In a case of first impression, a federal district court in the Southern District of Texas has ruled that a former parent company’s stock was not an “employer security” under section 407(d)(1) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”).[1] As a result, the ERISA exemption from the duty to diversify and the duty of prudence (to the extent the latter requires diversification) were not available where a plan held former parent company stock in a legacy single-stock fund. Although in this case plaintiff participants’ claims were ultimately dismissed, the decision should be on the radar of fiduciaries of plans holding significant amounts of former employer securities.

As background, in 2012, Phillips 66 Company, Inc. (“Phillips 66”) spun off from ConocoPhillips Corporation (“ConocoPhillips”) and sponsored a new defined contribution plan with an employee stock ownership plan (“ESOP”) component, as had ConocoPhillips. In addition to newly issued Phillips 66 stock, however, Phillips 66’s new plan also held more than 25% of its assets in a frozen ConocoPhillips stock fund that was transferred from the old plan in connection with the Phillips 66 spinoff.

When the value of ConocoPhillips stock held by the Phillips 66 plan dropped, participants sued the plan’s investment committee and its members, along with the plan’s financial administrator, alleging imprudence and failure to diversify plan assets in violation of ERISA. In reply, defendants argued that ConocoPhillips stock was not subject to the duty to diversify, as those shares were “employer securities” when issued; ConocoPhillips was previously the employer of the participants. Therefore, defendants argued, ConocoPhillips stock remained exempt from the duty to diversify despite Phillips 66’s spin-off from the ConocoPhillips controlled group.

The court rejected this aspect of defendants’ argument, holding that stock does not indefinitely retain its character as “employer securities” for purposes of ERISA’s diversification and prudence requirements. Ultimately ruling in favor of defendants, the court held that ERISA’s diversification and prudence requirements were not violated because the plan’s investment lineup overall was diversified, public information on the risks of ConocoPhillips stock was reflected in its market price, and because the claims about procedural imprudence lacked factual support in the complaint’s allegations. The Schweitzer court also emphasized that participants were free to shift their ConocoPhillips holdings to other investment options under the plan.


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On April 23, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-01 (the “FAB”), which revisits two important topics relating to ERISA plan investments: (1) whether and to what extent a fiduciary can consider environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) factors when deciding between different investment options and (2) the exercise of shareholder rights.

The FAB clarifies that while ESG factors can present economic risks or opportunities that can be appropriately considered as part of an economic analysis, prior guidance should not be read to suggest that an investment’s promotion of ESG factors or positive market trends means that the investment is automatically a prudent investment choice. Rather, fiduciaries must always focus on the economic interests of plan beneficiaries and must be careful not to put too much weight into ESG factors.
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The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) has recently extended the relief previously granted to five financial institutions which allows these banks to continue to rely on the QPAM exemption (Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-14). The QPAM exemption permits ERISA plans and comingled funds to engage in transactions with “parties in interest” to those ERISA clients without running afoul of ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules, provided that the ERISA plan or fund is managed by a qualified professional asset manager (“QPAM”) and certain other conditions are satisfied. 
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At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.  Goldilocks was hungry.  She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

“This porridge is too hot!” she exclaimed.

So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

“This porridge is too cold,” she said

So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

“Ahhh, this porridge is just right,” she said happily and she ate it all up.

Virtually all companies that offer participant-directed retirement plans permit their participants to elect an income-producing, low risk, liquid fund, such as a money market fund or a stable value fund. A stable value fund, as the name suggests, is a conservative investment option designed to provide stability, as opposed to growth.

Stable value funds have desirable features.  By combining bonds and an investment wrap, participants can achieve bond-like returns without the interest-rate volatility present in bond funds.  But those features do not eliminate the risk of losses, they just delay them. Indeed, a stable value fund with a longer duration is riskier than a fund with a shorter duration.

The stability-enhancing features of a stable value fund mean that, if a stable value fund invests in a bond that defaults, the value of the fund will not take an immediate tumble, but the loss will be amortized over a period of time.  Over the long run, the performance of a stable value fund approaches the performance of the underlying bond portfolio, minus the expenses of maintaining the wrap coverage and administering the fund.

There is, however, no typical stable value fund. According to How to Evaluate Stable Value Funds and Their Managers by Andrew Apostol, “[d]ue to the varying expectations of individual plan sponsors and the range of management techniques used by their stable value managers, there is not a single style or strategy that is common across all stable value funds.” For example, the plans for a Silicon Valley startup or a hedge fund will differ. Even if both aim for stability, the participants likely have different risk targets, which will lead to different markups across stable value funds.

Even though there is no typical stable value fund, there are three typical types of lawsuits filed against fiduciaries offering stable value funds. Fiduciaries have been sued for 1) offering a stable value fund that is too risky and 2) offering a stable value fund that is not risky enough. Only Goldilocks, it seems, could safely offer a stable value fund.

Considering the litigation risks for fiduciaries who do not set the stable value fund just right—a task that always looks easier in the hindsight of a lawsuit—a fiduciary may conclude the best option is not to offer a stable value fund at all. Yet fiduciaries have also been sued for 3) not offering a stable value fund. Let’s take a deeper dive into these three bears of a lawsuit.
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As we previously reported in our Legal Update, in April 2016 the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) replaced its 1975 regulation that set the parameters for determining when a person should be treated as a fiduciary under ERISA when providing advice with respect to investment matters (the “Fiduciary Rule”).  The new definition treats persons who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of a plan or IRA as fiduciaries in a much wider array of relationships than was true under the 1975 regulation. In connection with the publication of the new Fiduciary Rule, the DOL also published two new administrative class exemptions from the prohibited transaction provisions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code—the BIC Exemption and the Principal Transactions Exemption—as well as amendments to PTE 84-24, commonly relied upon for the sale of insurance contracts to ERISA plans.  As discussed in the Legal Update, just as plan fiduciaries geared up for these major changes, the DOL began to back peddle as a result of the change in administration and new leadership at the DOL. So where are we now?
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A collective investment trust (“CIT”) is a longstanding vehicle used by banks and trust companies to commingle the assets of qualified retirement trusts for investment.  In recent years, CITs are enjoying a resurgence for defined contribution plans as an alternative to mutual funds in a 401(k) plan line up. The primary reason for the new popularity of CITs is that they often have a lower expense ratio than mutual funds as a result of being free from the extensive regulatory requirements imposed on mutual funds under the securities laws.  But there are many other differences between CITs and mutual funds that plan fiduciaries should understand when adding an investment option structured as a CIT to their 401(k) plan line up.  This blog provides a number of examples of issues that plan fiduciaries who are not familiar with CITs could miss.
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