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.

U.S. Department of Labor Audits and ERISA Litigation

According to "Attorney, Official Discuss DOL Investigations, Give Recommendations on Avoiding Litigation," by Andrea L. Ben-Yosef (Pension & Benefits Daily, BNA Bloomberg, October 15, 2012), trouble may come in pairs. The same complaints from plan participants, leads from government authorities and/or news about a company's financial distress that trigger U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") scrutiny could invite plaintiffs' counsel to file a contemporaneous lawsuit.
 
Speakers Mabel Capolongo, Director of Enforcement with the U.S. Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration ("EBSA") and Attorney R. Bradford Huss with Trucker Huss suggested that persons being examined for possible breach should familiarize themselves with the EBSA enforcement manual and notify their ERISA liability insurance carrier right away. Cited potential areas of investigation include:
  • Fiduciary breach;
  • Co-fiduciary liability;
  • Plan expenses;
  • Plan operations;
  • Plan investing;
  • Prohibited transactions;
  • Company securities in a plan, including Employee Stock Ownership Plan ("ESOP") issues;
  • Real estate holdings;
  • Bonding;
  • Reporting; and
  • Disclosure.

For regulatory information, click to access the EBSA Enforcement Manual.

In a related online interview for the Professional Liability Underwriting Society ("PLUS"), Chartis Executive Vice President Rhonda Prussack cites financial distress (including the filing for bankruptcy protection) as a significant concern for ERISA fiduciary liability. She adds that a troubled plan sponsor may see the value of company-issued securities plummet which in turn could trigger an ERISA "stock drop" case if such securities are part of the mix for a 401(k) or profit-sharing plan. A company seeking to save cash may switch from a defined benefit plan to a cash balance plan which in turn could pave the way for a lawsuit over allegations relating to the change in design. A company in trouble could shut down factories, instigate large-scale layoffs and/or cut back benefits, all of which lead to unhappy individuals who are more likely to sue. Ms. Prussack emphasizes that happy workers are less likely to sue. She further adds that plan participant actions are likely to take the form of putative class actions.

The bottom line is that there is a long list of potential risk exposures for ERISA fiduciaries and a continued need to mitigate liability.

The Oops Factor and a Crackdown on Retirement Plan Advisors

In recent discussions with asset managers, pension trustees and consultants, investment fraud continues to attract attention. It is no surprise that people want to know more about what constitutes bad practice versus crossing the line, especially in the aftermath of a devastating few years of economic losses. New disclosure regulations are another catalyst for learning more about how to avoid trouble. Email your request if you want more information about what can be done to detect fraud and/or would like to receive research and thought leadership on the topic of investment fraud.

Impending changes to fiduciary standards and allegations of fiduciary breach likewise continue to create a stir.

In "The EBSA Cracks Down on Retirement Plan Advisors," AdvisorOne's Melanie Waddell (March 26, 2012) describes a material increase in enforcement actions brought by the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"), Employee Benefits Security Administration ("EBSA"). Besides effecting nearly 3,500 civil cases in 2011, EBSA closed 302 criminal cases with "129 individuals being indicted," "75 cases being closed with guilty pleas or convictions" and an excess of $1.3 billion in monetary damages collected. Quoting Andy Larson with the Retirement Learning Center, the article mentions fiduciary negligence as a key concern of regulation and a driving force behind a proposed expansion of ERISA fiduciary duties to numerous professionals who work with retirement plans in an advisory capacity.

ERISA Attorney David Pickle points out that fraud and embezzlement of 401(k) plan money have been investigated for years by the DOL and U.S. Department of Justice ("DOJ") but recent investigations are being done now as part of the formal Contributory Plans Criminal Project ("CPCP"). He observes that "the DOL is conducting an increasing number of investigations of financial service providers, including registered advisers, banks and trust companies (both as trustees or custodians but also as asset managers), and consultants. For other insights about ERISA pain points, read "An Excerpt From: K&L Global Government Solutions (R) 2012: Annual Outlook."

According to the ERISA enforcement manual, civil violations include:

  • Failure to operate a plan prudently and for the exclusive benefit of participants
  • Use of plan assets to benefit the plan administrator, sponsor and other related parties
  • Failure to properly value plan assets at the current fair market value
  • Failure to adhere to the terms of a plan (assuming that those terms are compatible with ERISA)
  • Failure to properly select and monitor service providers
  • Unlawfully taking action against a plan participant who seeks to exercise his or her rights.

Criminal violations include:

  • Embezzlement of monies
  • Accepting kickbacks
  • Making false statements.

The "oops - I didn't know" strategy is unlikely to serve those who work with or for pension plans. The spotlight continues to focus on ways to improve the management of $17+ trillion U.S. retirement system and rightly so. There is so much at stake for millions of people.

George Washington said that "In executing the duties of my present important station, I can promise nothing but purity of intentions, and, in carrying these into effect, fidelity and diligence.

ERISA and public pension trustees are likewise tasked to be faithful and diligent, among other things. For those who choose a different path, the outcome can be dire indeed. Jail time and stiff penalties as well as legal costs are a few of the potential costs associated with a fraud conviction, not to mention shame and the loss of income.

Hedge Funds, Private Equity Funds and ERISA Pension Plans

Alternative fund managers and regulators will convene in Washington, D.C. from July 19 through 21, 2011 to talk about pension investing in hedge funds and private equity funds. Over several days, those who present before the ERISA Advisory Council will be asked to address questions such as those listed below:

  • What differentiates a hedge fund from other types of investments?
  • What differentiates a private equity fund from other types of investments?
  • How are hedge funds and private equity funds, respectively, correlated with the returns of traditional equity and fixed income investments?
  • How can defined benefit and defined contribution plan sponsors mitigate "the lack of liquidity that is characteristic of these investments?"
  • How can fee transparency be enhanced?
  • "Are there any unique diversification benefits offered by hedge funds and private equity investments as opposed to a fund of funds?"
  • What is the view of target date fund managers with respect to including hedge funds and/or private equity strategies within their funds?

According to U.S. Department of Labor documents, the aim is to create best practices guidance in areas such as leverage, liquidity, transparency. valuation, operational due diligence, client and asset concentration and offering documents. Click to download "2011 ERISA Advisory Council: Hedge Funds and Private Equity Investments." Click to read the June 22, 2011 U.S. Department of Labor news release about the forthcoming meetings to address hedge funds and private equity investments by ERISA plans.

Interested readers may want to check out the following of many items that are available for further research: