The U.S. Department of Labor – Proposed Rule Addressing ESG Investment Selections by Fiduciaries – the Drama Continues As Agency Downplays Importance of ESG

By Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist – G&A Institute

August 9 2020

In the early 1970s, Congressional hearings featured allegations of abuses by managers of corporate pension funds taking actions to systemically deny men and women approaching retirement age their promised benefits.  A law was passed to protect plan beneficiariesThe Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

This was intended by the Congress of that day to create standards for private-sector plans to protect the financial and health of beneficiaries of corporate plans.

The U.S. Department of Labor was designated is the primary designated arm enforcing “ERISA”,  charged with “protecting the interests of employee benefit plans participants (workers) and their beneficiaries”.

Other agencies have plan oversight responsibilities as well – the U.S. Treasury Department (the IRS) and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

PBGC is like the FDIC protection for bank customers’ money; when a corporate pension plan fails, the PBGC assumes responsibility for providing retirement benefits to retirees. When a company with a retirement plan goes belly up, filing bankruptcy, or giving up responsibility for the plan, the PBGC takes over to help the plan’s beneficiaries (they don’t get all that was promised by the plan when it was managed by the company they worked for).

Among other elements of the ERISA law and operating rules, there are standards set for fiduciaries and managers of worker retirement plans and welfare benefit plans.

ERISA has been updated since passage 40+ years back and the DOL rules have changed over time.  So have related Internal Revenue Service rules.  In 1978 the Internal Revenue Code was amended to allow taxpayers to have a tax-deferred, defined, voluntary retirement plan of their own – the familiar 401 (k) plan that millions participate in.

In the latest summary from the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration of DOL (“EBSA“) for FY 2013(!) — ERISA rules [then] applied to 684,000 retirement plans, 2.4 million health plans and 2.4 million additional welfare benefits.

These plans covered 140 million workers and beneficiaries – at the time, that was about half of the American workforce – and assets under management of the plans exceeded US$7 trillion.

To simplify what follows here, the rules adopted by federal regulators are intended to explain and enforce the statute passed by Congress – in this case, protection of worker rights and oversight of fiduciaries managing workers’ assets in plans.

There is a structured process for creating the enforcing agency rules-of-the-road for those organizations being overseen (for ERISA, fiduciaries, plan managers) and these rules could be changed from time-to-time and also be “interpreted” by regulators through communications intended to clarify the rules.

ESG Investment and the Department of Labor Perspectives

As “sustainable” or “ESG” investing became a preferred approach for individuals in plans and managers of plans, many more institutions and individuals preferred those investments, alongside or instead of more traditional investments.

Investors want to be able to invest in an ESG-themed mutual fund or ETF along with or instead of a traditional version that may track a benchmark of the same type.

Example:  There are many investment managers whose fund track the widely-used S&P 500 benchmark (from S&P Global) and investable products with an S&P 500 ESG benchmark.

State Street a few days ago launched an S&P 500 ESG Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) “to provide investors an opportunity to tap into ESG investing at the core of their portfolio” (with a very low expense ratio). This “EFIV” tracks the new S&P 500 ESG Index.

SSgA explains: “ESG investing is approaching a critical inflection point…the collective call for change is growing louder and investor increasingly taking a stand through their investment choices.”

How do the regulators of ERISA react to such progress?  To the call for change?  To respond to investors’ call for action?

By moving backward in rule-making with changes in rules to make it more difficult for plan managers and beneficiaries to invest in ESG vehicles.

To be sure, rules are subject to change. The DOL’s first guidance on ESG investment issues as issued back in 1994.

More recently, in 2008 (during the Administration of President George W. Bush) guidance appeared to be designed to restrict ESG investments by plan fiduciaries.

In 2015 (during the Administration of President Barack Obama) DOL guidance gave the green light to ESG investments…if the investment is appropriate based on economic considerations including those that may derive from ESG factors. (See our perspectives here from November 2015: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/)

And now in 2020, in June DOL’s EBSA proposed a “new investment duties rule” with “core additions” to the regulations.  (“Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” — this to address “recent trends involving ESG investing”).

Among the comments of DOL that really wrankled the ESG investor universe:

  • New text was added to codify DOL’s “longstanding position” that plan fiduciaries must select investments based on financial considerations relevant to the risk-adjusted economic value of an investment (or “course of action”).
  • The reminder that “Loyalty” duty prohibits fiduciaries from subordinating interests of plan participants and beneficiaries to “non-pecuniary goals”.   ESG factors could be “pecuniary” factors — but only if they present economic risk/opportunity under generally-accepted investment theories.
  • New text was added on required investment analysis and documentation for the “rare circumstance” when fiduciaries are choosing among “truly economically-indistinguishable” investments.  (Huh?)
  • A provision that fiduciaries must consider “other” available investments to meet prudence and loyalty duties.
  • A new provision for selection of investment alternatives for 401-K plans describes what is required for “pursuing” one or more ESG-oriented objectives in the investment mandate (or include ESG “parameters” in the fund name).

DOL Comments On These:

“ERISA plan fiduciaries may not invest in ESG vehicles when they understand an underlying investment strategy…is to subordinate return or increase risk for the purpose of non-financial objectives.”  And

“Private [Sector] employer-sponsored retirement plans are not vehicles for furthering social goals or policy objectives…not in the interest of the plan…ERISA plans should be managed with unwavering focus on a single, very important social goal: providing for the retirement security of American workers.”

After the rule changes were published, numerous investors pushed back – some summaries for you that were published on the 401K Specialist web platform of the responses of some fiduciaries who object to the proposed rule (“Commenters Hammer DOL of Proposed  ESG Rule”).

More than 1,500 comments have been submitted so far to DOL, calling for changes in the proposed rule, withdrawal, and the very short comment period (just 30 days, ended August 3, vs. the usual 90 days).

Investor/Fiduciary Pushback:

T. Rowe Price:   The proposed rule is attempting to solve a problem that does not exist. Worse, the proposed rule discourages fiduciaries from taking into account ESG factors that should be considered.

ICCR/Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility:  The rule would impose significant analytical and documentation burdens on fiduciaries of benefit plans governed by ERISA wishing to select (or allow individual account holders to select) investments that use ESG factors in investment analysis, or that provide ESG benefits (signed by 138 member institutions).

ESG Global Advisors: The Proposal has misunderstood and/or mischaracterized the nature and purpose of ESG integration…this is likely to lead to confusion for ERISA fiduciaries and additional costs to plan savers. Plan fiduciaries will struggle to fulfill their obligation to integrate all financially-material ESG risk factors into their investment process.

Morningstar: The Department’s rule is out of step with the best practices asset managers and financial advisors use to integrate ESG considerations into their investment processes and selections. The proposed rule would…erect barriers to considering ESG factors that many financial professionals consider as a routine part of investment management…

Voya Financial Inc.: The Proposal is fundamentally flawed for two reasons…among the many qualitative factors an ERISA fiduciary may appropriately consider…the Proposal singles out ESG factors and subjects them to special tests…second, the Proposal fails to account for the positive effect on investment behavior that the availability of ESG-focused investment options can have…

American Retirement Association: …appropriate investments that include ESG factors should not be prohibited from qualifying as Qualified Default Investment Alternatives (“QDIAs”)…

The Wagner Law Group:  The proposed amendment is inconsistent with existing law and guidance…it would require fiduciaries to only consider pecuniary factors instead of using their judgment and discretion to evaluate investments under the totality of circumstances…a narrow list of permissible factors is inconsistent with the notion that prudence is not determined by a checklist and is a fact-specific determination…

BlackRock:  …the Proposal creates an overly prescriptive and burdensome standard that would interfere with plan fiduciaries’ ability and willingness to consider financially-material ESG factors…we urge DOL to engage with the industry to understand how investment options incorporating ESG factors are used in ERISA plans…

Members of Congress – the body that passed ERISA during its 93rd session in 1974 – reacted along partisan lines.

Republican members of the House Committee on Education and Labor submitted a letter of support of the DOL action.

Democrat Party members (41 of them) of the House and 20 members of the House Education and Labor Committee expressed opposition to the rule changes.

The Securities & Exchange Commission is looking at ESG investments as well – soliciting public comment “for the appropriate treatment for funds that use terms such as ESG in their name and whether the terms are likely to mislead investors” (also in the Federal Register post).

In May 2020 the SEC Investor Advisory Committee / Investor-as-Owner Subcommittee issued their perspectives on ESG disclosure:  https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/investor-advisory-committee-2012/recommendation-of-the-investor-as-owner-subcommittee-on-esg-disclosure.pdf

There are more details for you here (the investor response summaries): https://401kspecialistmag.com/commenters-hammer-dol-on-proposed-esg-rule/

The Department of Labor’s EBSA proposal highlights are here as published in the Federal Register, June 30, 2020: http://ga-institute.com/Sustainability-Update/big-news-out-of-the-u-s-department-of-labor-for-fiduciaries-opportunity-to-utilize-esg-factors-in-investment-analysis-and-portfolio-management/

Notes:  The Secretary of Labor is Eugene Scalia, a nominee of President Donald Trump.

Acting Assistant Secretary for EBSA is Jeanne Klinefelter Wilson (appointed in June 2020).

There is an ERISA Advisory Council with six members.  Effective July 14, 2020:

  • Glenn Butash is chair; he is managing counsel at Nokia Corp.
  • David Kritz is vice-chair; he is deputy counsel at Norfolk Southern Corp.
  • John Harney is partner at law firm O’Donoghue and O’Donoghue.
  • Peter Wiedenbeck is Washington University School of Law professor.
  • James Haubrock is CPA and shareholder, Clark Schaefer Hackett.
  • Lisa Allen is compliance consultant, Altera Group.

Stay Tuned:  We will update you when decisions are announced by the Department of Labor.

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).