I have to confess that the DOL’s 404(a)(5) regulations are not among my favorite. There is something about these regulations that make my eyes glaze over, and yet I know I will face more questions from family members at Thanksgiving about these regulations than about anything else happening in plan-land this year. Just when I thought I had read everything to do with these regulations, the Dept. of Labor issued a revised Field Assistance Bulletin 2012-02 yesterday (July 30, 2012), designated as Field Assistance Bulletin 2012-02R. It supersedes Field Assistance Bulletin 2012-02 which was issued on May 7, 2012. (Spoiler Alert: The DOL did not extend the Aug. 30, 2012 disclosure deadline.)
It is interesting that the DOL decided to supersede FAB 2012-02 and issue FAB 2012-02R because FAB 2012-02R only contains 2 changes from FAB 2012-02.
First, Q&A-30 from FAB 2012-02 has been deleted from FAB 2012-02R. Q&A-30 said:
Q-30: A plan offers an investment platform consisting of a large number of registered mutual funds of multiple fund families into which participants and beneficiaries may direct the investment of assets held in or contributed to their individual accounts. Although the plan fiduciary selected the platform provider, the fiduciary did not designate any of the funds on the platform as “designated investment alternatives” under the plan. Is this platform itself a designated investment alternative for purposes of the regulation?
A-30: Paragraph (h)(4) of the regulation specifies that a brokerage window or similar arrangement is not a “designated investment alternative.” A platform consisting of multiple investment alternatives would not itself be a designated investment alternative. Whether the individual investment alternatives are designated investment alternatives depends on whether they are specifically identified as available under the plan. As the Department explained in the preamble to the final regulation (75 FR 64910), when a plan assigns investment responsibilities to the plan’s participants and beneficiaries, it is the view of the Department that plan fiduciaries must take steps to ensure that participants and beneficiaries are made aware of their rights and responsibilities with respect to managing their individual plan accounts and are provided sufficient information regarding the plan, including its fees and expenses and designated investment alternatives, to make informed decisions about the management of their individual accounts. Although the regulation does not specifically require that a plan have a particular number of designated investment alternatives, the failure to designate a manageable number of investment alternatives raises questions as to whether the plan fiduciary has satisfied its obligations under section 404 of ERISA. See generally Hecker v. Deere, 569 F.3d 708, 711 (7th. Cir. 2009). Unless participants and beneficiaries are financially sophisticated, many of them may need guidance when choosing their own investments from among a large number of alternatives. Designating specific investment alternatives also enables participants and beneficiaries, who often lack sufficient resources to screen investment alternatives, to compare the cost and return information for the designated investment alternatives when they are selecting and evaluating alternatives for their accounts.
Further, plan fiduciaries have a general duty of prudence to monitor a plan’s investment menu. See Pfeil v. State Street Bank, 671 F.3d 585, 598 (6th Cir. 2012). If, through a brokerage window or similar arrangement, non-designated investment alternatives available under a plan are selected by significant numbers of participants and beneficiaries, an affirmative obligation arises on the part of the plan fiduciary to examine these alternatives and determine whether one or more such alternatives should be treated as designated for purposes of the regulation.
Pending further guidance in this area, when a platform holds more than 25 investment alternatives, the Department, as a matter of enforcement policy, will not require that all of the investment alternatives be treated, for purposes of this regulation, as designated investment alternatives if the plan administrator—
(1) makes the required disclosures for at least three of the investment alternatives on the platform that collectively meet the “broad range” requirements in the ERISA 404(c) regulation, 29 CFR § 2550.404c-1(b)(3)(i)(B); and
(2) makes the required disclosures with respect to all other investment alternatives on the platform in which at least five participants and beneficiaries, or, in the case of a plan with more than 500 participants and beneficiaries, at least one percent of all participants and beneficiaries, are invested on a date that is not more than 90 days preceding each annual disclosure.
Second, the DOL added Q&A-39 to FAB 2012-02R. It says:
Mutual Fund Platforms and Brokerage Windows
Q39: A plan offers an investment platform that includes a brokerage window, self-directed brokerage account, or similar plan arrangement. The fiduciary did not designate any of the funds on the platform or available through the brokerage window, self-directed brokerage account, or similar plan arrangement as “designated investment alternatives” under the plan. Is the platform or the brokerage window, self-directed brokerage account, or similar plan arrangement a designated investment alternative for purposes of the regulation?
A39. No. Whether an investment alternative is a “designated investment alternative” (DIA) for purposes of the regulation depends on whether it is specifically identified as available under the plan. The regulation does not require that a plan have a particular number of DIAs, and nothing in this Bulletin prohibits the use of a platform or a brokerage window, self-directed brokerage account, or similar plan arrangement in an individual account plan. The Bulletin also does not change the 404(c) regulation or the requirements for relief from fiduciary liability under section 404(c) of ERISA or address the application of ERISA’s general fiduciary requirements to SEPs or SIMPLE IRA plans. Nonetheless, in the case of a 401(k) or other individual account plan covered under the regulation, a plan fiduciary’s failure to designate investment alternatives, for example, to avoid investment disclosures under the regulation, raises questions under ERISA section 404(a)’s general statutory fiduciary duties of prudence and loyalty. Also, fiduciaries of such plans with platforms or brokerage windows, self-directed brokerage accounts, or similar plan arrangements that enable participants and beneficiaries to select investments beyond those designated by the plan are still bound by ERISA section 404(a)’s statutory duties of prudence and loyalty to participants and beneficiaries who use the platform or the brokerage window, self-directed brokerage account, or similar plan arrangement, including taking into account the nature and quality of services provided in connection with the platform or the brokerage window, self-directed brokerage account, or similar plan arrangement.
The Department understands plan fiduciaries and service providers may have questions regarding the situations in which fiduciaries may have duties under ERISA’s general fiduciary standards apart from those in the regulation. The Department intends to engage in discussions with interested parties to help determine how best to assure compliance with these duties in a practical and cost effective manner, including, if appropriate, through amendments of relevant regulatory provisions.
To make these changes, and the Final 404(a)(5) Regulations, easier to understand, we’ve put together a new e-book – A Compendium of the Final 404(a)(5) Fee Disclosure Regulations. It includes a copy of Labor Reg. 2550.404a-5 organized by topic along with the DOL’s guidance and explanations about this regulation in an easy-to-follow format. We’ve also created a self-study module around the Compendium so you can earn 2 ntinuing education credits for learning about 404(a)(5) as you read the e-book.