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.

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.

Fiduciary Shortcuts To Valuation Can Be Dangerous

Despite a plethora of information about how to implement shortcuts to enhance workplace productivity, fiduciaries need to ask themselves whether a "jack in the box" approach that equates speed with care and diligence is worth pursuing.

This topic of shortcuts came up recently in a discussion with appraisal colleagues about the dangers of using a "plug and play" model to estimate value. Although New York Times journalist Mark Cohen rightly cites the merits of having a business valuation done, he lists all sorts of new tools such as iPhone valuation apps that some might conclude are valid substitutes for the real thing. Rest assured that punching in a few numbers versus hiring an independent and knowledgeable third party specialist to undertake a thorough assessment of value is a big mistake, especially if the underlying assumptions and algorithms of a "quick fix" solution are unknown to the user. See "Do You Know What Your Business is Worth? You Should," January 30, 2013.

It's bad enough that a small company owner opts for a drive-in appraisal. It's arguably worse when institutional investors do so, especially as their portfolios are increasingly chock a block with "hard to value" holdings. In the event that a valuation incorrectly reflects the extent to which an investment portfolio can decline, all sorts of nasty things can occur. A pension, endowment or foundation could end up overpaying fees to its asset managers. Any attempts to hedge could be thwarted by having too much or too little protection in place due to incorrect valuation numbers. Asset allocation decisions could be distorted which in turn could mean that certain asset management relationships are redundant or insufficient.

Poor valuations also invite litigation or enforcement or both. As I wrote in "Financial Model Mistakes Can Cost Millions of Dollars," Expert Witnesses, American Bar Association, Section of Litigation, May 31, 2011:

"Care must be taken to construct a model and to test it. Underlying assumptions must be revisited on an ongoing basis, preferably by an independent expert who will not receive a raise or bonus tied to flawed results from a bad model. Someone has to kick the proverbial tires to make sure that answers make sense and to minimize the adverse consequences associated with mistakes in a formula, bad assumptions, incorrect use, wild results that bear no resemblance to expected outcomes, difficulty in predicting outputs, and/or undue complexity that makes it hard for others to understand and replicate outputs. Absent fraud or sloppiness, precise model results may be expensive to produce and therefore unrealistic in practice. As a consequence, a “court or other user may find a model acceptable if relaxing some of the assumptions does not dramatically affect the outcome.” Susan Mangiero, “The Risks of Ignoring Model Risk” in Litigation Services Handbook: The Role of the Financial Expert (Roman L. Weil et al, eds., John Wiley & Sons, 3d ed. 2005).

In recent months, it is noteworthy that regulators have pushed valuation process and policies further up the list of enforcement priorities. Indeed, in reading various complaints that allege bad valuation policies and procedures, I have been surprised at the increased level of specificity cited by regulators about what they think should have been done by individuals with fiduciary oversight responsibilities. Besides the focus of the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has brought actions against multiple fund managers in the last quarter alone. Consider the valuation requirements of new Dodd-Frank rules (and overseas equivalent regulatory focus) and it is clear that questions about how numbers and models are derived will continue to be asked.

For further reference, interested readers can check out the following items: