plan risk make sense for many companies. General Motors, NCR and Verizon are a few companies that have chosen de-risking options in 2012.

De-risking transactions take many forms, from transferring company obligations to third parties, to offering payouts to plan participants, to undertaking liability-driven investing and other strategies. Counsel and companies must tread carefully to avoid ERISA-based litigation or enforcement actions.

Prudent de-risking requires thorough financial analysis and clear demonstrations that ERISA fiduciary standards are met. Counsel should guide companies on how to establish the reasonableness of decisions and prepare to defend against possible court challenges.

Susan Mangiero, Managing Member at Fiduciary Leadership; Sam Myler at McDermott Will & Emery; Anthony A. Dreyspool, Senior Managing Director at Brock Fiduciary Services and David Hartman, General Counsel and Vice President at General Motors Asset Management, will provide benefits counsel with a review of pension de-risking approaches used by companies to reduce some of the risks involved with employee retirement benefits.  The panel will offer best practices for leveraging the precautions to prevent ERISA fiduciary law violations when making transfers.

The panel will review these and other key questions:

  • How can pension providers demonstrate they have met their ERISA standards of prudence, care and loyalty to plan participants?
  • What steps should be taken in preparation for termination of a pension plan?
  • What are the grounds for the various challenges to de-risking techniques and what are the techniques to avoid those challenges?

Following the speaker presentations, you'll have an opportunity to get answers to your specific questions during the interactive Q&A.

 

Effective Investment Stewards Should Take a Bow

In case you missed it, check out the quirky indie film "In A World..." If you like movies as I do, you will enjoy this lighthearted comedy about the supposed rough and tumble world of voice-overs. The first few minutes are devoted to the memory of Don Lafontaine, the uber vocal artist of countless trailers and commercials who died at the age of 68 in 2008. The story then proceeds to chronicle the efforts of a character played by actress Lake Bell, Carol Solomon, in competing for gigs in a mostly male-dominated industry. (Kudos to Ms. Bell for writing, directing and producing this cinematic gem as well.) Various sub-plots involve the reinforcement of a shaky marriage, connecting anew with a less than supportive father and getting "used" by a female film executive who sees dollar signs in empowering women at the expense of boosting Carol's ego.

Aside from its entertainment value, the production stayed on my mind, hours after the popcorn was gone. Here is why. In a final scene, Carol decides to help young women with squeaky voices learn how to better present themselves. She asks "Are you ready to be heard?"

Applied to the pension world, the question is apt. In an era of rising enforcement and litigation activity, I have often wondered why more governance-focused plan sponsors are refusing to take a bow. In speaking to several of their representatives, the feedback I received is that visibility can be a two-edged sword. My understanding of what others have said to me is that affirmative "best practice" communications might be viewed as a defensive tactic to hopefully keep participants happy and therefore unlikely to sue. The danger is that those same statements could be seen as raising awareness of issues that will lead to questions and unwelcome attention to topics such as fees, risk management and vendor selection.

The subject of how much information to provide is certainly an important one to address. The president of retirement plan services at Lincoln Financial Group, Chuck Cornelio, writes that "The move away from process-focused messages, such as how to enroll, plan mechanics and investment selection, to conversations around the projected outcomes of a participant's savings behaviors and strategies, including future monthly retirement income, spending power and retirement lifestyle, will not happen overnight." Click to read "5 critical elements of retirement plan communication" (Benefits Pro, November 12, 2012).

A recent court action has shed light on the attorney-client privilege as relates to ERISA plan communications. Interested readers can download the presentation about the fiduciary exception rule by Attorney James P. McElligott (Partner, McGuireWoods) and Attorney Ronald S. Kravitz (Liner Grode Stein Yankelevitz Sunshine Regenstreif & Taylor). It is entitled "ERISA Counsel's Communications with Plan Fiduciaries and Attorney-Client Privilege" (Strafford Continuing Legal Education, April 3, 2013). Attorney McElligott adds that "Fiduciary communication is a critical area. The process starts with a well-written Summary Plan Description ("SPD") but requires constant thought and vigilance."

In its "Fiduciary Checklist," T. Rowe Price authors provide a long list of items that should be disclosed to participants. It is certainly a good start but I would add numerous sections to that list about the governance of any particular retirement plan.

This topic will receive more attention from this blogger, especially as different countries approach the issue of pension governance as a recognized problem, with some plans badly in need of a solution.

New ERISA and Global Benefits Blog

I have been blogging for over seven years and enjoy it immensely. I never run out of topics but, like most bloggers, it is always good to read what others have to say. That is why I am excited to welcome Paul Hastings ERISA partners, Stephen Harris and Mark Poerio, to the blogosphere (although Attorney Poerio tells me that he created www.erisacloud.com and www.executiveloyalty.org several years ago for his Georgetown Law School students). My understanding is that the content for this newly launched blog will generally focus on the design, governance, and operation of retirement plans, health and welfare plans, and executive compensation plans. It will include information about legislative, regulatory, and litigation developments, from a practical business perspective. Attorney Poerio adds that "As lawyers, we are generally concerned with risk management, and our blog has that objective in mind."

Click to access the ERISA and Global Benefits blog. You can click here to add this new blog to your RSS reader as well.

Financial Executives Address De-Risking and ERISA Benefit Programs

According to "Balancing Costs, Risks, and Rewards: The Retirement and Employee Benefits Landscape in 2013" (CFO Research and Prudential Financial, Inc. - July 2013), numerous changes are underway. The opinions of senior financial executive survey takers validate the continued twin interest in expanding defined contribution plan offerings and managing the liability risk of existing defined benefit ("DB") plans. The strategic import of benefits as a way to attract and retain talent is recognized by "nearly all respondents in this year's survey." Regarding the restructuring of traditional pension plans, this report states that nearly four out of every ten leaders have frozen one or more DB plans yet recognize the need to manage risk for those plans as well as for active plans. Liability-driven investing ("LDI") programs are being adopted by "many companies". Transfer solutions are being "seriously" considered by roughly forty percent of companies represented in the survey. Almost one half of respondents agree that a return to managing its core business could be enhanced by doing something to address pension risk.

None of these results are particularly surprising but it always helpful to take the pulse of corporate America with respect to ERISA and employee benefit programs. I have long maintained that the role of treasury staff will accelerate. There are numerous corporate finance implications associated with the offering of non-wage compensation. As I have added in various speeches and articles echoing what numerous ERISA attorneys cite (and I am not an attorney), plan sponsors must carefully weigh their fiduciary responsibilities to participants against those of shareholders in arriving at a particular decision.

For a copy of the study, click here.

Interested readers may also want to check out the reference items listed below:

If you have further comments or questions, click to email Dr. Susan Mangiero.

More About Private Equity Funds and Pension IOUs

As I discussed in my July 29, 2013 blog post entitled "Pension Liability Price Tag For Private Equity Funds And Their Investors," a recent court decision by the First Circuit could mean the difference between "good" deals and "bad" ones. In "Doubling Down on a Bad Bet: Liability for Portfolio Company Pension Obligations After Sun Capital" (August 5, 2013), ERISA trial attorney with the McCormack Firm, Stephen D. Rosenberg refers to this legal opinion as "tremendously significant" as it will directly impact how acquisitions are structured, "in terms of examining whether it is possible to legally structure the acquisition and ownership of a portfolio company in a manner which will insulate the acquirer from unfunded pension obligations or, if it is not certain whether that can be achieved, will at least make it as hard as possible for potential plaintiffs to recover, thus hopefully dissuading future lawsuits..."

As creator of the popular and insightful Boston ERISA & Insurance Litigation blog, Attorney Rosenberg talked about the imperative to think ahead. Instead of trying to fix a problem after an acquisition has take place, he references my recommendations, as a business expert, to thoroughly value "the pension exposures of the target company" and account "for that exposure financially in the purchase price."

School is still out as to whether these actions are being done to the extent they should be. I have worked on due diligence initiatives that included a forward-looking assessment of cash needs and investment considerations. However, if everyone was tackling this type of economic analysis, in conjunction with a legal review, there would be no headlines about post-deal pension surprises. In other words, there are obviously some buyers that have not done sufficient homework and end up paying more than they had anticipated. If that happens too often, a private equity fund's general partners are ultimately going to get push back from their limited partners such as other pension plans, endowments and foundations. Why? Post-transaction costs impede performance.

Attorney Rosenberg and I both agree that doing the right things, prior to the closing of a transaction, is a good offense. As relates to pension-centric due diligence by a private equity fund, he adds that "Do that correctly, and you have already accounted for the possibility of being forced to cover the portfolio company's exposure; do that incorrectly, and you may have - as occurred in Sun Capital - doubled down on a losing proposition."

Pension Liability Price Tag For Private Equity Funds and Their Investors

I have long maintained that any individual or organization that invests in a company needs to check under the employee benefits hood before allocating money initially, and regularly thereafter. I can give you countless examples where incomplete due diligence led to an overly rich acquisition or investment that resulted in a new owner having to deploy cash to write checks to retirees and/or incur the costs of restructuring an otherwise untenable situation.

Failure to carry out a comprehensive ERISA-focused due diligence of a target portfolio company is not good for numerous reasons. Having done economic analyses of companies with underfunded pension plans, I know firsthand that it is often a rude awakening for investors such as private equity funds when they are confronted with the reality that what they want and what they end up with in terms of buying forecasted growth are not always the same. Reasons to worry include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • A private equity fund may not be able to realize its target rate of return because a portfolio company cannot sufficiently grow without cash that is now redirected to support employee benefit plans.
  • A pension plan that has invested in said private equity fund will be none too happy if performance falls short of expectations, especially for something that arguably should have (and could have) been considered and addressed as part of the original deal.
  • An unhappy pension fund investor may turn around and sue a private equity fund for alleged failure to have properly researched "what if" situations, taken on "too much" risk and disclosed too little information. Litigation in turn can be an expensive proposition for a private equity fund, making it even more difficult to achieve even minimum hurdle rates.

The issue of private equity ownership and portfolio company pension liabilities was heavily discussed as the result of a 2007 Appeals Board of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC") decision about ownership, control and responsibilities for portfolio company pension plan gaps. In "Private Equity Funds: Part of the ERISA Controlled Group?" (December 19, 2007), O'Melveny & Myers LLP attorneys Wayne Jacobsen and Jeff Walbridge explained that "[i]f the PBGC's position endures, it could have significant ramifications for private equity fund investments in portfolio companies that sponsor defined benefit pension plans...[t]he fund could be required to use any or all of its assets, including the ownership interests of the fund in any or all of its portfolio companies, to fund the pension obligations of the bankrupt portfolio company."

Imagine the happy faces in private equity land when the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts opined on October 18, 2012 in favor of Sun Capital Partners III, LP and related parties. According to "Potential ERISA Title IV Liabilities of Private Equity Firms - Eliminated by the Sun Capital Decision?" (November 2012), Edwards Wildman attorney Mina Amir-Mokri describes the decision as a "significant victory for private equity firms" but explains that Sun Capital Partners v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund was to be appealed.

On July 24, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the earlier decision and put private equity funds in a potential liability position once again. According to "Private Equity Funds Further Exposed to Portfolio Company Pension Plan Liabilities" (July 29, 2013) Latham & Watkins attorneys Jed Brickner and Austin Ozawa offer post-opinion practical hints such as the need for private equity firms to "carefully consider how to structure their funds and acquisition structures to avoid characterization as a trade or business and avoid inclusion in the same controlled group as their portfolio companies." Additionally, they urge private equity funds to pay attention to the "structure of their funds' investments"...possibly "dividing their investment between two or more of independently managed funds with distinct portfolios to support a finding that no individual fund (or group of 'parallel' funds) controls any portfolio company (and no set of funds is treated as a joint venture). Paul Hastings attorneys Stephen H. Harris, Eric R. Keller, Ethan Lipsig and Mark Poerio assert that private equity funds would do well to own "less than 80% of a portfolio company"...perhaps via "thoughtful adjustments to ownership structures and management operations" that can help to reduce the exposure to portfolio company pension liabilities. See "Private Equity ERISA Alert: Consider ERISA Pension Liability Risks from Portfolio Plans" (July 2013).

While legal experts weigh in on the important issue of what responsibilities belong to private equity funds, if any, to portfolio company ERISA plan participants, institutional investors such as pensions, endowments, foundations and family offices - and their investment consultants and advisors - should take heed. If a private equity fund's exposure to a portfolio company with a problem pension plan ends up shrinking the wallets of institutional investors, serious questions will understandably be asked about who should have done what and when.

ERISA Assets: QPAM and INHAM Audit Legal Requirements and Best Practices

I am happy to announce that I will be joined by esteemed colleagues Howard Pianko, Esquire (Seyfarth Shaw) and Virginia Bartlett (Bartlett O'Neill Consulting) on September 10, 2013 from 1:00 to 2:30 pm EST to talk about QPAM and INHAM compliance audits. See below for more information. Click to register for this forthcoming educational event about ERISA requirements. (Note: I am given a few complimentary guest passes. Contact me if you are interested and they are still available.)

This CLE webinar will prepare counsel to advise asset manager clients regarding Qualified Professional Asset Manager (QPAM) and in-house asset manager (INHAM) audits as required by the Department of Labor. The panel will review the new exemption rules, who can conduct an audit, what the process entails, and how to showcase good practices with existing and prospective plan sponsors.

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Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper and Pension Governance

Grab the popcorn. If you haven't seen the 1957 romantic film, "Love in the Afternoon," check it out. No nudity. No violence. No swear words. Just some clever banter, courtesy of Maurice Chevalier, Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. I love these old-fashioned movies for their charm and ease of viewing. They remind viewers that there are some things that never get old. Yes, good ideas are fresh, sound and worth revisiting again and again.

Pension governance comes to mind.

When I created www.pensionriskmatters.com in 2006, my goal was (and still is) to provide educational information about process. Not only is procedural prudence a key element of various trust rules and regulations, it is the cornerstone of effective investment, risk and asset-liability management. Indeed, it is easy to show that bad process can be hugely expensive for plan sponsors and beneficiaries alike.

At the inception of this pension blog, there were few studies and surveys about the topic of pension governance. Things have changed since then. Always an important topic, it is good to know that this "old-fashioned" topic is receiving more attention and will hopefully gain even more visibility over time.

According to a July 23, 2013 press release, a survey of U.K. employers indicates awareness of the importance of pension governance. Sponsored by SEI Investments, the survey answers reflect a frustration that companies need to do more since "current governance structure [do] not allow them to easily take advantage of market conditions to improve their funding levels, with many trustees unable to make informed and timely decisions due to a lack of resources, including limitations of time and/or expertise." Consultant relationships was another queried topic. Nearly one third of respondents expressed a "perceived lack of transparency around the costs associated with traditional investment consultants who often charge separately for investment reviews, manager changes, and ongoing support, and who are not fully accountable to the scheme." Click to learn more about how to access the SEI UK survey.

Will pension governance remain a classic a la Gary Cooper? One certainly hopes so. Too much is at stake for good process to end up on the shelf.

Dr. Susan Mangiero Will Speak at ACI ERISA Litigation Conference

I am delighted to join the roster of multi-disciplinary speakers for this exciting October 24-25, 2013 New York City event. Designed for and by attorneys, the American Conference Institute's 6th National Forum on ERISA Litigation will include comments from renowned judges, in-house counsel, insurance experts, economic consultants and practicing litigators in the ERISA arena. According to the conference flyer, attendees will learn about the following:

  • Emerging trends in multiple facets of ERISA litigation;
  • Understanding new theories of liability arising from investment decisions, including alternative investments and the trend towards de-risking;
  • 401(k) fee case considerations and a discussion about evolving defense strategies, the issue of service providers and the viability of float claims;
  • ESOP litigation to include an overview of DOL investigations and settlements;
  • Benefits claims litigation
  • ERISA fiduciary litigation and ways to minimize liability exposure:
  • Class action update; and
  • Ethical issues that arise in ERISA litigation.

Having spoken and attended prior ERISA litigation conferences sponsored by the American Conference Institute, I always learned a lot. In particular, the discussions among jurists, the plaintiffs' bar and defense counsel makes for a collection of timely and lively debates. I hope you will be similarly satisfied if you decide to attend.

As a courtesy to readers of this blog, the American Conference Institute has activated a discount code of $200 for anyone who registers for the conference. Simply type "PRM200" when prompted. Click here to register. Click to download the agenda.

Pension Plan Economics and Corporate Finance

Just published is an article I wrote about the urgent need for appraisers and deal-makers to make sure that they have adequately assessed the economics associated with defined benefit plan funding. Entitled "Pension Plans: The $20 Trillion Elephant in the (Valuation) Room" by Susan Mangiero (Business Valuation Update, July 2013), the objectives of this article are threefold: (1) shed light on the magnitude of the pension underfunding problem and the possible dire impact on enterprise value; (2) remind appraisers of the need to thoroughly understand and evaluate pension plan economics or engage someone to assist them; and (3) explain the adverse consequences on deal-making and corporate strategy when pension plan funding gaps are given short shrift. CEOs, Chief Financial Officers, private equity, venture capital, merger and acquisition and bank lending professionals will want to read this article as it showcases this timely and urgent topic.

Click to read my article about pension plan valuation.

In a related post, ERISA attorney Stephen D. Rosenberg wrote a commentary on his "Boston ERISA & Insurance Litigation Blog" (June 17, 2013) about why he believes that appraisers should not be designed as ERISA fiduciaries. He expresses doubt about whether imposing a fiduciary standard on appraisers will "improve the analysis provided to plan fiduciaries." He suggests that such a move by regulators could create a reluctance for valuation professionals to assume the liability associating with appraising a company with an ERISA plan.

For those who missed our program about appraiser liability, visit the Business Valuation Resources website to obtain a copy of "Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: Traps for the Unwary Appraiser." The program took place on May 14, 2013. Speakers included myself (Dr. Susan Mangiero), ERISA attorney James Cole with Groom Law Group and Mr. Robert Schlegel with the Houlihan Valuation Advisors.

Hedge Fund and Private Equity Fund Due Diligence for Pension Funds

If you missed the Strafford CLE event on June 5, 2013 entitled "ERISA Pension Plans in 2013: Due Diligence for Hedge and Private Equity Funds: Avoiding the Pitfalls with Alternative Investments for Institutional Investors and Fund Managers," there is still an opportunity to purchase the recording. Click here for more information.

In the meantime, click to access the due diligence slides that were used by Dr. Susan Mangiero (Fiduciary Leadership, LLC), private fund attorney Rosemary Fanelli (CounselWorks) and ERISA attorney Tiffany Santos (Trucker Huss).

While we ran out of time with so much left to discuss beyond our assigned 90 minute slot, the two attorneys who spoke with me talked a lot about their perception of a changed environment. Their message was that institutional investors seem to be under a lot more pressure now to demonstrate that comprehensive due diligence activities have taken place. One attorney listener in the audience echoed this sentiment presented by the two legal speakers. He offered his opinion that an investment consultant or financial advisor should work closely with both an ERISA counsel as well as a fund attorney as part of the due diligence process.

Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and ERISA Plans

According to "REITs By The Numbers," published by the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, Inc. ("NAREIT"), real estate is gaining favor with 401(k) investment committees that decide on asset allocation. They write that the last ten years has seen a rise from 5 percent to 30 percent of 401(k) plans that offer Real Estate Investment Trusts ("REITs") as an investment option. Moreover, the market is large at $1 trillion of real estate held in the form of an investment pool.

If you are a member of a 401(k) investment committee, advisor, consultant or individual participant, you will want to keep up with current guidelines and rules. Some of these are described in "Real Estate Investment Trust Valuation Guidelines Published." This blog post by Susan Mangiero includes FINRA and SEC comments about non-listed REITs as relates to items such as illiquidity, valuation and disclosures.

Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: Traps for the Unwary Appraiser

An esteemed panel of experts will speak on May 14, 2013 from 1:00 PM EST to 2:40 PM EST as part of a webinar that is sponsored by Business Valuation Resources. Entitled "Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: Traps for the Unwary Appraiser," Dr. Susan Mangiero, CFA, FRM and Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst, will be joined by Mr. Robert Schlegel, ASA, MCBA and ERISA attorney James V. Cole II. Dr. Mangiero is a Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC. Mr. Schlegel is a principal with Houlihan Valuation Advisors. Attorney Cole is a principal with Groom Law Group.

Why You Should Attend

As retirement, healthcare, and other employee benefits continue to grow, they are placing new stresses on firms of all sizes, whose commitments to these funds are beginning to outpace their revenues. Regulations and lawsuits are now challenging the defined responsibilities and liabilities of the financial professionals who create, manage, and even analyze these entities. This means that every appraiser now needs to assess risk, and the extent to which employee benefit plans impact enterprise value.

In this webinar, Dr. Susan Mangiero, Mr. Rob Schlegel, and ERISA attorney James Cole discuss existing, emerging, and proposed disclosure rules, an understanding of which are imperative to navigate the maze of actuarial, accounting, and regulatory numbers. Learn why estimating future expected cash requirements to service a plan(s) is imperative if an appraiser wants to opine whether a firm can realize its growth targets, and how benefit plan economics, such as withdrawal liabilities, change when derivatives or annuity transactions are in place. Appraisers need to understand emerging discussions now taking place at FASB and other regulatory agencies that will affect market participant activity relating to exchange value. Markets are waking up to this emerging area, and appraisers can no longer afford to remain asleep of these issues.

According to Mr. Blake Lyman, Professional Program Manager with Business Valuation Resources, LLC, "BVR is thrilled to be offering this program with Susan, Rob, and Jim. As the go-to resource for all professionals involved with business valuation, we always seek to present the most in-depth content on the most pressing issues for the many experts who rely on us. With Susan, Rob, and Jim's experience and expertise, this program is sure to surpass the high standards we set for ourselves and that our customers have come to expect."

To register, visit the Business Valuation Resources website.

Dr. Susan Mangiero Speaks About ERISA Plan Valuation and Appraiser Liability

 

I am delighted to co-present on May 14, 2013 from 1:00 pm to 2:40 pm EST for Business Valuation Resources about the urgent need to properly assess pension fund economics as part of any opinion of value.This is a particularly timely topic as the U.S. Department of Labor seeks to designate appraisers as a fiduciary for an assessment they render about an ERISA plan such as an Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP"), 401(k) plan and/or defined benefit plan.

The session is entitled "Valuation and ERISA Fiduciary Liability: How to Protect Yourself." Speakers include:

  • Dr. Susan Mangiero, CFA, certified Financial Risk Manager, Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst, trained appraiser and past president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts (Fiduciary Leadership, LLC;
  • Mr. Robert Schlegel, ASA, MCBA and past president of the Indiana chapter of the American Society of Appraisers (Houlihan Valuation Advisors); and
  • Senior ERISA attorney James V. Cole II, with the Groom Law Group.

Click here to register for this ERISA valuation program.

Pension Risk Governance Blog Celebrates Seventh Birthday

I am delighted to announce our seventh year as an educational resource for the $30+ trillion global retirement plan industry. With over a million visitors to www.pensionriskmatters.com, I appreciate the ongoing feedback and encouragement from financial and legal readers. This blog began as a labor of love and continues to be personally rewarding as a way to help guide the discussions about pension risk, governance and fiduciary duties.

Here is a link to the March 25, 2013 Business Wire press release about www.pensionriskmatters.com, an educational pension risk governance blog for ERISA, public and non-U.S. pension plan trustees and their advisors.

As always, your input is important. Click to send an email with your comments and suggestions.

Thank you!

Tibble v. Edison and ERISA Fiduciary Breach Issues

Speedy and insightful as always, ERISA attorney Stephen Rosenberg has commenced a series of blog posts that describes his view of the "hot off the press" conclusions made by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Tibble v. Edison. Click to access the March 21, 2013 Tibble v. Edison opinion. This ruling will no doubt receive much attention in the coming days as jurists and ERISA fiduciaries digest its content. Some will view this adjudication as yet another reminder that prudent process must be undertaken and can be demonstrated with respect to a host of issues (although the outcome is mixed in terms of plaintiff versus defendant "wins"). Issues include the selection of investment choices and the fees paid accordingly. Click to access the amicus brief filed by the U.S. Department of Labor in support of the plaintiffs.

In his first post about yesterday's opinion, Attorney Rosenberg points out that the timeline that determines ERISA's six-year statute of limitations was deemed to have started "when a fiduciary breach is committed by choosing and including a particular imprudent plan investment" and did not continue by virtue of the investment mix remaining in the plan. He further asserts that defendants will want the clock to begin on the day an investment option is first introduced and that "any breach of fiduciary duty claims involving that investment that are filed later than six years after that date are untimely."

I will leave court commentary to the legal experts. Click to access the Boston ERISA & Insurance Litigation Blog for his analysis about this case and many more.

DOL Issues Advisory Opinion About Use of Swaps by ERISA Plans

ERISA plans have long relied on over-the-counter swaps to hedge or to enhance portfolio returns. Given the high level of attention being paid to de-risking solutions these days, the role of swaps is even more important since these derivative contracts are often used by insurance companies and banks to manage their own risks when an ERISA plan transfers assets and/or liabilities. Big dollars (and other currencies) are at stake. According to its 2012 semi-annual tally of global market size, the Bank for International Settlements ("BIS") estimates the interest rate swap market alone at $379 trillion. Click to access details about the size of the over-the-counter derivatives market as of June 2012. It is therefore noteworthy that regulatory feedback has now been provided with respect to the use of swaps by ERISA plans.

In its long awaited advisory opinion issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration ("EBSA"), ERISA plans can use swaps without fear of undue regulatory costs and diminished supply (due to brokers who do not want to trade if deemed a fiduciary).

In its rather lengthy February 7, 2013 communication with Steptoe & Johnson LLP attorney Melanie Franco Nussdorf (on behalf of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association), EBSA officials (Louis J. Campagna, Chief - Division of Fiduciary Interpretations, and Lyssa E. Hall, Director - Office of Exemption Determinations) made several important points about whether a swaps "clearing member" (a) has ERISA 3(21)(A)(i) fiduciary liability if a pension counterparty defaults and the clearing member liquidates its position (b) is a party in interest as described in section 3(14)(B) of ERISA with respect to the pension plan counterparty on the other side of a swaps trade and (c) will have created a prohibited transaction under section 406 of ERISA if it exercises its default rights. These include the following.

  • Margin held by a Futures Commission Merchant ("FCM") or a clearing organization as part of a swap trade with an ERISA plan will not be deemed a plan asset under Title 1 of ERISA. The plan's assets are the contractual rights to which both parties agree (in terms of financial exchanges) as well as any gains that the FCM or clearing member counterparty may realize as a result of its liquidation of a swap with an ERISA plan that has not performed.
  • An FCM or clearing organization should not be labeled a "party in interest" under ERISA as long as the swap agreement(s) with a plan is outside the realm of prohibited transaction rules.

There is much more to say on this topic and future posts will address issues relating to the use of derivatives by ERISA plans. In the meantime, links to this 2013 regulatory document and several worthwhile legal analyses are given below, as well as a link to my book on the topic of risk management. While it was published in late 2004 as a primer for fiduciaries, many of the issues relating to risk governance, risk metrics and risk responsibilities remain the same.