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, 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.

Employee Ownership and ERISA Litigation

I had the pleasure of speaking at the sold-out National Center of Employee Ownership ("NCEO") conference on April 21 about board education, compensation metrics and procedural prudence. Consonant with NCEO's commitment to providing trustee and director education about Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") administration and governance, my co-speakers and I fielded lots of questions from the audience relating to insurance coverage, selection of directors, board composition, training, governance red flags to avoid and long-term versus short-term strategy.

In conversing with some of the ESOP company CEOs and independent trustees who traveled to Denver for this annual convening (last held in Atlanta), the message was clear. Employee ownership is working for their respective companies. The sentiment struck me as quite different from what I heard last week when I attended the American Conference Institute meeting about ERISA litigation. Post Dudenhoeffer (courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court), there seems to be a lot of caution on the part of large company counsel about how much equity should be in the hands of employees.

Clearly, facts and circumstances will determine the appropriateness of any particular structure. That said, results of a recent survey reflect a growth in employee power, at least as of several years ago. According to NCEO's research project director, Nancy Wiefek, the tabulated results show that 214 Employee Stock Ownership Plans commenced between 2001 and 2012, a rise of 44 percent from earlier periods. Out of 502 ESOP company responses, 317 were reported as fully owned at 100 percent. Click here to read more about the complete survey.

Whether the 2014 Dudenhoeffer decision will have an impact on the mostly private businesses that consider ESOP implementation remains to be seen. For now, it is important that venues exist to allow for an exchange of ideas about what works and what to avoid, should a company's management decide to embark on putting company stock in the hands of employees.

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.