Big News Out of the U.S. Department of Labor For Fiduciaries — Opportunity to Utilize ESG Factors in Investment Analysis and Portfolio Management

by Hank Boerner – G&A Institute Chairman

Back in the late-1960s and early 1970s, as allegations of older worker retirement abuses gained wide media attention, members of the U.S. Congress focused on “retirement security” issues. After high-profile committee hearings, the Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, signed into law by our 40th CEO, President Gerald Ford. The U.S. Department of Labor was assigned to develop and oversee the operating rules-of-the road for retirement plan fiduciaries — including public employee pension systems; corporate retirement plans; endowments; foundations; trusts.

Over the next 30 years the Department of Labor’s operating arms for regulating “ERISA” — especially including the Employee Benefits Security Administration — tweaked the rules & regulations with such actions as clarifying letters (such as to the Pacific Coast Roofers Pension Plan and the Northwestern Ohio Building Trades and Employer Construction Industry Investment Plan) and a series of “interpretive bulletins” to clarify the rules for fiduciaries.

The passage of ERISA was a great boon for many Americans. The law opened the door for institutional investors to dramatically expand their investments in other than the traditional “prudent man” vehicles of old, like U.S. Treasury notes, bills and bonds and municipal bond issues. Trillions’ of dollars flowed into the equities market after the 1970s and trading volume (at exchanges) soared.

Many of us benefited directly and indirectly from ERISA, including individuals opening 401-k plans made possible by the legislation. The portfolios of public pension funds in particular soared in total value. (CalPERS, the California public employee plan, has US$300 billion in AUM; $150 billion of these assets are in public equity.)

The financial good times rolled, in large measure due to ERISA!

Periodically, the ERISA officials (working under the political appointees of various U.S. Presidents) would issue guidance. The cottage industry of law firms, accounting firms, pension consultants, actuaries and other ERISA-focused professionals grew by leaps and bounds. And, from the early 1980s on, there was steadily growing embrace of new approaches to investing, and new products ginned up with retirement “security” in mind.

Game Changer: The Emergence of Sustainable Investing

The new approaches included embrace of ESG performance for greater analysis [by asset owners and asset managers], and greater focus on and inclusion of ESG-related products offered by financial services firms for fiduciaries’ portfolios (mutual fund, indexes, benchmarks, etc). The latest survey by the Forum for Sustainable & Responsible Investing (US SIF) established a high water mark: a total of US$6.2 trillion in Assets Under Management were managed using ESG approaches as we entered 2014; that’s $1 in $6 in U.S. equity markets. The US SIF was in the vanguard in getting the Department of Labor guidance clarified regarding ESG investment.

Emblematic of the changes taking place as the Department of Labor prepared its latest guidance, S&P Dow Jones Indices (part of McGraw Hill Financial) busily announced three new climate change index series — two focused on carbon efficiency, and a fossil fuel free index. “Climate change and its impact present a challenge from an investment perspective,” said the index company.

2008 ERISA Guidance — Chilling Effect for ESG

In October 2008, in the waning days of President George W. Bush’s Administration, the Department of Labor issued its Interpretive Bulletin Relating to the Fiduciary Standard in Considering Economically Targeted Investments (“ETIs” in government-ese). The regulators’ guidance was interpreted by many investors as saying that only financial risk and return could be considered by the tens of thousands of fiduciaries in the USA overseeing pension funds, etc. “Other” considerations, such as a company’s ESG performance, were not acceptable.

Never mind that sustainable investing was growing significantly in importance in the U.S. and global capital markets. Never mind that the collapse of the stock market in 2008, thanks to the reckless behavior of the big bank holding companies, and look-the-other way regulators. The dives of stock prices would drive investors to the safety offered by sustainable investing products and instruments. Never mind that a growing army of stakeholders saw sustainable investing — that is, investing with collateral interests as well as the traditional financials — was becoming mainstream.

October 2015 ERISA Guidance – Encouraging!

Institutional investors (asset owners) and professional asset managers began engaging with Department of Labor officials soon after President Barack Obama took office to discuss DoL guidance for plan fiduciaries. Since 2009, of course, ESG-focused investments have soared in volume. One after another academic studies have been published to provide evidence that sustainable investment has clear financial payoff as well as “collateral” benefits. (Think:  Who would not encourage company managements to lower their environmental liabilities, create more “green” products that consumers want, improve policies and actions involving the diversity of their enterprises, avoid regulatory costs including fines, and more, more, more in terms of becoming a more sustainable company attractive to a greater number of investors?)

In late-October, the DoL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration issued an updated Interpretive Bulletin — this time, clearly stating that terms like socially responsible investing, sustainable & responsible investing, ESG investing, impact investing, and economically targeted investing (ETI), while not uniform in meaning…are related to any investment that is selected in party for its collateral benefits apart from investment return to the investor.

The Bulletin is being distributed via the Federal Register now to explain to fiduciaries that the 2008 Bulletin is officially withdrawn and replaced with language that reinstates the language dating back to 1994 (setting out the basic advice that fiduciaries should act prudently to diversify their plan to minimize the risk of large losses).

Highlights of the new DoL ERISA guidance:

• In updated terms, guidance includes plan consideration of ESG factors such as environmental, social or corporate governance (ESG) — these do not need special scrutiny (as the 2008 guidance implied). The 2015 Bulletin specifically refers to such current terms-of-art as sustainable & responsible investing.

• Fiduciaries should not be dissuaded from pursuing [such] investment strategies as those that consider ESG factors, even when they are used solely to evaluate the economic benefits of investments and identify economically superior instruments and investing in ETIs [where they are economically equivalent].

• When a fiduciary prudently concludes that such an investment is justified solely on the economic merits of the investment, there is no need to evaluate collateral goals as “tie breakers.” And, setting aside the 2008 advice, there is no need for considerable documentation as to why (for example an ESG investment) was chosen.

• The Labor Department does not believe ERISA (the 1974 law and subsequent rules & regulations, and opinions) prohibits a fiduciary from addressing ETIs or incorporating ESG factors in investment policy statements or integrated ESG-related tools, metrics and analyses to evaluate an investment’s risk or return or choose among otherwise equivalent investments.

Cautionary guidance: In issuing the October 2015 Bulletin the DoL staff reminds fiduciaries that section 403 and 404 of ERISA do not permit fiduciaries to sacrifice the economic interests of the plan participants in receiving their promised benefits in order for the plan to pursue collateral goals. BUT — the DoL has “consistently recognized” that fiduciaries MAY consider collateral goals as tie-breakers when choosing between investment alternatives that are otherwise equal with respect to risk and return over the appropriate time horizon.

ERISA does not direct investment choice where investment alternatives are equivalent and the economic interests of the plan’s participants and beneficiaries are protected if the selected investment in economically equivalent to competing instruments.

Setting the Record Straight

The 2008 guidance appeared to say that investing with collateral goals in mind should be rare, and had to be documented to demonstrate compliance with ERISA’s “rigorous standards.” The 2015 guidance sets the record straight: “Plan fiduciaries should appropriately consider factors that potentially influence risk and return — ESG issues may have a direct relationship in the economic value of the plan investment. These issues are proper components of the fiduciary’s primary analysis of the economic merits of competing investment choices.”

Again, underscoring for the record: The Department does not believe ERISA prohibits a fiduciary from addressing ETIs or incorporate ESG factors in investments….

We could say that investors encouraging such actions as fiduciaries divesting fossil fuel companies because of concerns about “stranded assets” left in the ground (and not be counted as reserves) can breathe easier with the new DoL guidance.

John K.S. Wilson, head of corporate governance and engagement at Cornerstone Capital Group noted in response to the guidance: “An important purpose of this Interpretive Bulletin is to clarify that plan fiduciaries should appropriately consider factors that potentially influence risk and return. Environmental, social and governance issues may have a direct relationship to the economic value of the plan’s investments. Collateral benefits include environmental protection, social equity and financial stability, which Cornerstone considers necessary outcomes for the mitigation of long-term macroeconomic investment risk.” (Wilson is the former director of corporate governance at TIAA-CREF, where he oversaw voting of proxies at the CREF portfolio (8,000 companies.)

Sending a Clear Signal to Plan Fiduciaries

We see the Interpretive Bulletin as sending a clear signal to U.S. fiduciaries that considering ESG factors is recognized as an important part of the fiduciary’s duty in evaluating risk and return. As Social Finance commented in its reaction — “US DOL Announced ERISA Guidance to Unlock Impact Investments.” Over time — the guidance will (unlock ESG investing’s power. that is)!

You can read the U.S. Department of Labor Interpretive Bulletin summary at: http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/ebsa/EBSA20152045.htm

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Congratulations to US SIF chief executive officer Lisa Woll and her colleagues in continuing the long engagement with the Department of Labor to get clear guidance on ESG investing. Sustainable investing champions involved in the long engagement with the Department of Labor include Adam Kanzer (Domini Fund); Jonas Kron (Trillium); Meg Voorhes (SIF); Tim Smith (Walden Asset Management).

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