Wednesday, August 26, 2015

30 Years Ago Today

Thirty years ago, I started on a journey. I arrived at a new job with a firm that no longer exists in the form that it was in back in 1985. Hewitt Associates (HA as it was referred to internally) was a consulting firm whose primary business was actuarial consulting on defined benefit pension plans in the US. It was a partnership. The number of firms like that that still exist has dwindled. In that size range of company, their number has dwindled to zero.

In any event, I was embarking on a career as an actuary. Frankly, I had no idea what I would be doing in that career. I had taken the first two actuarial exams because my starting salary depended on them. One was basic college math (mostly calculus) and the other was probability and statistics, so I thought I would be doing a lot of math in my career. I guess I have, but rarely that type of math.

I was going to be working on corporate pension plans. I didn't know what a pension plan was. I didn't know much else about what I was going to be doing either. I recall a friend asking me just the day before what I was going to be doing. I had no idea.

What I do recall is that I ran a proprietary computer program on a mainframe computer. As I was instructed to do, I took a lot of numbers from the output and put them in rows and columns on large green ledger sheets. Mostly, I added them vertically and I was very good at that. I then took the sums and placed them on other worksheets where I got to do addition and subtraction mostly. Sometimes, I amortized these numbers over time, usually using an HP-12C. It's still the calculator of choice in the profession.

Eventually, I took many of these numbers and used them to mark up something that I learned was called an actuarial report. My markup went to this ancient-sounding thing called a typing pool where a group of really good typists would make my ugly handwritten draft look pretty. They used another ancient device known as an electric typewriter.

I don't quite do the same things anymore, but some of it is still related to corporate pension plans. As time passed, my career moved from doing the grunt work to consulting based oftentimes on what others did.

It's a career that has taken me through highs and lows. I've made some of the finest friends a person could ever imagine. And, along the way, I think I've gotten pretty good at what I do. My profession has been good enough to honor me a few times. That was pretty cool.

One thing that has not changed at all about what I do is the respect and actual greatness of the profession While we are joked about as being boring nerds, actuaries are a rare, yet important breed. We tend to look at problems differently than most and that view that we take is often incredibly effective.

I'm proud of the profession. I'll take this moment to say that I'm pretty proud of what I have accomplished, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How to Handle Your Pay Ratio Disclosures

This is an article that I wrote for Bloomberg BNA that was published last Friday, August 21. Note that you may not reproduce this article without express written permission from BNA.


Reproduced with permission from Pension & Benefits Daily, 162 PBD, 08/21/2015. Copyright 2015 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033)
 http://www.bna.com


Pay Ratio Rule: Practical Tips for Making the Best of a Bad Disclosure Day

 BY JOHN H. LOWELL

Introduction
I t’s been about five years since Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In response to the financial crisis that escalated in 2008, legislators sought to put more controls on primarily the larger financial institutions that do business in the U.S. But, buried in this law was a little-debated provision sitting in Section 953(b). It has become known as the ‘‘pay ratio’’ rule.

On its surface, the pay ratio rule seems innocuous. Filers of proxies are to disclose the ratio of the compensation of the median-paid employee of the company to that of the CEO. However, as many have learned, this may be more difficult and more inflammatory than it seems.

In early August 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a final rule, effective for proxies for fiscal years beginning after 2016, explaining exactly who needs to disclose this ratio and how this is to be done. To its credit, the SEC tried its best to satisfy the needs of those who view this ratio as an important data point for a company and to satisfy companies that complained of potentially large expenditures to produce what they view as a seemingly meaningless number.

If what you need are the technical details specific to your company as to how these calculations are to be done, you can find summaries all over the Internet. Securities or executive compensation counsel will be more than happy to help you. What you may have more difficulty finding are explanations of how to prepare for that 2018 proxy season and what strategies your company may employ as permitted by the final rule.

Key Elements

Before we dive into that, it’s important to review some of the key elements of the final rule, particularly in places where either the SEC has made changes from the proposed rule or where it has afforded employers certain options.


  • While the statute tells us that the number disclosed shall be the compensation of the median employee divided by that of the Principal Executive Officer (CEO for our purposes), both the proposed and final rules specify that it is in fact the reciprocal of that (a positive integer is intended). 
  • Generally, all employees of the parent company and subsidiaries included in the consolidated financials must be included, but:  
    • who is an employee may be determined as of any representative date within three months of the end of the fiscal year; 
    • compensation for full-time employees may be annualized, but part-time, temporary and seasonal workers’ pay may not be annualized; 
    • workers from countries with privacy rules that may preclude obtaining the necessary data may be excluded (if you exclude one worker from a country, you must exclude all of them); and 
    • companies may exclude all workers from additional countries up to a total of 5 percent of the total company employee population. In doing so, first the employees excluded due to privacy laws are counted. If that gets the company to 5 percent or more, then there are no more exclusions. If not, then additional countries may be excluded so long as the total of privacy exclusions and selected exclusions does not exceed 5 percent of the total number of employees of the company. 
  • Determination of the median-paid employee has been simplified: 
    • solely for purposes of determining who is the median employee, the company may look to compensation amounts from payroll or tax records; and 
    • once a median employee is chosen, the company may use the same employee as the median for two more years so long as there have not been changes to the company’s population or pay practices significant enough to make that determination unreasonable. 
  • Companies may apply cost-of-living adjustments to equalize pay between countries. s Companies may add to their disclosures so long as the additions are no more prominent than the required disclosure. All that gives companies some useful options, but with options comes analysis to determine what to do and where the data will come from. 
  • Determine which countries the company operates in. For those countries, determine: 
    • whether privacy laws preclude obtaining necessary data, 
    • what percentage of employees is excluded due to privacy laws, and  
    • if less than 5 percent, are there other countries that it would be possible and beneficial to exclude? 
  • What will it take to get payroll or tax records from all the countries? Alert people responsible for them in each foreign country now as to what you will need. 
  • Consider whether the value in using cost-of-living adjustments outweighs the cost of doing so. For some countries, good cost-of-living data may be very difficult to obtain. For others, while the national cost-of-living index may be high or low, the cost in the areas in which your employees work may be very different.
  • Consider the benefits of sampling employees rather than using the whole population. Based on the descriptions of sampling techniques described by the SEC in both the proposed and final rules, for most companies, this exercise will not be worth the trouble of understanding the sampling techniques. 
Perhaps the most important decision that a company will make regarding the pay ratio is what it chooses to disclose. Some companies won’t have to worry about it every year, but in some years these pay ratios are going to be very large. Even if the company’s board of directors feels certain that CEO compensation at their company is reasonable, the optics will be bad.

Good consultative thinking can be very helpful here. Let’s consider a few possible situations.

Examples

Company A – Many Seasonal Employees.

Company A (calendar-year filer) does significant business around the holidays. In fact, its workforce is typically about three times as large between September 15 and January 15 as it is the rest of the year. Because of that, the median-paid employee of Company A is likely to be a seasonal employee (recall that companies are not permitted to annualize the compensation of seasonal employees). Additionally, those seasonal employees likely never meet the requirements to participate in most of Company A’s benefit programs including its pension plan. This pay ratio is going to be high. Company A should consider making an additional disclosure showing a comparison of the compensation of its CEO to that of its median full-time employee. While this won’t change the required number, it will improve the optics significantly.

Company B – U.S. Pension Only.

Company B is a multinational organization with significant employees in countries around the globe. Most of the U.S. workforce is well-paid, making it unlikely that the median employee will be from the U.S. Company B has provided both a broad-based and a nonqualified pension plan in the U.S. for many years. In most of the countries in which it operates, providing pensions is not the norm and doing so would make Company B less competitive. Because the increase in the actuarial present value of accrued pensions is part of the calculation of ‘‘annual total compensation,’’ the pay ratio is going to be larger than Company B might like and its board thinks the required ratio is not representative. Company B should consider providing a ratio for the U.S. only and a ratio without regard to pensions as supplemental disclosures.

Company C – Excellent Performance Leads to Larger-Than-Usual Incentive Payouts.

Because of extraordinary performance over the period ending Dec. 31, 2016, Company C’s executives received much larger-than-normal cash incentive payouts (short-term incentive) and equity grants and awards (long-term incentive) in 2017. The pay ratio here is going to be very high, but the board’s rationale is that the CEO deserved it. There may be many readers of the pay ratio who don’t agree. Perhaps they won’t look at the reasons for the high pay ratio, but simply the number itself.

Company C might consider a number of options. First, there might be a narrative describing why certain elements of compensation were as high as they were. Second, Company C might disclose what the pay ratio would have been had the company (and CEO) merely met goals for the year rather than exceeding them. Third, Company C might disclose what the pay ratio would have been had its CEO received his average incentive payouts for the last three years or five years. Any or all of these will help to lend some perspective to the otherwise high pay ratio.

Company D – Varying Global Economies.

Company D has its operations primarily in the U.S. and in South America. It provides broad-based and nonqualified pensions in virtually every country in which it operates. During 2017, the economy in South America was vastly different from that in the U.S. As a result, while interest rates dipped in the U.S., they rose significantly in every country in South America in which Company D operates. This combination produced massive increases in pension values in the U.S. (for executives and for rank-and-file), but decreases (zero for annual total compensation purposes) in all of South America. Since pensions are a significant portion of actual compensation for Company D’s South American employees, their compensation will appear understated for 2017 while the CEO’s compensation will appear overstated.

Company D should consider several additional disclosure options:


  • Disclose a ratio for its U.S. employees only,  
  • Disclose a ratio assuming that pension discount rates had not changed in any country, or 
  • Disclose a ratio without regard to pensions. 
Company E – Highly Diversified Global Business.

Company E is probably the most complex situation we will face. In the last few years leading up to and including 2017, it has generated a significant part of its revenue and most of its profits from its financial services division, which operates mostly in the U.S. Its CEO has to operate like the leader of a large bank and is therefore compensated commensurate with that. But, as a hedge against cyclical issues, Company E also operates in a variety of other industries and in multiple countries. The industries that are the most labor-intensive also employ the majority of their workers in low-paid third world countries. And, to the extent that Company E is involved in those industries in the U.S., its workers are largely unionized.

Company E has considered sampling to simplify the process. However, upon an examination of the rules, Company E realizes that it will have to do samples of each of its industry groupings in each country in which it operates. While it might reduce the number of employees that it has to evaluate, the expense of getting through the samplings outweighs the gains.

Company E realizes that its pay ratio is going to look very high. Philosophically, it is fine with that as its board feels certain that it is justified. But with multiple union contracts coming up for bargaining, Company E also knows that the unions will use the pay ratios to wage multiple media campaigns against Company E and its CEO.

In its disclosures that will go along with its required pay ratio disclosure, Company E needs to consider all of this. Here are some of the disclosures that Company E might make:

  • U.S.-only pay ratio, 
  • Disclosure of median pay for a typical employee in each of the U.S. unions with a breakout highlighting the company’s large expenditure on union pensions,  
  • Salaried-employee-only pay ratio, or 
  • Additional pay ratio compared to the union employee’s median pay encompassing elements not normally included in annual total compensation such as health care expenditure. 
Each of these additional disclosures has a cost associated with producing it. But, in Company E’s view, not producing ratios like this may be more costly than the hard costs to generate them.

Now What?

If you happen to be a part of one of the fortunate companies for whom this disclosure will neither be a calculational nor public relations problem, then your job should be easy. If, on the other hand, your company is closer to one of these more problematic situations, then you might have your work cut out for you.

Chances are that most in your company will not focus on this until after the end of fiscal year 2017. That may be okay, or it may not. Developing some of the ratios that we’ve discussed may be time-consuming and data-intensive. Trying to do that at the last minute may not be advisable.

Similarly, for a number of companies, this will be more than a calculation. It will be a strategy. Given the potential cost in investor relations and perhaps a battle over say-on-pay, it might be wise to have someone independently thinking about these issues. While using consultants haphazardly can create problems that were never there instead of solving them, here using a consultant who has thought through the issues and can help your company do the same would likely be money well spent.

You know that your company pays both rank-and-file and executives appropriately. Now you have to ensure that you manage the message so that all the interested observers know that as well.

Friday, August 7, 2015

SEC Finalizes Pay Ratio Rule -- Read the Plain English Description Here

Wednesday, after much controversy over the last five years, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released its final rule under Dodd-Frank Section 953(b) sometimes known as the Pay Ratio Rule. I have friends who are executive compensation attorneys and if you need legal advice on this rule, I can recommend any number of them to you, but I am going to write about it from a practical standpoint in plain English. What happened?

First, I'd like to commend the SEC. The statute on this rule has been very controversial. The SEC, in my opinion, has taken an approach that remains largely faithful to the exact wording of the statute and fully faithful to the intent of the statute (I'm not here to argue if the statute is worthwhile) while at the same time being sensitive to the concerns of employers with regard to the potential cost of compliance. It's rare that a government agency handles such a quandary this well.

Back in 2013, the SEC released a proposed rule on this topic. Since that time, the SEC received 287,400 comments on the proposed rule. More than 285,000 of them were form letters, but that still means that roughly 2,000 people took the time to write customized comments. To the credit of the Commissioners, they appear to have considered every last one of them. What they have crafted is practical, assuming that you find the result of the work practical.

What does the rule say? Here we go.

In its definitive proxy, each registrant shall disclose three items (at least since the rule says that the disclosure may be augmented):

  • The pay (as defined for proxy purposes) of the PEO (generally known as the CEO or Chief Executive Officer),
  • The pay (same definition) of the median-compensated employee of the employer, and
  • The ratio of the first item to the second expressed as some number (integer will work) to 1.
Identifying the median compensated employee can be a very costly process. Consider a company with 1001 employees. The median compensated will be the one whose compensation is more than that of 500 others and less than that of 500 others. In order to determine this (by the letter of the law), one would need to determine the annual total compensation (that's the proxy compensation) or ATC for each of the 1001. They would need to be ranked and then we would find the 501st person. That is a lot of work.

The final rule allows for two significant simplifications for purposes of determining the median employee:
  • Companies may choose to use sampling techniques in order to reasonably determine who the median paid employee is, and
  • Companies may use and consistently applied measure of compensation from payroll or tax records.
While the first of those may be more trouble than it is worth, the second should be a big help to lots of companies.

Further, once a company establishes a median employee, it may use that same employee for three years provided that there have not been significant changes (undefined term) in the compensation practices or the makeup of employees. If that employee terminates, then the company may reasonably select a similarly situated employee as a replacement.

Many commenters were concerned about the disclosures for multi-national companies especially those with significant numbers of employees in lower cost-of-living countries. Certainly, for example, $50,000 per year goes further in Kyrgyzstan than it does in the US. The final rule allows companies to adjust (on a nation-by-nation basis) compensation for cost-of-living differences.

Calculating proxy compensation can be cumbersome. It includes other than just cash compensation. So, for companies with defined benefit plans and broad-based equity compensation arrangements, it is entirely possible that multiple outside experts would need to be engaged. While that remains the case, the final rule allows companies to make reasonable estimates of components of compensation.

The statute makes clear that an employee is every employee worldwide, whether full-time, part-time, temporary, or seasonal of the controlled group. The final rule allows for all of these simplifications or adjustments:
  • A determination date applied consistently within 3 months of the end of the fiscal year
  • Only subsidiaries included in the consolidated financial statements need be considered
  • Employees where data may be unattainable due to national (or EU) privacy rules may be excluded
  • De minimis numbers of employees (up to 5% in total) may be excluded on a country by country basis
Let's look in more detail at those last two. Suppose the number of employees excluded under the privacy rule exception exceeds 5%. Then you are done with your exclusions. On the other hand, if your privacy exclusions are exactly 2% of your total population, then you may exclude other countries whose total employee population is less than an additional 3% of your total population. If, for example, you can't find another country with fewer than 3% of your total employees, then you are done with your exclusions.

In preparing these disclosures, companies will make lots of assumptions, simplifications, and estimates. All must be disclosed.

In somewhat of a gift to employers, additional disclosures and ratios are permitted, but not required so long as the additional disclosures and ratios are no more prominent than the required ones. I think this could be useful.

Consider a company with its management team and sales force in the US, but the bulk of its production facilities in third world countries (I'm not weighing in on whether this is a good or responsible practice or not). Because manual labor is particularly inexpensive in Burkina Faso, for example, Everybody's Favorite Company (EFC) has an extremely high pay ratio, say 10000 to 1. Its CEO had total compensation of $10 million and most employees in Burkina Faso earned only $1000. And further, EFC can't find cost-of-living data for Burkina Faso, so it is not able to do that adjustment. EFC is perhaps rightfully concerned about its pay ratio disclosure, so it elects to do a second pay ratio disclosure limited specifically to US employees. In this case, the ratio declines to 100 to 1.

A second company with a December 31 fiscal year end, everest.com, does a massive holiday business. As a result, Everest has a high pay ratio reflective of its hiring each year of seasonal employees. In fact, in a typical year, Everest has more than twice as many employees from September 1 through December 31 than it does the rest of the year. As a result, Everest reports a pay ratio of 750 to 1. Everest doesn't like this, so it chooses to determine an additional ratio of all but seasonal employees. The company is much more pleased to find that this ratio is only 175 to 1.

Generally, companies are required to report the pay ratio for any fiscal year beginning on or after January 1, 2017 (there are exceptions for certain new filers and emerging companies). This means that the first required disclosures (companies are encouraged to disclose before then) will generally be in the early months of 2018.

The final rule is long and complex. There are many legal issues around it and for those you should contact an attorney. 

There are also issues that are far more consultative in nature. They will generally require quantitative acumen, actuarial knowledge, and comfort with executive compensation, as well as a focus on business issues. For those, you should just click here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Derisking Your Defined Benefit Plan or Not

Every couple of years, there is a new trend in the remaining corporate defined benefit plans. Lately, it has been derisking in one sense or another. In fact, the Mercer/CFO Research 2015 Pension Risk Survey says that plan sponsors have been spurred by a perfect storm of events.

I'm not going to argue with there having been a perfect storm of events, but I think that everyone else's idea of what constituted the perfect storm is a bit specific and technical. They focus on falling interest rates, a volatile equity market, and a newly (last year) released mortality table. Instead, I would tend to focus on constantly changing pension rules both in the law and in financial accounting requirements that give plan sponsors a constantly moving target.

But, all that said, the study tells us that 80%-90% of plan sponsors are pleased with the risk management actions they have taken to date. What makes them pleased? Is it that they have cleaned up their balance sheets? Is it that their funding requirements have decreased? Has the derisking decision helped them to better focus on or run their businesses?

Isn't that last one what should be at the crux of the matter? The fact is that 2014 was not a good year to offer lump sum payments to individuals with vested benefits if what you were looking to do was to pay out those lump sums when the amounts would be low. Underlying discount rates were very low meaning that lump sums would be larger. Similarly, the cost of annuities was high, but many chose to purchase annuities for substantial parts of their terminated and retired participants.

What all of these plan sponsors did was to decrease future volatility in pension costs (however they choose to think of cost). For many, that truly was a good thing. But, at what cost?

For some, that cost was significant. For others, it was not.

Defined benefit pension plans used to be viewed as having a degree of permanence. That is, when funding them, calculations assumed that the plan would go on forever. While we know that forever is a very long time, we also know that plans with benefits that are based on participants' pay in the last years of their careers are wise to consider the amounts that they are likely to have to pay out in the future as compared to the amounts that would be paid out if everybody quit today. That is not reality. There used to be what are known as actuarial cost methods that allowed sponsors to do that and frankly, they resulted in larger current required contributions. But, those larger current contributions tended to be very steady as a percentage of payroll and that was something that CFOs were comfortable with.

But, the wise minds in Congress with the advice of some key government workers determined that this was not the right way to fund pension plans. Actually, their real reasons for doing so were to reduce tax deductions for pension plan funding thereby helping to balance the budget.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? It is stupid if what you are doing is making sponsorship of a pension plan untenable for most corporations.

Risk truly became a 4-letter word for pension plan sponsors. As time went by, it became important for sponsors to find new ways to mitigate that risk.

Unfortunately, many of them have been so eager to do that over the last few years that they likely overspent in their derisking efforts. For others, it was clearly the prudent thing to do.

My advice is this if you are considering your first or some further tranche of derisking. Consider the costs. Consider how much risk you mitigate. Make the prudent business decision. What would your shareholders want you to do?

Then decide whether you should derisk.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Get Your 401(k) Design Right

I happened to read a few things today about 401(k) matching contributions. One in particular talked about stretching the match. Apparently that means that if you are willing to spend 3% of pay on your workforce, consider making your match 50 cents on the dollar on the first 6% of pay deferred instead of dollar for dollar on the first 3% of pay deferred. This will encourage employees to save more.

That might be a really good idea ... for some companies. For other companies, it might not be.

First and foremost a 401(k) plan is, and should be, an employee benefit plan. Taken quite literally, that means that it should be for the benefit of employees.

Plan sponsors may look at the plan and say that they get a tax deduction. That's true, but they also get a tax deduction for reasonable compensation. And, there is probably less of a compliance burden with paying cash than there is with maintaining a 401(k) plan.

Where does the typical 401(k) design come from? Usually, it's the brainchild, or lack thereof, of someone internal to the plan sponsor or of an external adviser. Either way, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Most plan sponsors have plenty of smart and thoughtful employees and many external advisers are really good.

On the other hand, when it comes to designing a 401(k) plan, some people just don't ask the right questions. And, just as important, they don't answer the right questions. We often see this in marketing pieces or other similar propaganda that talk about designing the best plan. We might see that the best plan has all of these features:

  • Safe harbor design (to avoid ADP and ACP testing)
  • Auto-enrollment (to get higher participation rates)
  • Auto-escalation (so that people will save more)
  • Target date fund as a QDIA (because virtually every recordkeeper wants you in their target date funds)
All of these could be great features for your 401(k) plan, but on the other hand, they might not be. Let's consider why.

Safe harbor designs are really nice. They eliminate the need for ADP and ACP nondiscrimination testing. They also provide for immediate vesting of matching contributions. Suppose your goal, as plan sponsor, is to use your 401(k) plan at least in part as a retention device. Suppose further that every year, you pass your ADP and ACP tests with ease. Then, one would wonder why you are adopting a plan with immediate vesting whose sole benefit is the elimination of ADP and ACP testing. Perhaps someone told you that safe harbor plans were the best and you listened. Perhaps nobody bothered to find out why you were sponsoring a 401(k) plan and what you expected to gain from having that plan.

Auto-enrollment is another feature that is considered a best practice. (Oh I despise that term and would prefer to call it something other than best, but best practice is a consulting buzzword.) Most surveys that I have read indicate that where auto-enrollment is in place, the most common auto-enrollment level is 3% of pay. Your adviser who just knows that he has to tell you about auto-enrollment tells you that it is a best practice. Perhaps he didn't consider that prior to auto-enrollment, you had 93% participation and that 87% of those 93% already deferred more than 3% of pay. Since he heard it was the thing to do, he advised you to re-enroll everyone and now, you are up to 95% participation, but only 45% of them defer more than 3% of pay. Perhaps nobody bothered to ask you how your current plan was doing.

In the words of a generation younger than me, this is an epic fail.

I could go on and on about other highly recommended features, but the moral of the story is largely the same. Your plan design should fit with your company, your employees, your recruiting and retention needs, and your budget. That your largest competitor has a safe harbor plan doesn't make it right for you. It may not even be right for them. That the company whose headquarters are across the hall from yours has auto-escalation doesn't make it right for you. It may not be right for them either.

If you are designing or redesigning a plan for your company, ask some basic questions before you go there.
  • What do you want to accomplish with the plan?
    • Enough wealth accumulation so that your employees can retire based solely on that plan?
    • Enough so that the plan is competitive?
    • Something else?
  • Will eliminating nondiscrimination testing be important?
  • What is your budget? Will it change from year to year? As a dollar amount? As a percentage of payroll?
  • What do you want your employees to think of the plan?
    • It's a primary retirement vehicle.
    • My employer has a 401(k) plan; that's all I need to know.
    • My employer has a great 401(k) plan.
    • My 401(k) is a great place to save, but I need additional savings as well.
  • Will any complexity that I add to the plan help my company to meet its goals or my employees to meet their goals? If not, why did I add that complexity?
These are the types of questions that your adviser asked you when you designed or last redesigned your plan, aren't they?

They're not?

Perhaps it's time to rethink your plan.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

You Run a Business -- Why Do You Choose to be in the Benefit Plan Business, Too?

You've been successful in the business world. You've made your way up through the ranks. Suddenly, because your title starts with the word "chief", you find yourself on the company's Benefits (or some other similar name) Committee.

You're an accidental fiduciary. You have no benefits training. You've never studied ERISA. In some cases, you've never heard of ERISA. What are you doing in this role and why?

Perhaps there is not a single person on your committee with a strong grounding in ERISA issues. But, you know that in order to compete for employees, you have to provide your employees with some benefits. It's likely that some or all of those benefit plans are covered by ERISA. And, ERISA coverage brings with it a myriad of rules and requirements.

Oh no, now I have you panicking. What should you do?

Let's consider one of the most common benefit plan offerings in 2015, the 401(k) plan. What is your committee responsible for? Do you know?

While one could argue that the list might be slightly different, here is a pretty decent summary:

  • Plan design
  • Selection of plan investment options
  • Compliance (with laws, regulations, and other requirements)
  • Plan administration
  • Communication to participants and education of those participants
That's a lot to swallow. Look around your committee. Presumably, since the committee has responsibility for all of those elements, at the very least, you can find people in the room who, between them, have expertise in all of those areas,

You can't? 

Do you really want the responsibility that comes with being a member of that committee when you have just realized that the expertise to handle the committee's roles doesn't reside on the committee?

You have choices, or at least you might. You could resign from the committee. Frankly, that usually doesn't go over well.

You could engage an expert. Suppose you could find an individual who could function in the role that a committee Chair would play in a perfect world. We're likely talking about someone who doesn't work for your company. This person will bring you peace of mind and essentially serve as the quarterback for the committee. He or she won't have a vote, but will guide you through the processes so that 

  • Your plan is well-designed for your population and budgets, 
  • It has investment options for plan participants that are prudently chosen and monitored according to an Investment Policy Statement (sometimes called an IPS), 
  • It gets and stays in compliance with applicable rules, 
  • Is administered properly and the firm that administers it is well-monitored, and
  • Is communicated to participants in a clear fashion that properly educates those participants as to the benefits of plan participation.
That sounds great, doesn't it?

If you don't currently have such a quarterback for your committee, perhaps you should. I can help you find one.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

DOL Weighs in Again on Top-Hat Plans

ERISA contemplated so-called top-hat plans. In fact, it spelled out exactly what was contemplated in providing this opportunity for nonqualified deferred compensation so clearly that the legislative intent could never be misconstrued.

No, it didn't.

As is often the case when bills go from staffer to staffer and then to the floors of the houses of Congress, the bills tend to emerge with run-on sentences often punctuated by a myriad of commas making Congressional intent something upon which otherwise knowing people cannot agree.

Perhaps, some day they will learn.

No they won't, not in my lifetime anyway.

In any event, in a case (Bond v Marriott) concerning top-hat plans in front of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Department of Labor (DOL) wrote an amicus brief providing its opinion on the statutory wording around top-hat plans.

So, I know that those not familiar are just itching to find out. What does the statute say?

Congress gave us an exception to certain provisions of ERISA for a "[p]lan which is unfunded and is maintained by an employer primarily for the purpose of providing deferred compensation for a select group of management or highly compensated employees."

What is the primary purpose of a top-hat plan? Is it to be primarily for providing deferred compensation to a select group that is composed of management or highly compensated employees? Or, is it to be for providing deferred compensation to select group that is composed primarily of management or highly compensated employees?

It's one of those great questions that has confounded us through the ages. No, actually, it's a question that has confounded a select group of us since the passage of ERISA in 1974. To add to that confounding just a bit, everyone who practices in this field knows what a highly compensated employee is. The term is well defined in Code Section 414(q). But wait, Section 414(q), as written, has only been around since 1986 (added by Tax Reform) meaning that perhaps for these purposes, we don't even know what a highly compensated employee really is.

In its amicus brief, the DOL gives us its opinion, one that it claims to have held at least since 1985 and perhaps longer. The DOL tells the court that the primary purpose should be the provision of deferred compensation [for this select group] and that other purposes might include retaining top talent, allowing highly compensated individuals to defer taxation to years with lower marginal tax rates, or avoiding certain limitations applicable to qualified plans in the Internal Revenue Code. DOL further tells us that it does not mean that the select group may be composed primarily [emphasis added] of management or highly compensated employees or that the plan may have some other secondary purpose which is not consistent with its primary purpose.

The brief goes on to give us the judicial history around the provision and of course informs us which case law got it right and which did not. But, the DOL is clear in its claims and steadfastly denies that exceptions should be allowed.

I may be missing something here regarding the DOL. I think that the DOL has regulatory purview over ERISA. While the DOL has ceded that purview most of the time to the IRS where the Internal Revenue Code has a conforming section, that does not seem to be the case here. Could the DOL not have written regulations in 1975 or 1985 or 1995, or 2005 clarifying who, in fact, is eligible for participation in a top-hat plan? Or did they think it so clear that it was not worth their effort, despite being befuddled by decision after decision handed down by federal courts?

I know that when I got into this business, coincidentally in 1985, the more experienced people who taught me instructed that top-hat plans were to be for a group that was primarily management or highly compensated. In fact, it is difficult, in my experience to find practitioners who learned otherwise.

Perhaps that's wishful thinking. Perhaps, on the other hand, it's wishful thinking on the DOL's part. Perhaps the case will go to the US Supreme Court eventually so that nine wise jurists can put their own spin on it and settle this argument once and for all.

Until then, ...