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:

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.

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.

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