Tag: Retirement plans

Fiduciary Duty Proposal

Dan Ryan is Leader of the Financial Services Advisory Practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. This post is based on a PwC publication by Mr. Ryan, Adam Gilbert, Genevieve Gimbert, and Armen Meyer.

With fewer than 18 months left in office, President Obama has asserted that the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) proposed fiduciary standard for retirement account advisors is a major priority. The DOL completed public hearings last week on this proposal, and we believe that the rule will be finalized early next year with the proposal’s core framework intact.

The DOL’s final rule is set to transform the competitive landscape and disrupt current business models, particularly for financial institutions that are reliant on traditional broker-dealer activities which are currently not covered by the existing Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) fiduciary standard.


Supreme Court: Fiduciaries Must Monitor Offered 401(k) Investment Alternatives

Boris Feldman is a member of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C. This post is based on a WSGR alert.

On May 18, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held in Tibble v. Edison International that fiduciaries of 401(k) retirement plans have a continuing duty under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to monitor an investment alternative offered under a 401(k) plan after it is selected. In monitoring an investment alternative, the fiduciaries must engage in a prudent process. [1]

Although the principle described in Tibble was well understood by many 401(k) plan fiduciaries, the decision nonetheless serves as an important reminder that it is necessary for 401(k) plan fiduciaries to implement a due diligence process that will withstand scrutiny from the federal courts and the U.S. Department of Labor upon review.


DOL Re-Proposed Expanded “Investment Advice” Rule

Jeffrey D. Hochberg is a partner in the Tax and Alternative Investment Management practices at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. This post is based on a Sullivan & Cromwell publication by Mr. Hochberg, David J. Passey, and Dana E. Brodsky; the complete publication, including footnotes, is available here.

On April 14, 2015, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) proposed a regulation (the “Proposed Regulation”) defining the circumstances in which a person will be treated as a fiduciary under both the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) and Section 4975 of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) by reason of providing investment advice to retirement plans and individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”). As part of the regulatory package, the DOL also released proposed prohibited transaction class exemptions intended to minimize the industry disruptions that might otherwise result from the Proposed Regulation, most notably, the so-called “Best Interest Contract Exemption.”

The Proposed Regulation is a re-proposal of a 2010 proposed regulation (the “2010 Proposed Regulation”) that was withdrawn by the DOL after extensive criticism from the financial services industry and politicians of both parties.


The Use and Abuse of Labor’s Capital

The following post comes to us from David H. Webber of Boston University Law School.

Across the country, public employee retirement systems are investing in companies that privatize public employee jobs. Such investments lead to reduced working hours and often job losses for current employees. [1] Although, in some circumstances, pension fund participants and beneficiaries may benefit from these investments, their actual economic interests might also be harmed by them, once the negative jobs impact is taken into account. But that impact is almost never taken into account. That’s because under the ascendant view of the fiduciary duty of loyalty, pension trustees owe their allegiance to the fund first, rather than to the fund’s participants and beneficiaries. Notwithstanding the fact that ERISA and state pension codes command trustees to invest, “solely in the interests of participants and beneficiaries and for the exclusive purpose of providing benefits,” the United States Department of Labor declared in 2008 that the plain text of the quoted language means that the interests of the plan come first. [2] Under this view, plan trustees should de facto ignore the potentially negative jobs impact of privatizing investments because that impact harms plan members, and not, purportedly, the plan itself. Thus, in the name of the duty of loyalty, the actual economic interests of plan members in plan investments are subverted to the interests of the plan itself (or, at a minimum, to an unduly constrained version of the plan’s interests that excludes lost employer and employee contributions). As a result, public pension plans make investments that harm the economic interests of their members. This turns the duty of loyalty on its head.


SEC Division of Investment Management Key Considerations

Editor’s Note: The following post comes to us from Norm Champ, director of the Division of Investment Management at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This post is based on Mr. Champ’s remarks at the ALI CLE 2012 Conference on Life Insurance Company Products, which are available here. The views expressed in this post are those of Mr. Champ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Division of Investment Management, or the Staff.

I. Introduction

These are uncertain times for our nation’s investors and for those who issue and sell investment products, including variable insurance. A positive sign is that assets in variable annuities, at almost $1.6 trillion, remain near their all-time high. [1] In addition, the retirement income solutions offered by the industry are designed to address the needs of the many investors moving toward retirement in today’s uncertain market environment. However, there are significant challenges facing the business, particularly those presented by the persistent low interest rate environment and by volatile equity markets both here and abroad.

The Division has observed the industry undertaking several initiatives to address these challenges and curtail risk exposure in the contracts being offered. In addition, some insurers have chosen to exit the business. An industry on solid financial footing is important for investors, who rely on insurers’ ability to pay promised benefits. At the same time, some contract changes are not good for investors. For example, many recent changes have reduced benefits for new investors. Other changes have limited the ability of existing contract owners to make additional payments into their contracts in order to take advantage of the benefits of those contracts.


An Experiment on Mutual Fund Fees in Retirement Investing

The following post comes to us from Jill E. Fisch, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan of the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In our paper, An Experiment on Mutual Fund Fees in Retirement Investing, we report the results of a new experiment studying the impact of mutual fund fees on consumer investment decisions. The importance of fees to overall investor returns, especially in the context of long-term investing like retirement accounts, is frequently overlooked. Morningstar’s Director of Mutual Fund Research recently observed, “If there’s anything in the whole world of mutual funds that you can take to the bank, it’s that expense ratios help you make a better decision.” But there is evidence that many investors are paying high fees. One study estimates that in 2007 alone, retail investors paid $206 million more in S&P index fund expenses than they would have paid had all investments been in the lowest-fee funds.

Why are investors willing to pay high fees? Are existing fee levels the result of robust market competition or do market failures or investor biases limit market discipline? In his recent Jones v. Harris opinion, Judge Easterbrook took the efficient market position, concluding that market forces will lead investors to reject funds that charge excessive fees in favor of more fairly-priced alternatives. Under this view, investors will only pay higher fees when those fees are justified. Judge Posner countered, in dissent, with an empirical question: do high fees really affect investor behavior? A growing collection of evidence suggests that Judge Posner’s skepticism is well-founded; in the market for mutual funds, uninformed investors do not appear able or willing to distinguish between cheap and expensive funds.


Fiduciary Duties to 401(k) Plans

The following post comes to us from Michael Frank, partner and head of the Compensation, Benefits & ERISA practice group at Morrison & Foerster LLP, and is based on a Morrison & Foerster client alert by Mr. Frank and Paul Borden.

On March 31, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri awarded plaintiffs more than $35 million in a class action suit over certain breaches of duty related to 401(k) plan expenses.

The case was brought on behalf of participants in two 401(k) plans sponsored by a major manufacturer of power and automation equipment with operations in around 100 countries and more than 135,000 employees.

In Tussey v. ABB, Inc., [1] the District Court held that ABB, Inc. and its benefit and investment committees (collectively, “ABB”) violated their fiduciary duties to the plans when they failed to monitor record-keeping costs, failed to negotiate rebates from investment companies on the plans’ investment platform, selected mutual fund share classes that were more expensive than necessary, and replaced a mutual fund with a fund offered by an affiliate of the record keeper for the plans. In addition, the District Court found that the employer and its benefits committee violated their fiduciary duties to the plans by agreeing to pay the record keeper above market record-keeping fees in order to subsidize other corporate services provided to the employer by the record keeper, such as payroll and record keeping for other employee benefit plans.


Economic Analysis in ERISA Litigation over Fiduciary Duties

The following post comes to us from Dr. John Montgomery, Senior Vice President with NERA Economic Consulting, and is based on a NERA publication by Dr. Montgomery which previously appeared in the July, August, and September 2011 issues of the Employment Law Strategist.

In the past decade, numerous lawsuits have been brought under ERISA against the fiduciaries and sponsors of 401(k) and other defined contribution retirement plans. Many of these lawsuits have been pled as class actions on behalf of all or many participants of the plan. The most common lawsuits have involved declines in the value of employer stock offered in the plans and allegations that decisions to maintain employer stock in the plans were imprudent. There have also been some lawsuits over other investment options, as well as lawsuits over the management of collateral from securities lending programs run by plan trustees. Another substantial category of litigation has involved allegations of excessive fees. Many of these cases, both investments and fees, have also involved allegedly inadequate disclosure of information to plan participants.

Economic analysis plays an important role in many of these cases. The purpose of this paper is to discuss some of the important economic issues that arise in ERISA litigation, both in establishing liability and in calculating damages.


CEO Inside Debt Holdings and the Riskiness of Firm Investment and Financial Policies

The following post comes to us from Cory Cassell, Shawn Huang, Juan Manuel Sanchez, and Michael Stuart, all of the Department of Accounting at the University of Arkansas.

In the paper, Seeking Safety: The Relation Between CEO Inside Debt Holdings and the Riskiness of Firm Investment and Financial Policies, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics, we investigate whether CEOs with large inside debt holdings protect the value of their holdings by implementing less risky investment and financial policies. The recent near-collapse of global financial markets led to renewed scrutiny of executive compensation practices by journalists, academicians, politicians, and regulators.  Much of the scrutiny focused on alleged excesses in the compensation packages of the executives deemed (at least partially) responsible for the economic turmoil (e.g., Karaian, 2008; Rappeport, 2008; McCann, 2009). However, the financial crisis also highlighted the vulnerability of certain components of firm-specific executive wealth during times of financial distress as several prominent chief executive officers (CEOs) surrendered significant portions of their inside debt holdings (pension benefits and/or deferred compensation) when their firms failed during the crisis. Inside debt holdings are at risk because they generally represent unsecured and unfunded liabilities of the firm, rendering these executive holdings sensitive to default risk similar to that faced by other outside creditors (Sundaram and Yermack, 2007; Edmans and Liu, 2011).


Do Pension-Related Business Ties Influence Mutual Fund Proxy Voting?

The following post comes to us from Rasha Ashraf of the Department of Finance at Georgia State University; Narayanan Jayaraman, Professor of Finance at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Harley Ryan of the Department of Finance at Georgia State University.

In the paper, Do Pension-Related Business Ties Influence Mutual Fund Proxy Voting? Evidence from Shareholder Proposals on Executive Compensation, which can be found in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, we examine the relation between mutual fund votes on shareholder executive compensation proposals and pension-related business ties between fund families and the firms. Mutual funds have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the interests of their shareholders. Shareholder proposals provide one mechanism via which mutual funds can influence firm policies to benefit shareholders. However, mutual funds benefit when they receive pension fund business from firms, which creates a potential conflict of interest that creates an incentive for fund managers to support firm management and to vote against shareholder proposals. Rationally, fund families should trade off the economic benefit of self-interested voting against possible economic losses related to lower portfolio returns, damaged reputations, or potential lawsuits. Shareholder proposals that relate to executive compensation provide an excellent arena in which to examine the influence of pension-related business ties, since these proposals can directly affect the pay and benefits of managers with influence over which fund families receive pension business.


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