If you're interested in the details of that regulation, every large consulting firm, law firm, and recordkeeper either has or will be publishing their take on it. Here, however, I want to address a different issue.
If you sit on the committee that oversees a retirement plan whether its called the Benefits Committee, the Investment Committee, or the Committee for All Things Good Not Evil, by virtue of that role, it is probable that you are a fiduciary. That means that both individually and as a member of that committee, when making decisions related to the plan (not your own account in the plan, but the plan generally), you have a requirement to act in a fiduciary manner and in the best interest of plan participants.
That's not a low bar.
Instead of bringing up situations that arise from the new final regulations (the other articles will present you with all of those that you need), let's instead consider an age old problem. Suppose your company sponsors a defined benefit plan and you are on the committee that oversees the plan. Let's complicate the situation a bit by adding in the following fact pattern:
- The plan is covered by the PBGC (Title IV of ERISA)
- The plan is frozen and the committee's minutes show that the intent of the committee is to terminate the plan whenever it becomes well enough funded
- Your company is subject to US GAAP; in other words, you account for the plan under ASC 715 (previously FAS 87).
- Your own personal incentive compensation is affected by corporate financial performance measured under US GAAP
- Over time, you have received a material amount of equity compensation from your employer meaning that you now hold a combination of shares of stock, stock options, and restricted stock in your employer
Your actuary comes to a meeting with your committee and informs you that you have three options related to a funding strategy:
- Option #1 will keep the ASC 715 pension expense down and will not result in a settlement (that would be a loss currently), but will result in the plan being less well funded
- Option #2 will produce a settlement loss, but will get the plan closer to termination and leave it currently better funded for remaining plan participants
- Option #3 will reduce ASC 715 pension expense and get the plan better funded and therefore closer to termination, but will have a material effect on the corporate balance sheet and could cause the company to violate certain loan covenants
You do have a quandary, don't you? Only Option #1 will help you to maximize your incentive pay. In my personal experience, in days gone by, for that particular reason, Option #1 would have gotten some votes. If you vote for Option #1, are you fulfilling your responsibilities as a fiduciary?
I'm not an attorney, so I'm not going to answer that question, but I'm sure you can find many who would be happy to weigh in.
Option #2 looks like it could be better for plan participants. Of course, that depends a little bit on what better means in this context. But, if the committee goes with Option #2, you know that your incentive payout could be smaller. If you vote against Option #2 (another question for the attorneys), are you fulfilling your fiduciary requirements?
And, then there's Option #3. How far do you have to go to fulfill your fiduciary requirements? Do you have to make decisions that are clearly not in the best interest of the company, but that may be in the best interests of plan participants?
It's tricky, isn't it?
Now, let's consider a different situation that may not affect your personal compensation. Using Strategy #1, your company will pay PBGC premiums equal to about 10% of its free cash flow. Using Strategy #2, those same premiums will be reduced to about 3% of free cash flow. But, your actuary isn't familiar with Strategy #2. And, you do have a really good relationship with him. But, the people who brought you Strategy #2 say you can only implement it by using them.