• Benefits Bulletin

    Are No Fee Funds A No-Brainer?

    Andrew S. Williams
    10/24/18

    No fee mutual funds are here!

    Fidelity recently announced domestic and international “index” funds that would charge no management fees – and no transaction fees when purchased directly from Fidelity.

    The no fee structure appears to be more than a come on, and industry sources report that Fidelity intends to subsidize fund costs in order to provide no fee funds indefinitely. Fidelity’s expectation is that the no fee funds will generate business for Fidelity’s other mutual funds. So, should retirement plan investment fiduciaries rejoice at the potential cost savings and flock to these new mutual funds?

    Well, a word of caution is in order.

    As part of the cost savings for the new funds, Fidelity will not license an index such as the S&P 500 for the new funds. Instead, Fidelity will create its own index. Neither the new funds nor the index will have a track record, so plan investment fiduciaries need to do their homework on both the no cost funds and the new Fidelity index. Then these fiduciaries need to determine if the investment prospects of the new funds outweigh the likely returns of existing index funds which charge management fees as low as three or four basis points.

    Takeaways:

    The no cost mutual funds will attract a lot of attention and likely some new business for Fidelity. Retirement plan investment fiduciaries need to carefully consider the funds’ investment prospects – and, as ever, document their decision making. From an administrative standpoint, plan fiduciaries should also bear in mind that in order to avoid transaction charges on the “no cost” funds, they have to invest directly with Fidelity.

  • Benefits Bulletin

    Fund Options That Protect 401(k) Fiduciaries

    Andrew S. Williams
    6/29/18

    Fiduciaries who handle investments for 401(k) and other self-directed retirement plans (such as 403(b) plans for not-for-profit organizations) are increasingly exposed to liability for their investment decisions. Those fiduciaries, including employers and any individuals charged with investment decision making, are being second guessed for the investment funds they select. Plan fiduciaries have been sued for a variety of allegations ranging from excessive fees, self-dealing, lack of transparency and poor investment performance. Some of these actions are filed as class actions, and like other fiduciary claims, they assert personal liability against plan fiduciaries.

    A recent decision of the Federal District Court in Chicago, Divane v. Northwestern University, suggests a way to help insulate plan fiduciaries from such claims.

    In Divane, Northwestern University and a number of individuals involved with two of its self-directed 403(b) plans were alleged to have breached their fiduciary duty to plan participants by providing too many investment options, providing mutual fund selections with excessive “retail” expense ratios, charging participants too much for record-keeping services funded through “revenue sharing,” and including a fund that had not performed well.

    The Court granted the defendants’ Motion to Dismiss because plan participants could select among investment funds that included index funds with expense ratios ranging from .05 percent to .1 percent. The Court held that, as a “matter of law,” these expense ratios were “low.” Because participants had the option of selecting these funds, they were in a position to avoid more expensive funds, a poorly performing fund, and a fund which made revenue sharing payments to the record keepers that were alleged to be “excessive.” Further, the Court added that record-keeping fees were “reasonable as a matter of law.” Based on these conclusions, the Court went on to dismiss the Complaint with prejudice thereby resolving this case in the defendants favor, subject to any possible appeal.

    Takeaways:

    The decision in Divane suggests that any self-directed retirement plan should include low cost funds (usually index funds) in its investment array. This obviously makes available to participants the desirable features of such funds but it also helps insulate plan fiduciaries from claims that they have not properly performed their duties with respect to the plan’s other investment funds – funds which may not be low cost and may not offer investment results that match the results of index funds. With this in mind, you will want to include a selection of low cost index funds in your 401(k) or 403(b) investment array. These funds may turn out to be profitable investments for plan participants but, based on the Divane opinion, they will also provide a good defense if plan fiduciaries are ever second guessed by a plaintiff’s lawyer – or a government auditor.

  • Benefits Bulletin

    DOL Decrees New Rules For ESOP Fiduciaries

    Andrew S. Williams
    4/9/18

    All transactions involving the purchase or redemption of employer stock by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (“ESOP”) must be conducted at fair market value. This assures that the statutory prohibited transaction exceptions available to compliant ESOPs will apply. Fair market value for private companies must be determined by an independent appraisal. This would include annual valuations and, more important, the valuation of the ESOP’s critical acquisition of the employer stock that it is required to maintain as its “principal investment.”

    ESOP appraisals can be influenced by misleading information provided by company management. Appraisers can even give their approval to ESOP transactions that leave the employer-sponsor insolvent as in the case of the Chicago Tribune ESOP. The resulting litigation was concluded by a settlement agreement with the Department of Labor that charges ESOP fiduciaries with the responsibility of performing their own due diligence investigation of any ESOP appraisal report.

    A recent Department of Labor settlement agreement with First Banker Trust Services (“FBTS”) resolves three separate cases and outlines additional valuation guidelines that ESOP fiduciaries (including the employer-sponsor of an ESOP) should consider any time they deal with a valuation report issued by the ESOP appraiser, or “Valuation Advisor.”

    Each of the three cases alleged that FBTS approved ESOP transactions without undertaking a thorough investigation of the value of the company stock involved. Because the stock valuations were based on unrealistic projections of future company earnings, they overstated the value of the stock of each sponsor. As a result, the three subject ESOPs allegedly overpaid for the stock purchased by each of them. As part of the settlement agreement, FBTS also agreed to pay $15.75 million to the three ESOPs.

    The FBTS settlement agreement sets out the following requirements and, although they technically apply only to FBTS, ESOP trustees and administrative committees should consider them as generally applicable compliance guidelines (these are just highlights of the new requirements):

    • The selection process for any Valuation Advisor must include at least three references and review of any regulatory proceedings involving the Advisor. The Valuation Advisor cannot have previously worked for either the ESOP sponsor or a committee of its employees.

    • Any valuation report must comment on, among other things, the financial impact of a proposed ESOP transaction and related securities acquisition debt on the ESOP sponsor (remember the Tribune ESOP!).

    • Valuation reports should be based on audited financial statements of the sponsor for the prior five year period. If unaudited or qualified financial statements are used, any selling shareholders who are officers, managers or directors of the ESOP sponsor must agree to compensate the ESOP for any losses attributable to inaccuracies in the sponsor’s financial statements.

    • If the ESOP pays a control premium for company stock, ESOP fiduciaries must document that the ESOP is obtaining voting control in fact. Any limitations on such voting control must be identified and valued in terms of amounts paid to the ESOP as “consideration” for those limitations.

    • Valuation reports must consider whether a proposed ESOP loan is at least as favorable to the ESOP as any loan between the ESOP sponsor and any of its executives in the prior two years.

    • The ESOP trustee must provide the Valuation Advisor certain specific information about the sponsor, including offers to purchase or sell its stock in the prior two year period as well as any sponsor defaults under a loan agreement, any management letters from the sponsor’s accountant and information relating to any sponsor valuations provided to the IRS during the prior five years.

    • The ESOP trustee must consider whether or not it is appropriate to include a purchase price adjustment or claw-back provision in any share purchase agreement in order to take into account a future corporate event or other event that might adversely affect the value of the sponsor’s stock.

    • The ESOP trustee must meet certain documentary requirements, including a certification by its employees who participated in decision making with respect to an ESOP transaction that they have read the valuation report and considered the reasonableness of its underlying assumptions and value conclusion. 

    Takeaways:

    ESOP sponsors and financial institutions involved in ESOP transactions should consider the new territory staked out in the FBTS settlement agreement. First of all, note the requirement that company insiders agree to compensate the ESOP for errors in company financial statements if those statements are not audited financial statements. Second, the normal practice of assigning a control premium in the valuation of majority stock interests purchased by ESOPs must now be questioned by ESOP fiduciaries. This means that typical arrangements that leave incumbent management in control of the voting of ESOP stock must not only be investigated by ESOP fiduciaries but also may require the fiduciaries to determine a value for any such limitations on control – and to provide that the ESOP be “compensated” accordingly.

  • Benefits Bulletin

    Can you put your Retirement Plan on Autopilot?

    Andrew S. Williams
    7/21/17

    Consider a typical retirement plan sponsored by a private employer. The employer is a fiduciary to the plan along with employees who individually serve as trustees or members of the plan’s investment or retirement committee.

    The employer may (should!) have concerns about the liability associated with its fiduciary status. Let’s say you are the person asked by the employer to look into this matter.

    There are a number of steps you might take to protect plan fiduciaries from liability. One thing you might consider is engaging an investment advisor to act as a co-fiduciary along with the in-house staff responsible for the plan. But let’s say you take another step and engage an “investment manager” to take on “all” responsibility for plan investments. In this case, the hired investment manager actually makes all decisions about plan investment and, as a “discretionary” advisor, only notifies the employer afterwards as to specific investment transactions.

    At this point, in-house fiduciaries are exempt from liability for the specific investment decisions made by the investment manager. But are the in-house fiduciaries completely off the hook?

    A recent federal district court decision, Perez v. WPN Corp, et al., elaborates on what in-house fiduciaries are required to do in exactly this situation. The court holds that the plan fiduciaries who appoint the investment manager are still responsible for “monitoring” the investment manager’s performance. This duty includes adopting routine monitoring procedures, following those procedures, reviewing the results of the monitoring procedures and, most important, taking any action required to correct any performance deficiencies of the investment manager. So, whether you pick an investment advisor to act as a co-fiduciary or an investment manager to make all the decisions on plan investments, in-house fiduciaries still need to review the conduct of these professionals and take action when necessary.

    The Takeaways:

    1. There’s no risk-free way to put your retirement plan on autopilot. Having quality service providers is a good idea but they cannot relieve you, your company or your other in-house fiduciaries from all responsibility for investment and administrative decisions.
    2. Some financial advisory firms charge extra to act as “investment managers.” You may find that the “extra protection” afforded by this arrangement is not really worth the additional expense.
    3. Consider other alternatives to mitigate fiduciary liability. This may include steps like adopting a suitable investment policy statement or obtaining fiduciary insurance. Other possibilities are outlined in “Your Fiduciary Duty – And What to Do About It” that can be viewed here.