The DOL Fiduciary Rule, Seller's Exception and Independent Fiduciaries

How does a service provider determine whether it is making a recommendation to "independent fiduciaries of plans and IRAs with financial expertise?" This is a key question that could determine whether an organization or individual is tagged as an ERISA fiduciary and subject to added liability as a result.

According to "Chart Illustrating Changes From Department of Labor's 2015 Conflict Of Interest Proposal To Final," one of several modifications includes the following: "Providing an expanded seller's exception for recommendations to independent fiduciaries of plans and IRAs with financial expertise and plan fiduciaries with at least $50 million in assets under management is not fiduciary advice."

As always with legal issues, I defer to knowledgeable attorneys to parse this language. However, given an implementation deadline, compliance professionals of firms that sell to ERISA plans and IRA owners no doubt want to clarify definitions and concepts such as "independence" and "financial expertise."

One attorney with whom I spoke suggested the intent is to lower the chance of a conflict such as when a fiduciary receives compensation for a vendor or product he helped put in place. Another attorney put forth the notion that fiduciaries of a "larger" plan (in this case, a trust with assets above $50 million) could be seen as more "sophisticated" and "informed." I'm not convinced that the ambiguity of the final language can be dispatched without addressing a series of questions, some of which are listed below.

  • Is a consulting firm that seeks an exception and wants to sell its delegated investment management or Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") services thereby prohibited from pitching any of its own proprietary products and using them if it wins a contract?
  • When a C-level executive such as a Chief Financial Officer sits on a plan investment committee, who will assess whether her decisions are made solely in the interest of plan participants and not to plump up a bonus tied to a particular decision or outcome?
  • Can a seller avoid fiduciary classification if the client is a plan or IRA with assets less than $50 million but managed by knowledgeable fiduciaries?
  • Might a seller fail to procure an exception if it is later shown that a plan or IRA with more than $50 million in assets is "large" but managed by fiduciaries who do not possess financial expertise?
  • How do sellers intend to determine whether "financial expertise" exists and can they do so without insulting potential buyers?
  • How will existing "know your customer" guidelines change to accommodate the notion of "financial expertise?"
  • How do regulators intend to determine whether "financial expertise" exists?
  • If there are multiple fiduciaries and some possess "financial expertise" but others do not, is the seller at risk for losing the exception or not obtaining it in the first place unless it can verify that all in-house fiduciaries are competent?
  • If a plan fiduciary or IRA owner or manager changes, does the seller need to assess "financial expertise" for the replacements? Does the U.S. Department of Labor need to do likewise? 
  • On what basis is the $50 million determined? At a point in time or as a rolling average? Are assets to be based on market value or book value or something else? Will regulators review Form 5500 numbers to determine if the $50 million test has been met?

If anyone knows of an article or webinar that addresses these issues, please kindly email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com. I would like to share resources about "independence" and "financial expertise" with readers of Pension Risk Matters.

Note: Interested persons can click to download "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Dr. Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management). The phone number listed on the article is not current. 

ERISA Litigation Webinar Transcript Now Available

Seeking to accomplish a goal without having the right tools can result in frustration and possible failure. One solution is to get outside help when needed as long as the party being hired is knowledgeable and independent. Otherwise, what looks like a solution could quickly become a problem. Applied to ERISA plans, trouble might take the form of costly and time-consuming enforcement and/or litigation. Over the last few years, that reality has set in for more than a few employers.

Recognizing the importance of abiding by good governance principles, several of us agreed to speak as part of an educational webinar on April 8, 2015 about fiduciary tools, pitfalls and lessons learned. Sponsored by fi360 and entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors," this webinar joined Attorney Tom Clark (Counsel with the Wagner Law Group), Dr. Susan Mangiero (Managing Director with Fiduciary Leadership, LLC) and Mitchell Shames, Esquire (Partner with the Harrison Fiduciary Group) to address the (a) use of an independent fiduciary (b) clarifying what an outside vendor should be doing and (c) avoiding legal and economic landmines that have revealed themselves in prominent court cases and regulatory examinations.

If you missed the event, email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com for a copy of the slides. Click here to download the written transcript. Edited for clarity (and because the audio file is spotty in some places), this fourteen page document lays out cornerstone concepts and includes suggestions for plan sponsors and the advisers who serve them. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The outsourced fiduciary market is growing in the United States and elsewhere.
  • When an outside party is hired by a plan sponsor, it is critical to specify responsibilities and contract accordingly. When an "expectations gap" exists, some critical tasks may be left wanting or not addressed at all.
  • When multiple fiduciaries are in place, a plan sponsor must ensure that a central person or team is adequately coordinating the efforts of all fiduciaries.
  • The newly proposed Conflict of Interest rule is predicted to materially change the landscape of fiduciary relationships between plan participants and retirement advisers.
  • A fiduciary status may exist due to either a contractual agreement or by virtue of the functions assumed by an individual or organization.
  • ERISA litigation is getting more attention these days, with a particular focus on fees, use of proprietary funds, revenue-sharing and disclosure of compensation paid to investment consultants, advisers and asset managers.
  • Demonstrating procedural prudence in part depends on what others in the industry are doing (or not doing as the case may be) and whether actions make sense for a given plan.
  • A renewed focus on disclosure and transparency is in the works according to comments made by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged for a singular transaction or for a task that continues over a long period of time.
  • An independent fiduciary can be engaged by either a defined contribution plan or defined benefit plan or both.
  • When there is a perception or reality of a conflict of interest, it may be prudent for an independent fiduciary to be engaged. The participants pay for said party because the independent fiduciary works on behalf of the participants.
  • The concept of co-fiduciary status is important and should be paid heed by any adviser who has an ERISA plan as a client.
  • Before delegating duties (to the extent allowed) to a third party, a plan sponsor should decide what financial issues should be vetted. Liquidity, the use of leverage by asset managers and asset allocation are a few of the many topics that a delegated fiduciary could be asked to measure, monitor and manage.
  • A fiduciary audit can be extremely helpful as a tool for identifying areas of improvement for an ERISA plan sponsor.

It may be no surprise that over 500 people registered for this educational webinar about fiduciary foibles. After forty years since its inception, ERISA remains a force that cannot be ignored.

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 Litigation and Enforcement: Role of Independent Fiduciary and Financial Advisor Best Practices

Mark your calendars to attend an educational webinar entitled "ERISA Litigation and Enforcement: The Role of the Independent Fiduciary and Best Practices for Financial Advisors." Sponsored by fi360 and eligible for continuing education credit, this April 8, 2015 event will take place between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm EST and address important and timely issues for plan sponsors and their advisors. Details are provided below.

Description: ERISA litigation and enforcement increasingly involves allegations of conflicts of interest and imprudent decision-making on the part of advisors, consultants, banks and asset managers. In several recent matters, regulators and judges have made it clear that the use of an independent fiduciary would be interpreted as a reflection of procedural prudence and the absence of an independent fiduciary could hasten a decision of fiduciary breach.

Learning objectives:

  • Learn about relevant cases and regulatory actions that involve third parties such as financial advisors;
  • Hear a discussion about how advisors, consultants, banks and asset managers can work effectively to demonstrate procedural prudence; and
  • Better understand what state trust law and ERISA oversight activity means for advisors and consultants who work with non-ERISA trusts.

Speakers:

  • Thomas Clark, Esquire (Counsel - The Wagner Law Group)
  • Susan Mangiero, PhD, AIFA, CFA, FRM, PPC (Managing Director - Fiduciary Leadership, LLC)
  • Mitchell Shames, Esquire (Partner - Harrison Fiduciary Group) 

Please join as your schedule permits. Click here to register.