Pensions, Politics and the ERISA Fiduciary Standard

Thanks to the folks at the Mutual Fund Directors Forum for disseminating a January 13, 2014 letter from members of the New Democrat Coalition to the Honorable Thomas Perez, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL"). The gist of the four-page communication is that these members of the current U.S. Congress would like to see regulatory coordination in order to "protect investors while reducing confusion." They add that they are still concerned that a new version of the fiduciary standard, when proposed anew, might discourage plan participant literacy and disclosures. The worry seems to be that individuals with low or middle incomes as well as small businesses could be adversely impacted, depending on the ultimate version.

According to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association ("SIFMA") website, Republicans have likewise communicated their concerns to the U.S. Department of Labor as well as the Office of Management and Budget. These ranged from "the impact on an individuals' choice of provider to potential unintended consequences limiting access to education for millions of individuals saving for retirement." Click to access SIFMA's DOL Fiduciary Standard Resource Center.

On October 29, 2013, the Retail Investor Protection Act (H.R. 2374), sponsored by U.S. Congresswoman Ann Wagner (Republican, 2nd District of Missouri), was approved by the United States House of Representatives in a vote of 254 to 166. According to the Gov Track website, U.S. Congressman Patrick Murphy (Democrat, 18th District of Florida) joined as a co-sponsor on September 19, 2013. The stated legislative intent is to preclude the "Secretary of Labor from prescribing any regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) defining the circumstances under which an individual is considered a fiduciary until 60 days after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issues a final rule governing standards of conduct for brokers and dealers under specified law." It further prevents the SEC from implementing a rule "establishing an investment advisor standard of conduct as the standard of conduct of brokers and dealers" prior to assessing the likely impact on retail investors. Click to read more about the Retail Investor Protection Act. Click to read the mission of the United States Department of Labor which states "To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights."

As I have repeatedly predicted in this pension blog and elsewhere, the retirement crisis, not just in the United States but around the world, is increasingly showing up as a political hot button issue. No one wants to lose votes from retirees who are struggling and employees who cannot afford to stop working any time soon. In his State of the Union address, U.S. President Obama described a new type of retirement account, i.e. "myRA," that is meant to help millions of individuals whose companies do not offer retirement plans. See "What you need to know about Obama's 'myRA' retirement accounts" by Melanie Hicken (CNN Money, January 29, 2014). More details will no doubt follow.

There is a lot we don't know about how politics will impede or enhance the state of the global retirement situation. As a free marketeer, I am not particularly optimistic about new rules and regulations that prevent an efficient supply-demand interaction from taking place. However, this is a lengthy topic and the hour is late so I will leave a discussion about the positive and normative aspects of capitalism for another day.

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.

SIFMA Study Intimates Fiduciary Standard Cracks

Hot off the press, a study commissioned by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association ("SIFMA") questions whether a uniform fiduciary standard of care makes sense. Conducted by Oliver Wyman consultants, "Standard of Care Harmonization: Impact Assessment for SEC" (October 2010) suggests that a "one size fits all" approach for fee-based advisors and broker-dealers may force consumers to bear higher costs and/or limit their access to financial products that are distributed through broker-dealers and/or lower access "to the most affordable investment options." The authors assert that only one out of every twenty retail investors rely only on fee-based accounts. Their analysis considers three different types of investors to include "small," "affluent" and "high net worth." Researchers cite the regulatory burden on asset managers due to compliance with Europe's Markets in Financial Instruments Directive as a harbinger of things to come in the United States.

Critics of the study have raised eyebrows about the type of data collected for examination. They add that the Dodd-Frank Act does not require all of a broker-dealer's activities to be subject to an imposed fiduciary standard of care so the emphasis of this new research is misplaced. See "Advisory Industry: SIFMA Fiduciary Study Raises Lots of Questions" by Melanie Waddell, AdvisorOne, November 2, 2010.

At a time when numerous financial professionals are aggressively courting investors who seek to buoy their retirement nest eggs, how fiduciary standard of care rules are finalized will be important in numerous ways and to numerous individuals and organizations.