On December 21, 2021, the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) published a Supplemental Statement (the “Supplemental Statement”) to its June 3, 2020 Information Letter (the “2020 Letter”) addressing fiduciary considerations for including private equity within an investment option under an ERISA-covered defined contribution plan (e.g., a 401(k) or 403(b) plan).  In response to questions and reactions that the DOL received from a “range of stakeholders” regarding the 2020 Letter, as well as a “Risk Alert” that the SEC issued in June 2020 regarding compliance issues for managers of private equity and hedge funds, the Supplemental Statement advised that the 2020 Letter should not be “misread[] . . . as saying that PE – as a component of a designated investment alternative – is generally appropriate for a typical 401(k) plan.”

So how did we get here, and what does this mean?

Many investment options under defined contribution plans include exposure to private equity, and plan fiduciaries often consider adding new asset classes to plan lineups, or to investments within plan lineups, for diversification and potential upside.  For a long time, stakeholders have craved clarity on how ERISA’s fiduciary rules apply to these investments; and challenges to the prudence of alternative investment strategies are actively being litigated.

The 2020 Letter was welcomed by many because the DOL stated affirmatively that an investment option under a defined contribution plan could have an allocation to private equity—albeit “limited,” which the DOL suggested meant not more than 15%.  However, the 2020 Letter also had many caveats, including a statement that it did not address private equity being offered as a standalone investment option (noting that direct investments in private equity present “distinct legal and operational issues”), and highlighting a range of considerations for plan fiduciaries to address, with no safe harbor.  Still, its positive tone generated increased interest from plan fiduciaries and asset managers.

The Supplemental Statement is more cautionary, emphasizing that the DOL “did not endorse or recommend” offering designated investment alternatives with private equity components, and that it wanted “to ensure that plan fiduciaries do not expose plan participants and beneficiaries to unwarranted risks by misreading” the 2020 Letter as saying that these investments are “generally appropriate for a typical 401(k) plan.”

The Supplemental Statement highlights the following key points:

  • The DOL agrees with some stakeholders that representations in the 2020 Letter about the benefits of private equity investments were void of counter-arguments and research data from independent sources outside of the private equity industry.
  • Plan fiduciaries have a responsibility to be prudent in selecting and monitoring any investment alternative. Understanding and evaluating exposure to private equity is part of this responsibility.
  • As explained in the 2020 Letter, prudent evaluation of private equity requires specialized expertise. Fiduciaries considering private equity must have this expertise or seek it from qualified managers or advisers.  The DOL is concerned that a “typical” plan fiduciary might not have the expertise.

Ultimately, the Supplemental Statement does not change the bottom line from the 2020 Letter.  Limited private equity allocations within a defined contribution plan investment are still permitted.  The Supplemental Statement simply highlights the importance of rigorous analysis when evaluating the prudence of an investment, and it stresses the particular complexity of private equity.

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We doubt the Supplemental Statement will be the last word on this topic.  We will continue to monitor developments.

 

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Photo of Ira G. Bogner Ira G. Bogner

Ira G. Bogner is Managing Partner of the Firm. He is the immediate former chair of the Firm’s Tax Department. He is a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group and the Firm’s Executive Committee. Ira represents a varied list of…

Ira G. Bogner is Managing Partner of the Firm. He is the immediate former chair of the Firm’s Tax Department. He is a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group and the Firm’s Executive Committee. Ira represents a varied list of clients, including financial service companies, entertainment industry clients, and tax-exempt organizations, and also actively represents individual executives in executive compensation matters.

Ira counsels clients with respect to the tax, securities law disclosure, corporate governance, stock exchange and other requirements relevant to executive compensation arrangements. Ira also provides advice regarding equity arrangements, employment agreements, change in control agreements and all other types of executive compensation arrangements, including guidance regarding “409A,” “162m,” “457A,” and “280G.”

Ira frequently is called on to structure and analyze alternative investments for pension trusts and other exempt organizations. He also works with the Firm’s corporate and real estate lawyers in structuring and maintaining investment funds that include participation by pension plans. Through his work in the investment fund area Ira has obtained substantial experience in applying the rules provided under the “plan asset” regulations, including the operation of venture capital operating companies and real estate operating companies. He has assisted in the formation of private equity, real estate, infrastructure and hedge funds, including “fund of funds.” Ira also has advised clients on both avoiding ERISA “plan asset” status and operating an investment fund in accordance with ERISA.

Areas of Concentration

Ira has provided guidance to clients on a wide variety of matters in the areas of employee benefits and executive compensation, including:

  • investment of plan assets
  • implementation of employee benefit plans

  • employee benefit issues in mergers and acquisitions

  • awarding of equity-based compensation

  • negotiation and drafting of employment agreements and severance arrangements

  • structuring, analyzing and maintaining investment funds that are suitable for plan investors

Thought Leadership

Ira has published a number of articles in publications such as The New York Law Journal, The New Jersey Law Journal, The Daily Deal, The Journal of Pension Planning and Compliance, Mergers and Acquisitions (The Monthly Tax Journal), The Journal of Taxation and Regulation of Financial Institutions, The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, European Private Equity & Venture Capital Associations, The LPA Anatomised and Private Equity International and has been named to the Board of Advisors of the Journal of Taxation and Regulation of Financial Institutions. He also has lectured on topics such as the classification of workers, drafting employment agreements, equity alternatives for senior executives, investing IRA assets, the plan asset regulations, shareholder approval of equity plans, Code Section 409A, and key provisions for ERISA investors investing in a private equity fund.

Recognition

Ira has been recognized and ranked by various directories. US Legal 500 has carried the following comments: “Ira Bogner is ‘available, responsive and knowledgeable;” “Ira Bogner ‘provides a level of comfort with respect to business issues that is rare in the world of ERISA;” “Ira Bogner is the ‘go-to guy for fund sponsors needing help with ERISA.’”

Photo of Seth Safra Seth Safra

Seth J. Safra is chair of Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. Described by clients as “extremely knowledgeable, practical, and strategic,” Seth advises clients on compensation and benefit programs.

Seth’s experience covers a broad range of retirement plan designs, from traditional defined…

Seth J. Safra is chair of Proskauer’s Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. Described by clients as “extremely knowledgeable, practical, and strategic,” Seth advises clients on compensation and benefit programs.

Seth’s experience covers a broad range of retirement plan designs, from traditional defined benefit to cash balance and floor-offset arrangements, ESOPs and 401(k) plans—often coordinating qualified and non-qualified arrangements. He also advises tax-exempt and governmental employers on 403(b) and 457 arrangements, as well as innovative new plan designs; and he advises on ERISA compliance for investments.

On the health and welfare side, Seth helps employers provide benefits that are cost-effective and competitive. He advises on plan design, including consumer-driven health plans with HSAs, retiree medical, fringe benefits, and severance programs, ERISA preemption, and tax and other compliance issues, such as nondiscrimination and cafeteria plan rules.

Seth also advises for-profit and non-profit employers, compensation committees, and boards on executive employment, deferred compensation, change in control, and equity and other incentive arrangements. In addition, he advises on compensation and benefits in corporate transactions.

Seth represents clients before the Department of Labor, IRS and other government agencies.

Seth has been recognized by Chambers USA, The Legal 500, Best Lawyers, Law360, Human Resource Executive, Lawdragon and Super Lawyers.

Photo of Adam Scoll Adam Scoll

Adam Scoll is a partner in the Firm’s Tax Department and Private Funds Group.

He specializes in the area of Title I of ERISA and the investment of ERISA “plan assets,” advising both pension trusts and their investment managers and advisers with regard…

Adam Scoll is a partner in the Firm’s Tax Department and Private Funds Group.

He specializes in the area of Title I of ERISA and the investment of ERISA “plan assets,” advising both pension trusts and their investment managers and advisers with regard to compliance with ERISA’s complex fiduciary duty and prohibited transaction rules.

Adam regularly advises private investment fund sponsors regarding the structuring of their funds in order to accept investments from ERISA-covered pension trusts, including compliance with the ERISA “plan asset” regulations and the operation of venture capital operating companies (VCOCs) and real estate operating companies (REOCs).

Adam also represents both employers and senior executives in the negotiation and drafting of employment and separation agreements, deferred compensation plans, and equity and “phantom equity” arrangements, including compliance with the nonqualified deferred compensation rules under Sections 409A and 457A of the Internal Revenue Code.

Photo of Nicholas LaSpina Nicholas LaSpina

Nicholas LaSpina is a senior counsel in the Tax Department and a member of the employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group.