ERISA and Securities Litigation Snapshot -- Things You Can Do Now to Minimize CFO and Board Liability

In the last few years, pension funding levels and 401(k) account balances have fallen dramatically. New disclosure rules, volatile market conditions, investment complexity and mandatory cash contributions are only a few of the many challenges that are unlikely to go away. Not surprisingly, ERISA litigation continues to grow, along with lawsuits related to employee benefit plan governance. Personal liability claims against C-level executives and board members have become the normal.

Join FTI Consulting and the Securities Docket for a timely and informative webinar about the link between employee benefit plan management and shareholder value.

During this 60 minute live event, attendees will learn:

  • Why ERISA litigation claims against top executives and board members continue to grow
  • How securities litigation and ERISA filings are related and what it means for corporate directors and officers
  • What ERISA liability insurance underwriters want clients to demonstrate in terms of best practices
  • What steps the Board and top executives can take to minimize their liability
  • What investment fiduciary bad practices to avoid
  • When to get the CFO and board members involved

The distinguished panel includes (a) Attorney Jim Baker, ERISA litigator of the year for 2012 and a partner with Baker & McKenzie (b) Ms. Rhonda Prussack, EVP and Fiduciary Liability Product Manager for Chartis (c) Mr. Gerry Czarnecki, governance guru and State Farm Insurance board member and (d) Dr. Susan Mangiero, Managing Director with FTI Consulting’s Forensic and Litigation Consulting Practice in New York.

To register for this March 7, 2012 webcast, click here.


Insider Trading and Pension Funds

In a May 23 meeting, open to the public as a byproduct of the Government in the Sunshine Act, the SEC will address a host of issues, not the least of which is a possible relaxation of the Sarbanes Oxley Act. Long awaited relief could help companies with what many cite as "burdensome" and costly compliance requirements. Financial Times reporter Jeremy Grant writes that "Wednesday’s likely approval of a set of guidelines originally proposed in December will provide executives with a clearer idea of how the SEC intends corporate America – and foreign companies listed in the US - to implement Section 404 of Sarbox." (See "SEC set to approve guidance on Sarbox," Financial Times, May 23, 2007.)

Ironically, at a time when regulatory muscle may be giving way to paunch, questions abound regarding transparency. In "Side Deals in a Gray Area," New York Times reporter Jenny Anderson describes a practice known as “big-boy letters” as "typically used when an investor has confidential information about a stock or bond and wants to sell those securities. By signing the letter, the buyer effectively recognizes that the seller has better information but promises not to sue the seller, much like a homebuyer who agrees to buy a house in 'as is' condition."

In "Big Boy Letters: Playing It Safe After O’Hagan," attorneys Wendell H. Adair Jr. and Brett Lawrence write that "big boy letters are designed to limit an insider’s liability under both securities laws and common law" and that a "trader in a company’s debt typically does not assume any fiduciary duty to the company or other security holders, assuming the person is not a member of an official committee or the board of directors and does not hold a similar insider position" unless he or she has signed a non-disclosure agreement.. Click here to read their analysis of U.S. v. O’Hagan, a "seminal case" that implied that a trader in possession of material, nonpublic information could avoid liability under misappropriation theory by disclosing his intention to trade to the information provider without actually disclosing to the trading counterparty the nonpublic information."

While attorneys seem to disagree on the legal exposure attached to big boy letters, the issue may soon be resolved in court. In the aforementioned New York Times article, Anderson describes "a lawsuit set to go to trial next month" in which "a Texas hedge fund contends that it was on the losing end of such a letter in 2001, when Salomon Smith Barney, now Smith Barney, sold more than $20 million worth of World Access bonds to the Jefferies Group, the investment bank, using a big-boy letter."

Not being an attorney (and so relying on the legal expertise of others), institutional investors like pension funds may want to add big-boy letters to the laundry list of "must know" items when evaluating trading practice risk as part of their selection of outside professionals. It is no stretch to see that challenges to statutory requirements all around (SOX, 13F, FASB, to name a few) could impede the flow of information to investors. (A discussion of regulation and information economics is outside the scope of this post.) This in turn could make it more difficult for pension fiduciaries to carry out their duties as informed decision-makers. Of course, mandatory rules can be replaced with industry self-regulation (something most free market economists advocate, including myself). Money managers who volunteer details about their trading practices to existing and prospective pension fund clients should win brownie points for candor.

Until then, one wonders - Are we opening the window to let in more sunshine or introducing darkness?

Et Tu New York? What Deregulation Means to Pension Funds

According to Financial Times reporter David Wighton ("Regulation a threat to New York, report says", January 22, 2007), New York City stands to lose nearly 60,000 jobs over the next five years in the absence of significant regulatory reform. A McKinsey & Company report, commissioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Chuck Schumer, extols the virtues of London and other venues that are considered more user-friendly for derivatives trading and other financial service activities.

Mr. Kevin LaCroix, creator of the informative blog, The D&O Diary, provides a link to the report and some interesting comparisons with the Paulson report that likewise pleads for liberalization of U.S. capital markets.

While free marketeers applaud initiatives that permit capitalism to do its magic of bringing together diverse buyers and sellers, consider some recent statistics from the Conference Board.

1. In 2005, U.S. institutions such as pension funds, insurance companies, banks and foundations controlled $24.1 trillion in assets.

2. In 2005, these institutional giants owned 67.9% of the equity of the largest 1000 corporations versus 61.4% in 2000.

3. In 2005, four companies revealed institutional investor ownership in excess of 70%. In 2004, the number was two and one or none before then.

4. Public pension plans continue to prevail in important corporate matters. Co-author of the 2007 Institutional Investment Report (Report #1400, The Conference Board), Dr. Carolyn Kay Brancato, Senior Fellow and Director Emeritus of The Conference Board Governance Center describes their critical role. "Ten years ago, these funds weren't likely to join in lawsuits or exert pressure in out of court settlements, but now, having been severely burned by the Enron and WorldCom situations, these funds are asserting themselves as never before. In addition, as the election of directors becomes more heated, and as many companies adopt bylaws saying their directors will resign if they don't get a majority of shareholder votes, the voting clout of these activist investors becomes more meaningful."

What does this mean?

As stewards of trillions of dollars of retirement monies, pension fiduciaries must serve as the first line of defense with respect to sniffing out corporate misdeeds or identifying boards that are "oversight challenged." Already tasked with a daunting job, deregulation compels these watchdogs to do an even more rigorous search for red flag issues BEFORE they turn into financial calamities.

This goes back to a recurring theme of this pension blog. Do pension fiduciaries have what it takes? On what basis are they selected? How are they trained? Is there a pension fiduciary who can serve as a Sarbanes-Oxley type "financial expert," someone who understands how to go beyond financial statements to detect possible trouble? Are the right mechanisms in place for pension fiduciaries to gather adequate information about corporate policies, procedures and internal controls AND then evaluate the data in a meaningful way? Are fiduciaries compensated in such a way that encourages their active participation, before the fact? How has the role of lead plaintiff changed in the aftermath of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and can litigation replace regulation?

I'm not saying that statutory regulation is a panacea. In fact, there is great comfort in being part of a system that permits a vigorous debate about the numerous merits of industry self-review.

As patriot Thomas Paine declared: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

Life of a Benefits Manager Heading Into 2007?

An homage to Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (born on December 12, 1863) Google's same day banner is reprinted herein. A reminder perhaps that 2007 is sure to create some agita for more than a few benefits managers and other related decision-makers?

Here are a few reasons for upset:

1. New pension accounting rules for companies

2. New OPEB (other post-employment benefit) accounting rules for municipalities

3. Forthcoming derivative accounting rules for public funds, similar to FAS 133 for companies (Remember that derivatives are getting more attention as possible elements of a liability-driven investment strategy.)

4. Anticipated Congressional oversight hearings about pension funds, 401(k) fees and hedge funds

5. Stated SEC consideration of rule changes as they apply to alternative investments (and possible impact on pension funds investing in hedge funds)

6. Proposed Form 5500 disclosure rule changes regarding service providers, fees and other elements of pension investing

7. Continued taxpayer upset regarding the cost of municipal benefits and a desire for lower property and state income taxes

8. Continued escalation in pension litigation

9. Continued focus on plan design and expected impact on an organization's cash flow

10. Continued focus on the Sarbanes Oxley - ERISA (corporate governance-pension governance) link

11. Anticipated guidance about default options for defined contribution plans (and related fiduciary impact)

12. The remaining 900+ pages of the Pension Protection Act of 2006

13. Projected worsening of the Social Security situation and likely impact on financing of the "three-legged" stool

14. Continued longevity patterns (good for retirees but expensive for employers)

15. Projected lower interest rates that increase liabilities

16. Anticipated pressure on asset returns

17. International pension woes and possible contagion for the U.S.

18. Predicted health care benefit cost increases that make pensions pale in comparison

19. Continued need to attract and retain scarce pool of talented workers with good benefits while keeping costs low

20. Continued scrutiny from ERISA and D&O liability insurance underwriters (and related impact on coverage and cost of coverage)

The good news is that there are lots of possible solutions but make no mistake. The new year will definitely entail major changes and challenges for all.