Seems Like Some Fiduciaries May Be Asleep at the Switch

The SEC is attempting to cast some sunlight on to the tangle of fees charged by private equity firms.  The Deal’s Done. But not the Fees, Gretchen Morgenson.  My question, as if often the case is, “Where are the plan fiduciaries?”

Moregenson points out that in addition to the typical “2 and 20” fee arrangement (2% management fee, 20% performance fee), private equity advisory firms charge investors a host of other fees, many of which are buried deep in disclosure and other documents.

The SEC, apparently, is now hip to these tricks.

Morgenson notes that private equity investments constitute $3.5 trillion of the $64 trillion asset management industry.  The Investment Company Institute reports that as of December, 31, 2013, total US retirement assets were $23 trillion. With respect to these assets, managers must not only abide by the rules of the SEC, but also ERISA (the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974).  Admittedly, many private equity funds are structured in a manner designed to avoid ERISA, however, not all are so structured.

ERISA imposes a regulatory regime which is materially different than the regulatory regime imposed by the securities laws. Whereas the securities laws rely heavily upon the “sunshine” of disclosure, ERISA places affirmative duties on fiduciaries with respect to the investment and monitoring of plan assets.

Therefore, the SEC’s efforts should be supplemented by the Department of Labor.  While the SEC can direct its attention on the advisors, the DOL can focus on plan fiduciaries.

The questions for the plan fiduciaries are simple:

  1. Were they aware of theses intricate fee arrangements?
  2. Did they analyze and review the various fees?
  3. Did they conclude that the fees are reasonable and sign-off on the reasonableness of the fees?

ERISA requires that fees paid out of plan assets must be reasonable.  In fact, a couple of years ago new regulations were issued related to plan expenses.  Mutual funds and various other plan service provides have been jumping through hoops to comply with these new regulations.  What about private equity funds?

Another ERISA concern revealed by Morgenson relates to various relationships which might give rise to conflicts of interest.  Again, ERISA takes a different approach than the securities laws.  Under the securities laws, generally, disclosure is sufficient to “cure” a conflict of interest.  The thinking is that once effectively disclosed, sophisticated investors can consent to these conflicts.

Not so under ERISA.

ERISA contains a set of requirements which preclude a series of transactions known as “Prohibited Transactions”.  The types of transactions are fairly explicit, and, simply put, they are prohibited, not allowed, barred.   It’s really plain english.   Disclosure and consent are not remedies.  Conflicts of interest clearly constitute Prohibited Transactions.

Allowing a plan to engage in a prohibited transaction constitutes a breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA.  Therefore, plan fiduciaries typically are vigilant in detecting these prohibitions.

At a minimum, in light of Morgenson’s article, and the SEC’s questioning, plan fiduciaries need to examine whether in fact a plan’s private equity investments is subject to ERISA.  If it is, then further diligence may be necessary.

These concerns are not intended to disparage private equity investments.  Private equity managers have delivered consistent returns for their investors over the past decades.  But, like any investment, past performance is not a guarantee of future results.  Private equity investments clearly can play a role within a larger portfolio of plan investments.

However, private equity investment structures need to pass the same regulatory scrutiny imposed upon all other advisors and services providers to retirement plans.

Morgenson’s article suggests that possibly plan fiduciaries may have been asleep at the switch.  Her article puts fiduciaries on notice as to where they should be directing some attention.

Any fiduciary not up to the task of demanding information and asking hard questions of private equity advisors should delegate that task to fiduciaries who are prudent experts.  Plan participants and beneficiaries deserve no less.

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“No one can serve two masters.”

Although the tradition is not mine, I can appreciate the rabbinic-like wisdom in the statement. Unfortunately, it appears that ERISA lawyers, on the whole, have not embraced this learning.

The statute, however, clearly is not agnostic on this topic.  Consistent with traditional trust-law concepts, and possibly not unaware of theology, ERISA demands a “duty of loyalty” by a fiduciary to the plan on whose behalf it is acting.

The language of statue is clear.  Dual loyalties are prohibited.  Nonetheless, ERISA lawyers (with the blessing of the courts) still continue to abide by the “two hat” doctrine.

Let me explain.

Two weeks ago, at a national conference of ERISA lawyers, a panel of in-house ERISA lawyers, reviewed a variety of issues that they encounter on a regular basis.  When the discussion shifted to fiduciary practices, one of lawyers explained the care and diligence that she employs when counseling the plan sponsor’s investment committee. This committee, of course, serves as a fiduciary to the retirement plans.  She said that she repeatedly recites or invokes the “two-hat” doctrine.

That is, in the day-to-day exercise of their corporate responsibilities, the officers owe a duty of loyalty to the shareholders of the corporation.  However, in the context of an investment committee meeting, they needed to “remove” their “corporate hat” and replace it with their “fiduciary hat”.  All decisions need to be made “in the best interests of the plan participants.”  They must disregard their duties to the corporation.

Upon recital of the two-hat catechism, every single participant on the panel nodded his or her head in agreement.   An ERISA truth had been proclaimed and knowledgable members of the ERISA bar mustered all of their reverential professionalism and genuflected at this statement of the canon.

Yes, it is commonly accepted that a corporate officer can “wear two hats”.  A chief financial officer, or a director of marketing, can spend his days (and often nights) toiling rigorously on behalf of the corporation (and shareholders), but during certain committee meetings they must shed this hat and instead, make a decision “solely in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries.”

Regularly, in corporations though out America, decisions are made related to $ trillions of retirement assets under this “two hat” theory.

For many years, I too sang from the two-hat hymnal, often a solo, just like the panel member.  However, with a bit of middle-aged experience and having weathered a systemic financial crisis, I have learned at times it can be valuable to question received wisdom, to question the hymnal.  And, sometimes even acknowledge the wisdom of traditions not my own.

For a moment, let’s set aside legal principles, theology, as well as editorial sarcasm, and examine the “real” world.

Another participant on that morning’s panel, explained that the retirement assets of her corporate plan (in excess of $15 billion) are “so important that the CEO personally appoints the members of the fiduciary committee.”

When a CEO handpicks members of a committee, everyone takes notice.   While CEO lieutenants may be adept at various technical and managerial skills, often, intense loyalty to the CEO is a common attribute.  (Dissidents typically do not typically rise to the C-suite).

This loyalty often includes a precise understanding of the CEO’s goals and priorities with respect to corporate strategy and is often rewarded by promotions, committee appointments, raises, bonuses, stock options and other assorted perks.  The senior managers are properly incentivized to advance the vision of the CEO.

Upon assuming a spot on a fiduciary committee, however, these same senior managers are required to shed the very skills that contributed to their corporate rise.  When making decisions on behalf of the plans, they are suppose to set aside any allegiance to the CEO, forget about the stock options they may have patiently accumulated over the years, and make decisions irrespective of an impact on corporate earnings.

The potential for conflicts of interest are real; they are not the abstract musings of lawyers and academics.   Many transactions squarely put the corporation and the plan on opposite sides, with competing goals.

So, can these corporate offices so deftly switch hats as ERISA lawyers assume?   Are fiduciary committee members so professional, so trustworthy, so ethical, that they are immune to the human impulses which gave rise to: “No one can serve two masters.”

Aren’t we all engaged in a collective willing suspension of disbelief as to the artifice of the two-hat theory?  Isn’t it time to say enough?  Let’s bring meaningful independence to the fiduciary oversight of the nation’s retirement plans.  The stakes are way too large not to.

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