Andrew S. Williams
Whether you are an accountant, lawyer, banker, business consultant or investment advisor, many of your business clients will have a 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan. You may not specialize in retirement plans, but consider the following as the kinds of things you might do to assist your clients and prospects with their retirement plans:
- Introduce your client to responsible third party administrators (TPAs), investment advisors, record keepers and, if necessary, ERISA counsel
- Make sure your client has an investment policy statement and uses it as a basis for investment decisions
- Your client should meet at least twice a year with an investment advisor to discuss the plan’s investment funds – and document those discussions
- Encourage your client to maintain fiduciary liability insurance (not to be confused with the plan’s required ERISA fidelity bond!)
- See that your client has participants sign a release when they receive benefit distributions (see Howell v. Motorola, Inc.)
- Suggest that your client include low cost index funds as 401(k) investment selections to provide a defense to claims of excessive costs or poor performance on other fund selections (see Divane v. Northwestern University)
- Encourage your client to use independent ERISA counsel to assure confidentiality of sensitive information (the company’s lawyer has a confidential attorney-client relationship only with the company, not the plan or its fiduciaries)
Andrew S. Williams
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.
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.
Andrew S. Williams
We’ve all read about the lawsuits questioning an employer’s 401(k) investment fund selections and related claims of excessive fund costs. And typically a plan’s professional investment advisor (yes – you should have one unless you have an investment professional on staff) meets with company representatives periodically to discuss a detailed report on fund investment performance and any recommended changes in the plan’s investment fund selections. So, your 401(k) plan files bulge with investment-related materials (and they should!). But what about the rest of an employer’s 401(k) responsibilities?
As posed by the moderator of the 401(k) panel at the Illinois CPA Society’s recent annual Summit that I had the pleasure of appearing on, what should plan sponsors be paying attention to in addition to monitoring plan investment results?
Good question – so what can you do to get a leg up on the rest of the 401(k) universe?
Consider online IRS compliance guides like “A Plan Sponsor’s Responsibilities”. This material covers plan documentation, monitoring plan service providers, internal controls, law changes, payroll data you need to share with plan providers, hardship distributions, participant loans, ERISA fiduciary bonds, as well as eligibility, vesting and benefit payment matters. It also provides links to other IRS compliance resources and is a good starting point to find more detailed information on specific plan administrative requirements such as government filings, participant notices and fiduciary requirements. Also consider articles such as “Your Fiduciary Duty – And What to Do About It”.
There’s more to an employer’s 401(k) responsibilities than selecting and reviewing plan investment funds. Remember, as the “Plan Administrator,” the buck stops with the employer when it comes to all compliance matters. So, consider IRS guidance as a starting point, but do not hesitate to address any resulting concerns with your plan’s investment advisor, third party administrator, accountant or ERISA lawyer.
Andrew S. Williams
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.
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.
Andrew S. Williams
Your retirement plan may have an outside third party administrator (TPA) to assist with plan administration. However, a TPA typically is not a fiduciary to the plan and does not act as “plan administrator” (that’s usually the employer itself as provided in a typical TPA services agreement). This leaves the employer ultimately responsible for the plan’s compliance with all applicable legal requirements. So, even if your TPA makes a mistake, the employer is likely on the hook for any resulting liability because the TPA’s services agreement usually imposes damage limits and employer indemnities that protect the TPA.
An independent service provider (maybe your current TPA) can be engaged to act as the “plan administrator” pursuant to Section 3(16) of ERISA. As a 3(16) fiduciary, the service provider assumes fiduciary responsibilities in administering the plan. The 3(16) fiduciary is responsible for all compliance activities, including the following:
- Determining employee eligibility
- Retaining plan service providers
- Preparing and filing annual reports
- Maintaining fidelity bond coverage for employees who handle plan assets
- Interpreting and applying plan provisions
- Distributing summary plan descriptions and supplements on a timely basis
- Preparing an investment policy statement
- Administration of participant loans, hardship withdrawals, as well as benefit computations and distributions
- Distributing participant notes such as summary annual reports and, as applicable, annual qualified default investment alternative (QDIA) notices, safe harbor notices and investment fee disclosures
- Reviewing and acting on reports of plan investment advisors and any private auditor
- Reviewing and implementing qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs)
Are your bases covered on all of the above? If your TPA is not involved in these compliance functions, are they adequately performed by your own employees? If not, your plan may need help from an outside service provider or even a 3(16) fiduciary.
Engaging a competent 3(16) fiduciary should provide any retirement plan the maximum compliance protection available. Just bear in mind that the employer still retains a legal obligation to prudently select the 3(16) fiduciary and to monitor the fiduciary’s ongoing performance of its duties.
Andrew S. Williams
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Andrew S. Williams
If your organization sponsors a 401(k) or other retirement plan, you or someone in your organization is a fiduciary to that plan. You may have hired a service provider to administer the plan (a third party administrator, or “TPA”), but the buck stops with your organization. This is because the fine print in your TPA’s service agreement says the official “Plan Administrator” is the employer, not the TPA. This means the employer has the ultimate responsibility for the plan’s ERISA compliance.
On the investment side, the plan’s trustee or investment committee will be a responsible plan fiduciary. The investment fiduciary must act with the care, skill, prudence and diligence of a prudent person “familiar with such matters.”
This is a prudent expert standard. So ask yourself, do the people making investment decisions for your plan have a financial or investment background? If not, you need to consider engaging a professional investment advisor to assist with investment decisions.
What does all this mean to you?
Plan fiduciaries do not have to make perfect decisions but they do need to exercise diligence in their deliberation on both administrative and investment matters. It is always advisable to document fiduciary deliberations as the best defense to a claim of fiduciary misconduct. Remember, good intentions never justify fiduciary misconduct including any inattention to fiduciary duties. As one federal judge put it: “A pure heart and an empty head are not an acceptable substitute for proper analysis.”
There are other steps that plan sponsors take to help their plan fiduciaries:
- Hire an investment advisor, adopt an investment policy statement – and follow it!
- Meet with your investment advisor at least annually to review plan investments – and document these discussions.
- Perform self-help compliance checkups for your plans using IRS and Department of Labor websites.
- Consider fiduciary insurance (that’s not the plan’s ERISA fidelity bond).
- Get professional help when you need it, and consider using independent legal counsel to assure the confidentiality of sensitive plan-related information.
The Takeaway: Take another look at the bullet points immediately above. Is there any good reason not to follow each of those protective steps?
Andrew S. Williams
Many 401(k) plan sponsors have wisely selected investment professionals to assist in selecting the plan’s investment menu, typically a listing of various mutual funds. Other plan sponsors may allocate this duty to company officers and other key employees. In either case, the resident plan fiduciaries (the company officers and key employees who act on behalf of the sponsor as plan administrator or trustee) have a legal duty to “select and monitor” plan investments and, in the case of sponsors who have hired investment professionals – to monitor not only investment performance but also the performance of the investment professionals.
So, how do you “select and monitor?”
There’s only one hard and fast rule: Document what your investment-related decisions are and how you made them. But here are some guidelines on how to proceed:
- Investigate available investment providers. This may include banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers and mutual fund companies and their broad array of investment options. Then solicit specific information on several investment programs. This could be done in a standard format such as a request for proposal (RFP).
- Analyze costs and investment characteristics of available investments and select the investment menu that offers diversified investment options at competitive prices. Remember, your plan is not “free” if your participants pay administrative costs through reduced returns on their plan investments. So, get a handle on this kind of indirect compensation (“revenue sharing”) and make sure you take it into account.
- The general requirement is endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Tibble opinion as a “separate” duty of a trustee to “monitor trust investments and remove imprudent ones.” You should review investment results on a periodic basis with a view towards replacing laggards in your plan’s investment array.
- Compare investment results with criteria set out in your plan’s investment policy statement, or IPS (yes, having an IPS is a good idea). Also, document your decision-making process to prove that in-house plan fiduciaries have performed this duty.
The Takeaway: Process, process, process! Just going through the procedure suggested above – and providing documentary proof – could satisfy an IRS or Department of Labor inquiry even if your plan has mediocre investment results.