401(k) Plan Sponsors Should Look to CFA Code for Investment Governance.

By Christopher B. Tobe, CFA, CAIA

The CFA Institute Pension Trustee Code of Conduct (Code) sets the standard for ethical behavior for a pension plan’s governing body. [i] It is a global standard that applies to both defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC)plans, but I believe is consistent with ERISA fiduciary standards for 401(k) plans.   The Code has 10 fundamental principles of ethical best practices. I am going to focus on 5 of them, the areas where we see many plans falling short of the standards. 

Principle # 2. Act with prudence and reasonable care.  
The point regarding seeking appropriate levels of diversification[ii] is typically followed with most larger plans; but, we do see a number of mid-size and smaller plans taking single entity credit and liquidity risk in annuities and other insurance products. [iii] A particular non-diversified insurance product, lifetime income, is trying to break into even the largest plans, but with little success. [iv]

Another point is that service providers and consultants be independent and free of conflicts of interest. [v]  [vi]   Again, most larger plans hire independent providers, but we do see a number of mid-size and smaller plans hire dually registered consultants who not only are registered investment providers, but are also registered as brokers or insurance agents, with the ability to get a commission. [vii]

Principle #3. Act with skill, competence, and diligence.
Ignorance of a situation or an improper course of action on matters for which the trustee is responsible or should at least be aware is a violation of this code.   “Trustee” in this case refers to each individual on the 401(k) committee plus the plan as a whole. We have seen many 401(k) committee members lacking awareness of the investment details in options of the plan.

Specifically, this principle points out the need ror awareness of  how investments and securities are traded, their liquidity, and any other risks. Certain types of investments, such as hedge funds, private equity, or more sophisticated derivative instruments, necessitate more thorough investigation and understanding than do fundamental investments, such as straightforward and transparent equity, fixed-income, or mutual fund products. [viii]

With investments that have non-SEC regulated securities like illiquid contract-based products like crypto, [ix]  private equity,[x]  annuities and other insurance products, [xi]  many times the 401(k) committees are not aware of the risks and hidden fees and have not thoroughly investigated them on such matters, especially those buried in target date funds and in brokerage windows. 

Principle #5. Abide by all applicable laws
Generally, trustees are not expected to master the nuances of technical, complex law or become experts in compliance with pension regulation. Effective trustees …consult with professional advisers retained by the plan to provide technical expertise on applicable law and regulation. [xii]

Principle #3 suggests that assets that are not straightforward and transparent securities, such as crypto, private equity and annuities/insurance products contracts, require additional legal scrutiny.  I would assume that no crypto product would pass a good fiduciary law audit.  I would claim that it would be the fiduciary duty of the plan going into any private equity or annuity contract (separate account or general account) – to have a side letter in which the manager/or insurance company agrees to take.

1. ERISA Fiduciary duty

2 Provide liquidity if the investment experiences difficulty.  With insurance products, this can be done with a downgrade clause, i.e., “in the event that the insurance company’s debt is downgraded below investment grade by any major rating agency, the plan will be returned its contract value in cash within 30 days.”

3. “Most Favored Nation Clause, guaranteeing that the manager /insurance company does not provide a lower fee or higher rate to any other plans      

Ownership of underlying securities is key to a plan’s risk exposure, especially liquidity risk, and when complex instruments are involved, it is the duty of the plan committee to get competent legal advice on these investment contracts.

Principle #7. Take actions that are consistent with policies
Effective trustees develop and implement comprehensive written investment policies that guide the investment decisions of the plan (the “policies”). Most of the largest plans have Investment Policy Statements (IPS). The Code expects any plan to have them.   

I believe any plan without an IPS is in fiduciary breach. I believe many conflicted consultants, as discussed in Principle #2, recommend that plans do not draft an IPS since it would expose their own conflicts. Most of the riskier assets in Principles #3 and #5, like crypto, private equity and annuities, would not be allowed under a well written IPS due to the excessive risks and hidden fees involved.

Trustees should … draft written policies that include a discussion of risk tolerances, return objectives, liquidityrequirements, liabilities, tax considerations, and any legal, regulatory, or other unique circumstances. Review and approve the plan’s investment policiesas necessary, but at least annually, to ensure that the policies remain current. [xiii]   Some plans may have an Investment Policy Statement (IPS), but do not regularly review it or apply it rigorously to their investments.

Select investment options within the context of the stated mandates or strategies and appropriate asset allocation. Establish policy frameworks within which to allocate risk for both asset allocation policy risk and active riskas well as frameworks within which to monitor performance of the asset allocation policies and the risk of the overall pension plan. [xiv]

While asset allocation is a major component of DB plans – US DC plans now have over 50% of their assets in asset allocated investments, primarily target date funds.[xv]  In most plans, the target date funds are the Qualified Default Investment Alternative (QDIA), which makes it essential that each target date sleave be addressed in the Investment Policy Statement.

Principle #10. Communicate with participants in a transparent manner.
While the DOL forces some fee disclosure on each plan investment, it is not complete with non-securities like crypto, private equity and annuities as standalone options[xvi], in brokerage windows or inside target date funds. [xvii]

Revenue sharing is a shady non-transparent way some plans make their own participants pay for administrative costs; it does not hold up under these CFA standards in my opinion. [xviii]

Given the similarity between ERISA’s fiduciary requirements and the CFA Institute Pension Trustee Code of Conduct, 401(k) plan sponsors could greatly mitigate their litigation risk by looking at the Code. Furthermore, it is just the prudent and the right thing to do as a fiduciary.

Chris Tobe, CFA, CAIA is the Chief Investment Officer with Hackett Robertson Tobe (HRT) a minority owned SEC registered investment advisor and recently was awarded the CFA certificate in ESG investing.  At HRT Tobe is leading up the institutional investment consulting practice for both DB and DC Pension plans.  He also does legal expert work on pension investment cases.  

Past industry experience includes consulting stints at New England Pension Consultants (NEPC) and Fund Evaluation Group. Tobe served on investment committee of the Delta Tau Delta Foundation for over 20 years served as a Trustee and on the Investment Committee for the $13 billion Kentucky Retirement Systems from 2008-12. Chris has published articles on pension investing in the Financial Analysts Journal, Journal of Investment Consulting and Plan Sponsor Magazine. Chris has been quoted in numerous publications including Forbes, Bloomberg, Reuters, Pensions & Investments and the Wall Street Journal.  

Chris earned an MBA in Finance and Accounting from Indiana University Bloomington and his undergraduate degree in Economics from Tulane University.  He has the taught the MBA investment course at the University of Louisville and has served as President of the CFA Society of Louisville.  As a public pension trustee in, he completed both the Program for Advanced Trustee Studies at Harvard Law School and the Fiduciary College at Stanford University.

[i] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[ii] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[iii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/05/11/annuities-are-a-fiduciary-breach/    and

[iv] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/10/401k-lifetime-income-a-fiduciary-minefield/

[v] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[vi] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/07/24/401k-background-checks/

[vii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/03/09/conflicted-401k-consultants-should-plan-sponsors-fire-them-sue-them-or-both/

[viii] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[ix] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/06/18/brokerage-windows-exposed-by-crypto/

[x] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/15/private-equity-in-401k-plans-a-ticking-time-bomb/

[xi] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/05/11/annuities-are-a-fiduciary-breach/    and

[xii] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[xiii] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[xiv] http://www.cfainstitute.org/-/media/documents/code/other-codes-standards/pension-trustee-code-of-conduct-2019.pdf

[xv] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/04/30/problems-with-target-date-funds/

[xvi] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2167341

[xvii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/06/07/toxic-target-date-case-study-of-the-worst-of-the-worst/

[xviii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/10/03/record-keeping-costs-and-the-war-against-transparency/

G in the ESG is Governance = Fiduciary Accountability

Republican Attorney Generals across the US have declared that ESG investing is a fiduciary breach because it underperforms typical historic investments, even  though they offer no proof.    While there can be bad ESG funds with poor performance, high fees and low transparency, that generally has little to do with the ESG part.  There have been over 2000 studies on the investment performance of ESG funds, with over 50% showing that ESG has a positive performance effect and 30% showing neutral results. Only 10% of the studies support the attorneys generals’ claim.[i]   

While all the factors Environment (E), Social Responsibility (S), and Governance (G) had positive factors on performance, G was the highest at over 60%.     A good example of ESG dumping losers is when S&P ESG index dumped Tesla from its index May 2022 when its price was over $317 a share and, by year end 2022, was down to 65% to $112 a share.  S&P cited governance related codes of business conduct, lack of transparent reporting on breaches, and the occurrence of corruption and bribery cases and anti-competitive practices as bases for its decision. S&P also cited Tesla’s handling of the NHTSA investigation following multiple deaths and injuries were linked to its autopilot vehicles. [ii] The dominance of single board member, as is the case with Tesla, is considered a substantial weakness in governance,

Governance has focused on corporate governance of public regulated securities.  The Council of Institutional Investors in the US has developed an extensive and effective framework for dealing with governance issues in public securities. [iii]  The CFA institute has developed an ESG certificate and curriculum, including governance, whose factors highlight overall transparency, accountability and financial integrity, as well boards independence and expertise [iv] There needs to be more upstream applications of governance in investments, first to money managers, consultants, and to the boards of retirement plans and other asset owners

As we have found out with Crypto, the structure of real asset matters. The best structure is to directly own a regulated liquid security that is transparent in your own independent custodial account. This structure allows institutions, such as CII, to have the ability to control and monitor their own individual assets and have complete transparency of the management including fees and commissions associated with trades.  Another good structure is owning a regulated liquid security within a SEC registered mutual fund.  Collective investment trusts (CIT’s) can be a good structure or a bad structure.[v] 

Like crypto, many the most vocal ESG large institutional investors have a blind spot for gof investment structure.     Private equity and hedge funds have an extreme lack of transparency and liquidity, as evidenced by the fact that it has been shown that most investors have no idea of how much they pay in fees and expenses and they even lie about their ESG attributes.  

New York State and New York City claim to have strong ESG policies. Yet they invest in have private quity firms with horrible ESG records.[vi]   Ownership via a contract has few of the protections that a registered security.  M of such firms any are domiciled in the Cayman Islands, which seems to be for the benefit of the managers.[vii]  Many of these contracts absolve the manager of fiduciary duty and push the risk onto the asset owner.

The majority of 401(k) plan investment options are in transparent SEC registered mutual funds. However, there are significant retirement assets that are not owned by participants directly, but via non-transparent and high fee annuity contracts.  These annuity contracts absolve the insurance company of fiduciary duty and push the risk onto the participants, who then have to sue the plan sponsor if they feel they are wronged.   I believe that a plan sponsor who puts participants in non-transparent annuity contracts as breaching their fiduciary duty. [viii]

Regulation does matter.   For US based asset owners, we have seen the collapse of totally unregulated investments like Crypto.   We have private equity and hedge funds that are lightly regulated by the SEC .  Federal regulation matters.   Annuities and insurance products can cherry pick the weakest state regulator among the fifty states.  CIT providers could use the Federal OCC, but mostly choose to use the weakest state bank regulator they can find.

ESG ratings of corporate governance look at regulatory violations. [ix]  Violations such as EPA fines for pollution and labor violations, are looked at by ESG analysts.   However, many retirement plan and asset owners seem oblivious to continuous violations from asset managers like Wells Fargo and others for violations that include fee gauging and fiduciary breaches. [x]

Good governance is great for investors and should be encouraged.  I think these governance principles are consistent with one’s fiduciary duties and need to be expanded.    Fiduciaries should follow solid governance by buying real stocks and bonds they can own, instead of fake assets like crypto and/or vague contracts for firms domiciled in the Caymans or regulated by the state of Iowa.   Fiduciaries using common sense governance principles should avoid companies that have been fined for fiduciary breaches by the government.   

Chris Tobe, CFA, CAIA,  was recently awarded the CFA Institute Certificate for ESG investing.  He is Chief Investment Officer for the Hackett Group, where he helps manage an ESG Racial Justice Impact Fund.

[i] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/20430795.2015.1118917

[ii] https://www.indexologyblog.com/2022/05/17/the-rebalancing-act-of-the-sp-500-esg-index/

[iii] https://www.cii.org/    

[iv] https://www.cfainstitute.org/en/programs/esg-investing/

[v] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/22/cits-collective-investment-trusts-in-401k-the-good-and-the-bad/

[vi] https://www.levernews.com/the-private-equity-black-box-pours-new-york-pensions-touting-divestment-into-fossil-fuels/

[vii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/15/private-equity-in-401k-plans-a-ticking-time-bomb/

[viii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/05/11/annuities-are-a-fiduciary-breach/

[ix] https://violationtracker.goodjobsfirst.org/

[x] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/07/24/401k-background-checks/

Toxic Target Date – Case Study of the Worst of the Worst

by Chris Tobe

50 percent of all 401(k) assets are in target date funds.   I believe Target Date Funds were created to sustain higher fees.    The least transparent Target Date Funds are those that are not SEC registered mutual funds.  Many are in poorly state regulated annuities either in whole or in part.   Many are in poorly state regulated Collective Investment Trusts (CIT)s    Many CIT’s can hide private equity or annuities and their many hidden fees and risks.  Many, if not most, CIT based Target Date Funds and all annuity TDF’s are a fiduciary breach based on the higher risks alone, not to mention the excessive fees.[i]

Weak Regulation
There is a general assumption that CIT’s are regulated by the Federal Government Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).  Some CIT’s are regulated by the OCC while many others are regulated by one of 50 state bank regulators.   This allows CITs to choose their own state regulator who may have the laxest oversight. [ii]  While the SEC mutual fund regulations are not perfect, they do control for a lot of risks and provide a good amount of transparency

Prudential Day One Target Date funds provide this disclosure to plans:

Unlike mutual funds, the Day One Funds, as insurance company separate accounts or collective investment trusts, are exempt from Securities and Exchange Commission registration under both the Securities Act of 1933 and the Investment Company Act of 1940 but are subject to oversight by state banking or insurance regulators, as applicable. Therefore, investors are generally not entitled to the protections of the federal securities laws.[iii]

Principal provides this disclosure:  

The CITs are not mutual funds and are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the State of Oregon, or any other regulatory body.

The Collective Trust and the Funds intend to qualify for the exclusion from the definition of an “investment company” under the 1940 Act provided for by Section 3(c)(11) of the 1940 Act. The Section 3(c)(11) exclusion is available for collective investment funds maintained by a bank consisting solely of assets of certain employee benefit plans. Accordingly, Participating Trusts will not have the benefit of the protections afforded by the 1940 Act (which, among other things, requires investment companies to have governing boards of directors with a majority of disinterested directors and regulates the relationship between the adviser and the investment company). The offering of units of the Funds (each, a “Unit”) has not been registered under the U.S. securities laws or the laws of any applicable jurisdiction. Therefore, Participating Trusts will not have the benefit of the protections afforded by the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) under the Securities Act of 1933 (the “1933 Act”) (which, among other things, requires specified disclosure in connection with the offering of securities). Neither the SEC nor any state securities commission has approved or disapproved of the Units or determined if this document is accurate or complete. Any representation to the contrary is a criminal offense

In these cases, it appears these target date funds are avoiding SEC and any kind of federal regulation.   The only state regulator with any standards close to the SEC is New York and most of these funds avoid NY regulation whenever possible.

How can any fiduciary subject to Federal ERISA laws use for its main investment options target date funds that go out of their way to avoid Federal oversight?

Toxic Assets
A major reason to avoid SEC oversight is to put in investments which are not allowed in SEC registered mutual funds because of risk.  The other reason is to load up on assets with hidden fees which will not be disclosed under the current weak regulation.

Private equity, along with other illiquid contract investments like hedge funds, private debt, real estate is a potential fiduciary time bomb for plans and their participants. In target date funds even a small allocation to a Target Date Fund, with the excessive risk, lack of outperformance and excessive fees seem to make it a fiduciary risk. [iv]   

A disclosure from Principal:

A differentiating aspect…..is exposure to alternatives (hedge fund strategies).[v]   ….. Given the managers approach to asset allocation (more equities and alternatives)…. Exposure to nontraditional (commodities, natural resources, and real estate) and alternative (hedge fund strategies) asset classes is a differentiating aspect from a style perspective relative to the peer group

Principal LifeTime Hybrid CITs may invest in various types of investments including Principal Funds, Inc. institutional class shares, Principal Life

Insurance Company Separate Accounts and other collective investment trusts and mutual funds.The risks associated with derivative investments include …that there may be no liquid secondary market, Investing in real estate  securities, subjects the Fund to the risks associated with the real estate market (which are similar to the risks associated with direct ownership in real estate), including declines in real estate values, loss due to casualty or condemnation, property taxes, interest, rate changes, increased expenses, cash flow of underlying real estate assets, regulatory changes (including zoning, land use and rents) and environmental problems, as well as to the risks related to the management skill and creditworthiness of the issuer.

Like high-risk hedge funds Prudential, Principal and others have the contractual right to put up gates and restrict liquidity if they are downgraded or in danger of default.  They can refuse to give the plan/participant their money at any time which would be illegal in a SEC registered mutual fund

I spent 7 years at Transamerica making insurance annuity 401k products   Anytime an insurance company puts something in an annuity form, they take ownership of the underlying securities put it on their balance sheet and squeeze out another 150 bps or more in spread fees.  Anytime something is put in an insurance company Separate Account, same thing they take ownership and lock in a spread. 

These annuities do not have SEC mutual fund oversight, and the plan does not own the underlying SEC registered securities, the insurance company does.   I make the argument that any annuity is a fiduciary breach. [vi]

Prudential Day One Funds may be offered as: (i) insurance company separate accounts available under group variable annuity contracts issued by Prudential Retirement Insurance and Annuity Company (PRIAC),

Sub-Advised Investment Options include Separate Accounts available through a group annuity contract with Principal Life Insurance Co.

Target Date Funds are so opaque that the actual fees and profits are hard to pin down.  I estimate that many could approach 200 basis points or more.  

Principal Target dates have 13 underlying funds 5 insurance company separate accounts (annuities), 4 CIT’s, 4 proprietary mutual funds, for a total of 25 share classes.

The disclosed fees are even way above most providers, so any plan using these is not trying to minimize fees.

Any plan sponsor who invests in one of these black hole CIT funds deserves to be sued.   I guess that in many cases there is a so-called consultant receiving a huge undisclosed insurance commission.

One of my favorite disclosures:

The ultimate decision as to whether a Principal LifeTime Hybrid CIT is an appropriate investment option for a plan and whether a target date fund can serve as a QDIA belongs to the appropriate retirement plan fiduciaries.

interpret this disclosure as the insurance company way of saying “if you are stupid enough to buy our high fee high risk products, it is on you, not us.”

[i] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/04/30/problems-with-target-date-funds/

[ii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/22/cits-collective-investment-trusts-in-401k-the-good-and-the-bad/

[iii] https://www.prudential.com/advisors/investments/day-one-target-date-funds/cit-funds

[iv] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/15/private-equity-in-401k-plans-a-ticking-time-bomb/

[v] ADM-Ferguson 00172, ADM-Ferguson 001712 among 81

[vi] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/05/11/annuities-are-a-fiduciary-breach/


Problems With Target Date Funds

by Chris Tobe, CFA, CAIA

Target Date Funds now are above 50% of all 401(k) assets.[i]   They are the most non-transparent plan investment option and the easiest to hide fees and play performance games.   They are also the dominant default option or QDIA (Qualified Default Investment Alternatives) resulting in the highest level of fiduciary responsibility.    Despite the high level of fiduciary risk, they are specifically designed to avoid accountability and thus need the most scrutiny. 

A 2021 study shows that in general Target Date funds cause participants to “lose 21%” over career to primarily excessive fees from proprietary funds.[ii]  A 2020 study finds that asset managers exploit reduced investor attention (i.e. lack of transparency) to deliver lower performance.[iii]

The history of the Target Date Fund, I believe, is mainly a story about Fidelity.   I think around 2002 they saw Vanguard and indexing as their biggest threat.  Fidelity needed a new vehicle to hide the fees for active mutual funds and created the Target Date Fund. 

With heavy lobbying by Fidelity, in 2006 the Pension Protection Act was passed. This act allowed for auto-enrollment of target-date funds into defined contribution plans and set the stage for QDIAs (Qualified Default Investment Alternatives), which strongly supported the growth of these funds.[iv] 

Fidelity had Target Date Funds ready to go before the legislation was passed and dominated in market share immediately, and still keep the highest levels today.  This gave them basically a 10-year ride from 2006-16 in which they could load-up their higher fee active funds in target date funds with little or no pushback.   Starting around 6 years ago there has been a shifting inside Fidelity’s target date funds toward greater indexing. 

After choosing a record keeper or administrator, most plans automatically default to the Target Date Funds of that company.   A prudent process would be to have a competitive bid, but most 401(k) committees make selections based on informal processes and relationships. 

Many times, the target date and administrative fees are commingled in the Target Date funds using revenue sharing to create a total lack of transparency.[v]

This record keeping default fuels the 2021 study showing that Target Date funds cause participants to “lose 21%” of their end-returns over their career due primarily to excessive fees from proprietary funds [vi]

A 2020 study found that the average higher-cost actively managed target date funds failed to perform as well as the cheaper indexed competition in the 2015-2019 period.[vii] Some of the actively managed funds did very well in relative terms, but most did not. We found that past performance is only weakly predictive of future performance. The implication is that even an active fund with a superior record has an expected future return below the passive alternative TDFs.

However, even within a record keeper’s Target Date Fund selections, there can be a wide variety of fee levels (especially with market leader Fidelity) in which 401(k) committees can make better fiduciary decisions. The burden is on the plan fiduciary to show why they are not selecting an index fund for the Target Date Fund the QDIA. 

The least transparent Target Date Funds are those that are not SEC registered mutual funds.  Many are in poorly state regulated annuities either in whole or in part.   Many are in poorly state regulated Collective Investment Trusts (CIT)s. [viii]  There are a few good CITs like the Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price that are clones of their SEC mutual funds at a lower cost.   Many CIT’s can hide private equity or annuities and their many hidden fees and risks. [ix]

Many, if not most, CIT based Target Date Funds and all the annuity TDF’s are a fiduciary breach based on the higher risks alone, not to mention the excessive fees.

Many plans rely on consultants to guide them in the selection of Target Date Funds.  However, some consultants have conflicts in which they are compensated more for high fee non-index funds in backdoor payments.  Plans blaming consultants on poor Target Date Fund choices does not absolve them from fiduciary liability, but in some cases they have been able to get conflicted consultants to pay a portion of the settlement. [x]

High fee Target Date Funds typically justify their existence by some manipulation of a benchmarks.   They may hold investments which are not in the benchmark, which create different performance and risk characteristics.   They may use different allocations, mostly to higher equity positions, to create the appearance of higher returns. 

A 2020 study shows Target Date Funds ‘Create a Lack of Accountability”[xi] For example a 2040 T. Rowe or American Fund can appear to outperform a 2040 Vanguard fund because it has a 90/10 equity allocation compared to 80/20 with Vanguard.   “Target Date Fund managers engage in fee-skimming by charging higher fees on the less observable, more opaque underlying funds” [xii]  Opaque funds can be illiquid high-risk alternatives like private equity and hedge funds & annuities.

In some cases, the courts have given active managers the benefit of the doubt on their claim that it is conceivable they could outperform index plans, especially in down markets. The validity of this market-based argument has become harder. The recent Supreme Court decision letting the appeal in Brotherston vs Putnam Investments, LLC stand upholds the use of index funds for benchmarking purposes in calculating damages – regardless of performance.[xiii]

Plans should always document in their 401(k) plan minutes the following regarding Target Date Funds:

  • The plan’s investment policy statement should include provisions on selecting and monitoring Target Date Funds.  Does it address each asset class involved in the plan including inside the Target Date Funds?
  • Each asset class in each Target Date Fund should be fully evaluated in terms of risk, fees, and performance as if they were a standalone option. 
  • Assets that are not SEC registered mutual funds or registered securities such as private equity, annuities need additional scrutiny and documentation.
  • Additional documentation, including a Request For Proposals (RFP), should be required if the plan is using a recordkeeper vendor’s proprietary Target Date Funds.
  • Select an appropriate benchmark to evaluate each asset class in the funds.  Compare and justify the attributes of your fund if it has differences with the benchmark
  • Understand the different fees and compare fund family fees, bearing in mind that Target Date Funds have multiple layers of fees.
  • Do a RFP for Target Date Funds at least every 5 years.
  • Carefully document the reasons that the fund was selected.
  • Regularly monitor the funds.
  • Document any and all reasons for not removing retained funds if performance has lagged peer funds.

Target Date Funds are now above 50% of all 401(k) assets.[xiv] They deserve a 50% level of fiduciary oversight or even more because of their lack of transparency. 

[i]  https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3729750

[ii] https://www.kiplinger.com/investing/mutual-funds/602705/the-disturbing-conflicts-of-interest-in-target-date-funds

[iii] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3729750

[iv] https://mutualfunds.com/retirement-channel/history-target-date-funds/

[v] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/04/02/revenue-sharing-in-401k-plans/

[vi] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3729750

[vii] AN ANALYSIS OF THE PERFORMANCE OF TARGET DATE FUNDS John B. Shoven and Daniel B. Walton, https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w27971/w27971.pdf   Oct.2020

[viii] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/22/cits-collective-investment-trusts-in-401k-the-good-and-the-bad/

[ix] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/02/15/private-equity-in-401k-plans-a-ticking-time-bomb/

[x] https://commonsense401kproject.com/2022/03/09/conflicted-401k-consultants-should-plan-sponsors-fire-them-sue-them-or-both/

[xi] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3729750

[xii] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3729750

[xiii] https://www.plansponsor.com/supreme-court-will-not-weigh-burden-proof-index-fund-comparison/

[xiv] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3729750

Private Equity in 401(k) Plans: A Ticking Time Bomb

Private Equity along with other illiquid contract investments like hedge funds, private debt, real estate are a potential Fiduciary Time Bomb for plans and their participants

Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Eileen Appelbaum recently said “Much as private equity firms may wish it were different, they have been mostly unable to worm their way into workers’ 401(k)s and abscond with their retirement savings,[i] from a series of articles on how the new Trump DOL rules were connected to massive political donations by the Private Equity industry.[ii]  

A report by University of Oxford professor Ludovic Phalippou shows that in the last 15 years, private equity firms generally have not provided better returns to investors than low-fee stock index funds. Prof. Phalippou has shown excess mostly hidden fees and expenses to exceed 6% killing net returns. [iii]    

Noted founder of investment consulting firm Richard Ennis in quoting Beath & Flynn 2020 study says that private equity (as a class of investment) in fact ceased to be a source of value-added more than a decade ago. [iv] 

Jeff Hooke of Johns Hopkins book the “Myth of Private Equity” goes into great detail on an asset class and its numerous fiduciary flaws.  He documents that many performance claims are made up by the managers with no independent verification and are greatly exaggerated. [v]

The plan as I see it is to bury Private Equity into Target Date Funds where they can hide these Fiduciary Time bombs collect the massive fees and hope that they do not blow up.   Their main claim for inclusion is excessive performance which is dubious at best.

A Private Equity like structure technically private debt has cost JP Morgan over $400 million in damages in 401(k) litigation.  This private debt was put in a JP Morgan CIT, which was put in JPM broad bond CIT, with was put in a JPM stable value CIT.[vi] [vii] This type of layering is what I expect to see in Target Date CIT’s.

Former SEC Attorney Ted Siedle goes over the Fiduciary Breaches common in most Private Equity funds in his Forbes Column that should make any fiduciary nervous.  [viii]

1.   Private equity offering documents generally prominently state (in capital, bold letters) that an investment in a private equity fund is speculative, involves a high degree of risk, and is suitable only for persons who are willing and able to assume the risk of losing their entire investment.  

2. Largely “unconstrained” and may change investment strategies at any time.  Can engage in borrowing, or leverage, on a moderate or unlimited basis.  No assurance of diversification since funds generally reserve the right to invest 100 percent of their assets in one investment.  Heightened offshore legal, regulatory, operational and custody risk.

3. Myriad conflicts of interest, self-dealing practices. The investment manager determines the value of the securities held by the fund. Such valuation affects both reported fund performance as well as the calculation of the management fee and any performance fee payable to the manager. [ix] Naked Capitalism writes “The toothless and captured Institutional Limited Partners Association has proposed a fee disclosure template which has gone nowhere.”[x]  It is widely known there is a massive underreporting of fees.

4. Business practices that may violate ERISA. Private equity fund offering documents often disclose that investors agree to permit managers to withhold complete and timely disclosure of material information regarding assets in their funds. Further, the fund may have agreed to permit the investment manager to retain absolute discretion to provide certain mystery investors with greater information and the managers are not required to disclose such arrangements. As a result, the fund you invest in is at risk that other unknown investors are profiting at its expense—stealing from you. Finally, the offering documents often warn that the nondisclosure policies may violate applicable laws. That is, certain practices in which the fund’s managers engage may be acceptable to high-net-worth individuals (or unknown to them) but violate laws applicable to ERISA plans. [xi]

5.  Lack of disclosure has led to numerous violations some pointed out by the SEC, others pertaining to IRS like monitoring fees tax law violations and management fee waivers tax law violations.

These 5 points are a very abbreviated list of Former SEC Attorney Ted Siedle’s column on the Fiduciary Breaches in Private Equity funds in his 8/23/20 Forbes Column.  [xii]

Even a small allocation to a Target Date Fund, with the excessive risk, lack of outperformance and excessive fees seem to make it a Fiduciary Risk.

If you have underlying Private Equity or are seriously considering it, get an independent legal opinion (from a firm that does not represent PE firms) that the actual underlying Private Equity contract passes ERIA fiduciary muster.   Make sure your fiduciary liability insurance covers Private Equity many do not.

While the Trump DOL “get out of jail free card” letter may protect a plan from Department of Labor action on Private Equity, you are making a dangerous bet in litigation, that the judge will block transparency and discovery of these contracts. 

With no proven performance advantage, grossly excessive fees, and numerous fiduciary issues there seems to be nothing but harm in adding Private Equity into your 401(k) plan.

Chris Tobe, CFA, CAIA is an expert on Private Equity Corruption writing the book Kentucky Fried Pensions, and dozens of articles..  http://www.christobe.com/alternatives/

[i] https://www.dailyposter.com/biden-reversal-gives-wall-street-a-big-win/

[ii] https://www.dailyposter.com/news-trump-just-fulfilled-his-billionaire/

[iii] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3623820  an Inconvenient Fact Private Equity Returns U.of Oxford  Ludovic Phalippou

[iv] https://richardmennis.com/blog/how-to-improve-institutional-fund-performance

[v] https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-myth-of-private-equity/9780231198820

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/business/jpmorgan-discloses-it-lost-in-arbitration-to-american-century.html

[vii] https://casetext.com/brief/whitley-v-jp-morgan-chase-co-et-al_memorandum-of-law-in-opposition-re-49-motion-to-dismiss-first-amended

[viii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2020/08/23/trump-dolsec-fail-to-warn-401ks-about-massive-private-equity-dangers/?sh=62e7fb7eb808

[ix] https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2020/08/23/trump-dolsec-fail-to-warn-401ks-about-massive-private-equity-dangers/?sh=62e7fb7eb808

[x] https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2022/02/sec-set-to-lower-massive-boom-on-private-equity-industry.html?

[xi] https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2020/08/23/trump-dolsec-fail-to-warn-401ks-about-massive-private-equity-dangers/?sh=62e7fb7eb808

[xii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsiedle/2020/08/23/trump-dolsec-fail-to-warn-401ks-about-massive-private-equity-dangers/?sh=62e7fb7eb808