Key Takeaways from the GAO Report on ESG Investing by ERISA Fiduciaries

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday released a new report on ERISA fiduciaries’ incorporation of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into its investment process. At 63 pages, here are the key takeaways:

  1. The report is focused only on instances where fiduciaries consider ESG factors as material risk factors that are part of an ordinary prudence analysis. In other words, the GAO did not focus on other strategies (e.g., impact investing), such as those that select an ESG factor for moral reasons, etc., which is the historical association of ESG investing. In this sense, the GAO deserves a lot of credit for focusing on this sophisticated approach to ESG.  You may recall that my paper on climate change risk focused on this very issue.
  2. Rather unfortunately, the report was largely completed prior to the DOL’s issuance of Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2018-01, which we discussed here. The principal recommendation by the GAO is for the DOL to issue guidance on whether a fiduciary can incorporate ESG factors into the management of a default investment option in a defined contribution plan. As you may know, FAB 2018-01 seemed to do just that, though not in an entirely clear manner. Nevertheless, the GAO addressed FAB 2018-01 at the end of the report and narrowed its initial recommendation, namely, that the DOL better explain how fiduciaries can utilize the integration strategy in a QDIA. In the DOL’s defense, FAB 2018-01 seems to address (to some extent) whether a QDIA can utilize the integration strategy; the DOL instead hit the breaks on offering a themed ESG product as a QDIA.
  3. According to the GAO, the DOL is amenable to issuing additional guidance on ESG investing, provided there is enough interest by fiduciaries. The DOL is mum on its Form 5500 project, and whether any ESG disclosures on a revised 5500 are in the works.
  4. Those close to ESG will unlikely find anything surprising in the GAO report on the various reasons why ESG is not yet widely adopted by US retirement plans: questions over the reliability/comparability of disclosures, ratings and rankings–designed to help fiduciaries incorporate ESG factors–all continue to be cited as impediments. Regulatory uncertainty, and definitional ambiguities, also remain hindrances. I recently spoke on a number of these constraints to greater adoption by fiduciaries.

George Michael Gerstein advises financial institutions on the fiduciary and prohibited transaction provisions of ERISA. As co-chair of the fiduciary governance group, he assists clients with tracking, and understanding, the numerous fiduciary developments at the federal and state levels, including the rules and regulations of governmental plans. He also advises clients with respect to the fiduciary duty implications of ESG investing.