If you missed the Strafford continuing legal education webinar on September 12, click here to download the slides about ERISA investment committee governance. The ninety minutes flew by, with each speaker having lots to say. Attorney Emily Seymour Costin addressed ways for companies to minimize the risks of being party to an ERISA lawsuit or, if sued, how best to mount a defense. Insurance executive Rhonda Prussack talked about ERISA fiduciary liability coverage. I gave an economist’s perspective about conflicts of interest, delegating to a third party such as an investment consultant, facts and circumstances considered by a testifying expert and fiduciary training.

I also broached the topic of benchmarking fiduciary actions as vital to good governance, something that deserves significant attention. Certainly policies, procedures and protocols can vary across ERISA plans. However, the importance of assessing whether committee members are doing a good job is universal, regardless of plan design.

One way to grade job performance is to create a matrix of relevant attributes and compare actual deeds to expectations of what a prudent investment fiduciary would do in similar circumstances. Although overly simplistic, the image above illustrates the general notion of ranking decisions from great to bad or somewhere in between. For a specific engagement, a scorecard would be much larger because there are dozens of categories to examine.

My recommendation to anyone with ERISA fiduciary responsibilities is to engage outside counsel for a fiduciary assessment and then have the law firm bring an investment expert on board to address economics, risk management and industry norms. By self-assessing, with the help of knowledgeable and experienced third parties, investment committee members have a golden opportunity to improve weaknesses and recognize areas of strength. When there are multiple solutions to a given problem, something that is more the norm than not, brainstorming with meaningful metrics can be invaluable.

Economist Dr. Susan Mangiero is pleased to announce that she will be speaking during an upcoming Strafford Live webinar on September 12, 2017 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm EST. The Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) webinar is entitled “ERISA Plan Investment Committee Governance: Avoiding Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims.”

She will be joined by a prominent ERISA attorney and a senior-level ERISA fiduciary liability insurance executive to discuss risk mitigation approaches that have the potential to help lower the likelihood of breach of fiduciary duty allegations. This program will also address effective litigation strategies, the importance of fiduciary liability insurance and the role of the economic expert in the event of litigation, arbitration, mediation and/or regulatory enforcement actions. Court cases including the recently adjudicated Tibble v. Edison matter will be discussed as part of the program.

Please join the distinguished faculty for what should be a relevant, timely and important conversation about suggested protocols and bad practices to avoid. For more information or to register, visit the Strafford website or call 1-800-926-7926, extension 10. Mention code ZDFCT to qualify for a fifty (50) percent discount. If you have questions you would like answered, please let Strafford know in advance or on the day of the live event.

According to a March 30, 2011 regulatory update from attorneys at Goodwin Procter, ERISA litigation may increase as the result of U.S. Department of Labor ("DOL") efforts. Click to access "Regulatory Update – DOL Initiatives Potentially Affecting ERISA Litigation."

For one thing, should the definition of fiduciary be expanded, more persons will have potential liability. The pushback from various segments of the financial services industry has been considerable, leading to an extension of the time allowed for official comments through April 12, 2011.

A second hurdle to overcome emphasizes disclosure and takes the form of a final rule that goes into effect for plan years that start on or after November 1, 2011. Specifically, plan participants who are allowed to self-direct their investments must now be given granular performance and fee information about "designated investment alternatives," including identification of asset managers and arrangements and restrictions on brokerage accounts and participants’ flexibility (or lack thereof) to give orders.

A third new item on the growing ERISA compliance checklist, if adopted by the DOL, will force service providers to submit a written statement of what services it will offer to the retirement plan(s) and copious data about how it expects to be indirectly and directly compensated.

I concur with the authors that more rules likely beget more lawsuits. Part of the current ills that the DOL seeks to cure is to make sure that a sufficient quantity and quality of information is available to decision-makers.

Clearly, more and better datapoints can be helpful. Absent an inflow of information, what are decision-makers doing now to properly carry out their fiduciary duties? Understanding what is or is not being conveyed as billions of dollars are committed is of significant import in terms of good process.

Note to Readers:

  • Click to read the 469 page transcript of March 1, 2011 testimony on the topic of an expanded definition of ERISA fiduciary.
  • Click to read the 387 page transcript of March 2, 2011 testimony on the topic of an expanded definition of ERISA fiduciary.

Please join ERISA attorney Linda Ursin and Ms. Jamie Greenleaf, Senior Partner with Cafaro Greenleaf on June 29 from Noon to 1:00 PM EST to learn more about assessing management fees for reasonableness, new Form 5500 rules and fiduciary liability for failure of oversight of service providers. To register, visit https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/671138658.

Many thanks to Ms. Marlys Appleton, governance expert and financial professional. Her comments are provided below. Click to read the original blog post entitled "BP Investments – The Role of Ethics and Risk Management" (June 19, 2010). The governance storm clouds are dark indeed.

<< I believe what happened in this case is connected to internal governance issues at BP. One only has to look at their safety violation record relative to peers such as Exxon and Conoco over the last few years (as reported recently by Bloomberg News) to see that BP accepted hundreds of safety violations as a "cost of doing business". Institutional investors’ failure to pay attention to safety violation records at BP reflects their lack of understanding of the need to price in poor governance. BP’s safety record was known for years and now the market is forced to acknowledge and price such behavior, with devastating results.

I also think of the Massey coal mine disaster – another company whose safety record was well know. Both boards need a paradigm shift to acknowledge past failures, but for one, it may be too late. Some damages cannot be remedied by compensation alone. The fund is a good start and may reduce the need for litigation though there are likely to be lawsuits. I believe such a devastating social and environmental disaster such as this event should not be mediated through the courts, but that’s another topic. Add upon this, the additional layer of inept government regulation, another example of ‘poor governance’ as a contributing factor.

It is my hope that institutional investors, boards and executive management embark upon a real understanding of what can happen when governance and ethical behavior break down. In the world of emerging risks, acknowledgement of "fat tail" catatrophic events needs to be stepped up with the implementation of a good Enterprise Risk Management ("ERM") process. This information must then be socialized with boards, management, and investors. >>

Please join Investment Governance, Inc. CEO – Dr. Susan Mangiero – for a one hour discussion with ERISA attorney, Linda Ursin, and Ms. Jamie Greenleaf, Senior Partner with Cafaro Greenleaf on June 29 from Noon to 1:00 PM EST.

Attendees will learn more about:

1. Assessing management fees for reasonableness
2. Form 5500 compliance rules
3. Fiduciary liability for failiure of oversight of service providers

And much more!

Click here to register for this free educational webinar.

Dr. Susan Mangiero joins a panel of senior-level insurance executives and attorneys for a discussion about ERISA best practices. Sponsored by the Risk and Insurance Management Society (RIMS), the April 28 discussion takes place in Boston and addresses financial, legal and operations challenges, along with suggested "must do" items. The program description is provided below or you can read more about "Coping Mechanisms: ERISA Best Practices."

Learn how to best to protect directors and officers in the event of plan-related litigation in this critical era of new litigation theories, legislation and aggressive enforcement. Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) litigation has spiked in the last year, spurred by plan investment losses, mass layoffs, benefit cutbacks and an invigorated plaintiff’s bar. New types of litigation, such as suits related to qualified default investments in 401(k) plans, are on the upswing. At the same time, leadership at the Department of Labor is spurring new enforcement strategies. Join this panel discussion of methods to avoid litigation and establish a record of procedural prudence, a critically important component in the defense of any ERISA litigation.

Presenters include:

Investment Governance, Inc. recently interviewed leading fiduciary liability insurance underwriters about their concerns for covered organizations to improve policies and procedures. Email Editors@InvestmentGovernance.com for a copy of the two-part interview series.

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation ("BBC"), four unhappy investors in Germany were found guilty of kidnapping their financial advisor. Ranging in age from 61 to 80, the defendants took justice into their own hands, seeking a return of over 2 million Euros. Retirement hopes dashed, jail time is a reality for at least one of the quartet. Read "German pensioners guilty of abducting financial adviser" (March 23, 2010).

In a related "believe it or not" news item, Wall Street Journal reporters Dionne Searcey and Amir Efrati describe giving financial advice to a fellow inmate, urging him to focus on passive index funds and to avoid day trading unless he had "millions to spare." See "Madoff Beaten in Prison" (March 18, 2010).

 

In response to my post about the merger of Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt ("Two Giants Merge – Que Pasa?" June 29, 2009), I wrote that generalists are finding it tough going in terms of assisting pension decision-makers, in large part because the issues that confront them are becoming more complex. Though my statement was not directed to any particular firm and reflected what I often hear from pension executives, one reader took me to task.

Mr. Alberto Dominguez writes that "The folks who work at Towers Perrin (disclosure: that would include me) and Watson Wyatt are hardly generalists. One argument in favor of the merger is that it will allow an even greater depth of talent and more specialization, enhancing the ability to assist clients with these increasingly specialized decisions." (Check out Alberto’s blog on pension issues from an actuary’s perspective, "What’s An Actuary?". Also note that he has given me permission to reprint his comments but with the caveat that he is not rendering an official statement on behalf of Towers Perrin.)

In speaking to industry experts about the consulting industry in general, several trends appear to be taking hold. Anyone who wants to guest blog about this topic or offer their opinion (for attribution or not) is encouraged to email Pension Governance, Incorporated at PG-Info@pensiongovernance.com

This list (which is far from exhaustive) includes:

  • Greater tilt towards specialization under one roof if seen by investment executives as being easier than contracting with multiple parties
  • A desire to have a consultant wear the hat of fiduciary continues to have appeal if it is affordable, noting that most organizations will logically charge more for greater liability exposure
  • Strident calls for transparency with respect to who is doing what, how and on what basis in terms of fees and buy-sell relationships.

Keep in mind that while consultants are being asked to do more, there are tremendous pressures to contain costs on the part of the organizations that write checks. There is no doubt that the investment consulting world is starting to change. As with any period of tumult, opportunities are there for those who know where to look.

As I stated during my September 11, 2008 "hard-to-value asset" testimony before the ERISA Advisory Council, there are some stellar examples of pension risk management and there is everyone else. Given the dearth of publicly available information about pension financial best practices, one can only guess at the size of each of the two buckets, “great” and “not so great” except for occasional studies that offer empirical validation. In October 2008, Pension Governance, LLC (now Pension Governance, Inc.) released a unique study about the use of derivatives by plan sponsors. Sponsored by the Society of Actuaries, “Pension Risk Management: Derivatives, Fiduciary Duty and Process” found that the “everyone else” bucket is rather large, hinting at future problems if poor process is left unchecked. (Click to read my hard-to-value asset testimony. Click to download "Pension Risk Management: Derivatives, Fiduciary Duty and Process.")

 

Now, a new report offers additional and troublesome evidence that the “everyone else” bucket remains large. Hot off the press, the MetLife U.S. Pension Risk Behavior IndexSM (“PRBI”) considers investment, liability and business risk management among the largest U.S. defined benefit pension plan sponsors. (Pension Governance, Incorporated is proud to have assisted with what we think is path-breaking research.)

 

Designed to measure both the aptitude and attitude of employee benefit decision-makers, the research creates a base case gauge as to the current state of pension risk management. Not surprisingly, respondents ranked the following risk factors as “Most Important,” in part it is believed because they are the simplest to model and measure:

 

  • Asset Allocation
  • Meeting Return Goals
  • Underfunding of Liabilities
  • Asset and Liability Mismatch

Given radically changing demographic patterns and the related, oft material economic impact on plan sponsors, it is surprising that the following risk factors were identified as relatively unimportant (and in some cases ignored altogether):

 

  • Early Retirement Risk
  • Mortality Risk
  • Longevity Risk
  • Quality of Participant Data.

Also disturbing is what appears to be a disconnect between the importance attached to prudent process by plan sponsors and the regulatory and legal reality that PRUDENT PROCESS IS IMPORTANT. Not only can plan participants suffer untold harm in the absence of a good process or the presence of a bad process, fiduciaries are professionally and personally on the hook. (As this blog has urged many times before, questions about prudent process and fiduciary duty are best answered by plan counsel.)  

 

According to the MetLife press release, dated January 26, 3009, “While respondents ascribe a particularly high rating to the quality of their Plan Governance, they do not seem to carefully consider the effectiveness of their decision making methods or how to improve the way they make decisions. This suggests that many respondents don’t perceive decision making process as an integral element of plan governance, when recent ERISA litigation would suggest just the opposite. In addition, plan sponsors report that they routinely review liability valuations and understand the drivers that contribute to their plan’s liabilities. However, at the same time, they indicate that they do not actively implement or regularly review procedures to manage either mortality, longevity or early retirement risk, which are major determinants of both the timing and level of future liabilities. These inconsistencies may indicate that plan sponsors tend not to systematically consider the interrelationships among risk items and plan their implementation of risk management measures to maximize effectiveness across all items. Over time, a lack of holistic risk management may have serious repercussions, including unnecessary volatility in earnings and/or cash flow or potential plan failure. “

 

Unlike other studies, this research sought to quantify attitudes and aptitudes, in essence creating a unique score card against which subsequent results can be compared. The news is not great. On a scale of 0 to 100%, the PRBI level is 76. Roughly translated, defined benefit managers earn an average grade of C with respect to how they manage defined benefit plan risk.

 

These results beg a hugely important question. Is “mediocre” performance acceptable or does the MetLife study sound a warning that someone needs to stay after school for extra help? This blogger thinks it is the latter and welcomes your suggestions about how to fix a wobbly system. (Email PG-Info@pensiongovernance.com with comments.)

 

As I’ve said many times, reward good process and make life difficult for those who do sub-par work. With trillions of dollars at stake, how can we accept anything less?

 

Editor’s Note: Click to read the MetLife press release, dated January 26, 2009, about this new study. Click to download "MetLife U.S. Pension Risk Behavior IndexSM: Study of Risk Management Attitudes and Aptitude Among Defined Benefit Pension Plan Sponsors."