A Report on Yet Another Reporting Issue for Private Equity and Other Investment Funds

Section 404(a)(1) of ERISA generally requires a fiduciary to act in the interest of participants and beneficiaries and to act prudently. ERISA also requires, under Section 103(b)(3)(A), an annual report which includes a financial statement containing, among other things, a statement of assets and liabilities "valued at their current value." Current value is to be determined in good faith by a trustee or named fiduciary.

A July 1, 2008, letter from James Benages of the DOL's Boston office has made its way around the market. There, he considers a plan which was invested in a number of alternative investments ("AIs" (no relationship to the Kubrick/Spielberg movie, at least I don't think so)), and which apparently took a fairly common approach to the Form 5500 reporting thereof. For example, one particular AI was valued at cost by the applicable committee "based on the general partner's unaudited Capital Account Balance Statement" for the period in question "and the accompanying audited financial statements." Another was valued according to the general partner's unaudited determination of fair market value.

The July 1 letter states that (i) not only has the committee "failed to establish a process to determine the most accurate fair market value," but cost and fair market value have been "equate[d]," (ii) such failure violates ERISA's "solely in the interest" requirement, and (iii) as a result, in the DOL's view, the committee "is in violation of ERISA and will remain so until it takes corrective action." Before discussing Section 502(l) and the possibility of action by other governmental agencies and third parties, the July 1 letter kindly comforts that, if corrective action is taken, no lawsuit will be brought by the DOL.

The issues implicated by the July 1 letter are significant. Many private equity and other investment funds provide valuations on the bases noted in the letter, and plan fiduciaries would not ordinarily be expected to have the information required to second-guess the available valuations or the expertise to do so even if they had the information.

The DOL's approach seems to raise the specter that making an investment not practically susceptible to ready valuation is somehow a per se violation of Section 404(a)(1) of ERISA. The July 1 letter seems expressly to tie the "sole purpose" requirement to the reporting requirement, although the connection isn't particularly clear. There's also a more oblique reference to the Section 404(a)(1)((B) prudence requirement, not tied specifically to the reporting issue. Is the DOL implying that it is per se imprudent for a fiduciary to invest in a difficult-to-value investment, without special valuation efforts?

What would be the effect of there being a Section 404(a)(1) violation merely because an investment is not subject to valuation? Several alternatives seem possible.

Maybe the plan would demand that the fund provide appraised valuations. A number of funds, however, would presumably not be anxious to engage an appraiser, whether because of an unwillingness to develop and distribute the valuation, an unwillingness to spend the time and money on the valuation or an unwillingness to share the underlying information with the appraiser.

Maybe the plan would do its own analysis. However, any number of plans presumably would not have the time or inclination to do so.

Maybe the plan would ask for additional factual information to facilitate the plan's valuation efforts. It is by no means clear that the fund would provide such information.

Or maybe the plan would simply decide it's not worth the effort. To someone who does not appreciate AIs, maybe this result is somehow acceptable.

But is it? It is not up to non-experts to decide that a class of investments is suboptimal, whether or not there are experts out there who might agree. Clearly, AIs have enthusiastic support as a part of an overall portfolio from a wide range of investment professionals, and it is up to the responsible fiduciary to make the actual investment decision. The fact that support is not unanimous is a fact to be taken into account by the responsible fiduciary.

I recognize that there are those who will disagree, even vehemently. (I'm ducking already.) Some have made the argument that there is no possible way that an unvalued/unvaluable investment can be prudent. I would point out that almost by definition such a conclusion has been rejected as a business matter by substantial portions of the market - the investments are in fact being made, often by the most sophisticated of investment professionals. (If Warren Buffett were to offer me the opportunity to invest in a black box of managed investments for a 10-year term with no information and a de minimis fee, would I be imprudent to make the investment? Maybe I'd be imprudent not to do so.)

To me, one of the areas (the only one?!) in which ERISA has consistently been lauded is its use of modern portfolio theory and deference to the expert fiduciaries regarding portfolio choices. Notwithstanding the apparent trend of some in the government to pretend that they are competent to decide what plans can invest in, as evidenced by the recent and possibly continuing commodities-legislation debacle, ERISA arguably has no legitimate role in trying to identify specified types of investments as imprudent per se. ERISA should not be responsible for depriving the most sophisticated managers from being unable to access, on behalf of ERISA plans, the most sophisticated investments.

A potential gut reaction is that this whole issue is a tempest in a teapot - if plans are made unable to invest in AIs in the absence of developed valuation information, the funds will naturally come up with improved information. However, the dust-up of several years ago where governmental investment put funds' confidentiality at risk, resulting in an unwillingness of some funds to accept government-plan investment, shows that there could come a point at which funds will indeed turn their back on money over regulatory issues. Further, even if the market would adjust, there is a question of whether it should have to adjust.

To me, the first step is to limit the analysis to where it belongs. The level of valuation information to be given over time by a fund should be considered another factor, not some super-factor, taken into account by a court in analyzing whether, on all facts and circumstances, the fiduciary has satisfied its Section 404(a)(1) obligations. It is suggested here that the lack of a draconian penalty for violating Part 1 requirements doesn't mean that those violations are somehow magically converted into Part 4 violations (any more so than would be in the case of, for example, a failure to distribute an SPD).

That still leaves Section 103(b)(3)(A), which applies on its face to require fair-value reporting. The reporting obligations help get information out to participants and beneficiaries, and bear upon the plan's funded status. In this latter regard, if the valuation information is inaccurate, the entire funding regime is potentially compromised. If I invest in a company with $100 million in reported assets, and the company assets are "really" only worth $1 million, my investment may well not be all I thought it was. A plan's funded status could be similarly misrepresented.

One possible interesting solution would be to focus on the practicalities of the situation (thanks to Andrew Gaines for talking this through with me). As a practical matter, AIs are likely to constitute only a small percentage of a plan's total portfolio, being there to provide a potential large maximum return as to a portion of the portfolio deemed suitable by the experts for investment at higher risks. If a concern is that overreporting of asset value could somehow place a plan at risk (or, in the case of underreporting, give rise to excessive deductible plan contributions), maybe an answer could be to allow reasonable reporting based on information disseminated in accordance with market practice (e.g., historical cost or GP estimates), but only as to a portion of the plan's portfolio not to exceed certain percentages. Presumably, given the role of AIs in most portfolios, this percentage could be made fairly low without excessive market dislocation.

AIs can form a critical part of a plan's investment strategy, and in some cases probably account in part for superior overall performance. The point here is not to argue that AIs are or are not smart investments; rather the point is to argue that the question of investment choice is for the investment professional, and that it would be unfortunate if the reporting rules were to serve as an impediment to the making of an otherwise permissible investment at the direction of a responsible plan fiduciary.