Register for a webinar on October 4: The Latest on the SEC Standards of Conduct Initiative

Join industry leaders for a 60-minute webinar on Thursday, October 4, 2018 at 11 a.m. (EDT) to discuss the potential impact of the SEC’s Best Interest Proposals on the fund industry. Topics will include:

  • Overview of the Proposals, Including Regulation Best Interest
  • Key Themes in the Comment Letters
  • Impact on Fund Distributors, Dealers and Funds, including Non-Cash Compensation and Other Distribution Practices
  • Evolving Process and Future Suitability Concerns

Speakers:

Helen E. Rizos, Senior Vice President & Deputy General Counsel, Fidelity Investments

Sarah A. Bessin, Associate General Counsel, Investment Company Institute

David W. Grim, Partner, Stradley Ronon, Former Director of the U.S. SEC’s Division of Investment Management

Lawrence P. Stadulis, Partner & Co-Chair, Fiduciary Governance, Stradley Ronon

Register to view the webcast here.

Staff Withdraws Proxy Voting Guidance for Investment Advisers

On September 13, 2018, the Chairman announced a review of staff guidance to determine if prior positions “should be modified, rescinded or supplemented in light of market or other developments.”1 In conjunction with the Chairman’s statement, IM staff withdrew two interpretive letters that gave guidance to investment advisers seeking to comply with the proxy voting requirements of rule 206(4)-6 under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, which, among other things, requires investment advisers to vote client securities in the best interest of clients and to describe how they address material conflicts of interest between themselves and the clients on whose behalf they are voting.2 While rule 206(4)-6 does not dictate how an investment adviser must address conflicts, the adopting release discusses options, including engaging a third party to vote a proxy involving a material conflict or voting in accordance with a pre-determined policy based on recommendations of an independent party.  The letters addressed how investment advisers that have a material conflict can determine that a proxy advisory firm is capable of making impartial recommendations in the best interests of the adviser’s clients. The SEC left in place 2014 staff guidance that enshrines the principles of the two interpretive letters.3

Sara Crovitz

IM staff indicated in its statement that its withdrawal of the letters was designed to “facilitate discussions” at the Roundtable on the Proxy Process,4 which is expected to be held in November, and that staff was seeking views on the 2014 staff guidance. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some corporate secretaries have criticized proxy advisory firms for years, claiming proxy advisory firms lack transparency and accountability, and as part of these efforts, the corporate community has lobbied to withdraw the letters.5  Legislative efforts to directly regulate proxy advisory firms also have been proposed.6 For further information on the impact of the current and potential future SEC and staff actions, and advice on how to respond, please contact us at Stradley.


1 “Statement Regarding SEC Staff Views, available at: https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/statement-clayton-091318.  The Chairman noted that other federal financial agencies had instituted similar reviews of staff guidance.

2 Statement Regarding Staff Proxy Advisory Letters, available at: https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/statement-regarding-staff-proxy-advisory-letters.  Commissioner Jackson issued a statement in conjunction with the Investor Advisory Committee meeting critical of IM staff’s withdrawal of the letters.  Statement on Shareholder Voting, available at: https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/statement-jackson-091418.

3 Staff Legal Bulletin No. 20 (June 30, 2014), available at: https://www.sec.gov/interps/legal/cfslb20.htm.

4 Statement Announcing SEC Staff Roundtable on the Proxy Process available at: https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/statement-announcing-sec-staff-roundtable-proxy-process.

5 See, e.g., Statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the Market Power and Impact of Proxy Advisory Firms (June 5, 2013) (“For a number of years, the Chamber has expressed its long-standing concerns with . . . proxy advisory firms”), available at https://www.centerforcapitalmarkets.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/2013-6.3-Pitt-Testimony-FINAL.pdf; James K. Glassman and J.W. Verret, “How to Fix our Broken Proxy Advisory System,” (2013) (recommending that the letters be rescinded to “[e]nd the preferential regulatory treatment that proxy advisors currently enjoy in the law”). Both the corporate community and the asset management industry discussed their views on the letters and proxy advisory firms generally in a prior SEC roundtable in 2013. See Transcript of  the Proxy Advisory Firms Roundtable (Dec. 5, 2013), available at: https://www.sec.gov/spotlight/proxy-advisory-services/proxy-advisory-services-transcript.txt

6 For example, HR 5311 was introduced in May 2016 and later folded into the Financial CHOICE Act. More recently, in October 2017, HR 4015, which is mostly a resubmission of HR 5311 was introduced.  These bills generally require registration of proxy advisory firms with the SEC, and require firms to meet extensive disclosure requirements relating to methodologies and conflicts of interest, require firms to hire an ombudsperson to handle complaints, and give corporate issuers the ability to vet proxy advisory firms’ recommendations before the recommendations are released.

Form CRS under microscope

International investing considerations for ERISA fiduciaries

Section 404(b) of ERISA provides that a fiduciary may not maintain the indicia of ownership of plan assets outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. district courts. But, clearly, investments in non-U.S. securities may be entirely reasonable and prudent for an ERISA plan’s participants and beneficiaries. The DOL’s regulation (29 CFR 2550.404b-1) sought to both ensure the U.S. district courts’ jurisdictional arm reached plan assets while expressly recognizing and preserving the importance of international investments, particularly for diversification purposes.

Fiduciaries have three decision-making points.

  1. Are the proposed investments qualifying assets (e.g., securities issued by a company that is neither organized in the United States nor has its place of business in the United States) under the DOL regulation?
  2. What are, in fact, the indicia of ownership of the international investments?
  3. Which pathway is the fiduciary taking to ensure that it complies with Section 404(b) of ERISA?

It is often not a straightforward decision as to what exactly are the plan’s indicia of ownership of particular non-U.S. investments. The most classic example would be stock and bond certificates. But in other types of investments, such as privately offered securities, subscription documents and limited partnership agreements may be enough. Still in other cases, trade confirmations or account statements may be the best indicia of the plan’s ownership in the investment. There is, unfortunately, not always a simple answer to what exactly are the indicia of ownership of a particular investment.

There are essentially four pathways for the fiduciary to satisfy its duties under Section 404(b) of ERISA under the DOL regulation, each of which are subject to myriad conditions. The first and most common method is where the fiduciary that has management and control over (i.e., decision-making authority to purchase, hold or dispose of) the non-U.S. plan assets is a U.S. bank, insurance company or investment adviser. A second pathway is where the indicia of ownership are maintained in a global custodial relationship. However, one key condition is that the U.S. bank-custodian needs to be liable to the plan as if it retained physical possession over the indicia of ownership in the U.S. Yet a third pathway is where the indicia of ownership are maintained by a broker-dealer registered under the Exchange Act and in the custody of a “satisfactory control location,” as defined under U.S. securities laws. The fourth and final pathway is where a US. Bank or broker-dealer registered under the Exchange Act physically possesses the indicia of ownership.

ERISA fiduciaries should consider the requirements under Section 404(b) as they apply to international investments. From a practical standpoint, investment managers, when negotiating their investment management agreements, should be on the lookout for attempts to impose upon them the duty to ensure compliance with Section 404(b) of ERISA, rather than the plan’s custodian, which may be the more appropriate party.