The Malta Pension Plan – A Supercharged, Cross-Border Roth IRA

Relevant US Tax Principles

In the cross border setting, two of the principal goals in international tax planning are (i) deferral of income earned offshore and (ii) the tax efficient repatriation of foreign profits at low or zero tax rates in the United States. For U.S. taxpayers investing through foreign corporations, planning around the controlled foreign corporation (CFC) rules typically achieves the first goal of deferral, and utilizing holding companies resident in treaty jurisdictions generally accomplishes the second goal of minimizing U.S. federal income tax on the eventual repatriation of profits (for U.S. corporate taxpayers, the use of foreign tax credits may be used to achieve this latter goal).

In a purely domestic setting, limited opportunities exist to defer paying U.S. federal income tax on income or gain realized through any type of entity, and fewer opportunities, if any, exist for the beneficial owners of such entities to receive tax-free distributions of the accumulated profits earned by these entities. A Roth IRA may be the best vehicle available to achieve these goals.

Roth IRA (hereafter, “Roth”) is a type of tax-favored retirement account, under which contributions to the Roth are not tax deductible (like contributions to a traditional IRA would be), but all earnings of the Roth accumulate free of U.S. tax. In addition, qualified distributions from a Roth are not subject to U.S. federal income tax. In other words, once after-tax funds are placed in a Roth, those funds generally are not taxed again. As with traditional IRAs, however, the tax benefits of Roth IRAs are restricted to certain taxpayers who fall below certain modified adjusted gross income thresholds, and even then, such persons are limited in the amounts that can be contributed each year. Additionally, those who are eligible to contribute to such Roth accounts are limited to a maximum contribution of $5,500 per year ($6,500 for taxpayers age 50+). Any “excess contributions” beyond the stated limitations trigger an annual 6 percent excise tax until the excess contributions are eliminated. Finally, because of the “prohibited transaction” provisions, it is not possible for U.S. taxpayers to transfer property (whether appreciated or not) to a Roth without triggering certain taxes (i.e., excise tax as well as income tax on any built-in gain). Therefore, while the benefits of Roths are significant, they are not widely available, particularly to high-income taxpayers.

Relevant Maltese Principles Relating to Malta Pensions

Since 2002, Maltese legislation has been in existence which allows for the creation of cross-border pension funds (although these pension funds have become more relevant to U.S. taxpayers since the effective date of the U.S.-Malta income tax treaty (the “Treaty”) in November of 2010). In contrast to the stringent limitations imposed on contributions to Roths under U.S. law, unlimited contributions may be made to a Malta pension plan. This is true also for U.S. citizens and tax residents, regardless of whether such persons are resident in or have any connection at all to Malta (though no U.S. deduction is permitted for contributions to such Maltese plans). A Maltese pension plan generally is classified as a foreign grantor trust from a U.S. federal income tax perspective because of the retained interest of the grantor/member in the pension fund. Thus, contributions to such a pension fund (including contributions of appreciated property) generally are ignored from the U.S. income tax perspective and should not trigger any adverse U.S. tax consequences.[1]

There also appears to be almost no limitation on what types of assets can be contributed tax-free to a Malta pension, including, for example, stock in private or publicly-traded companies (including PFICs), partnership and LLC interests (including so-called “carried interests”), and interests in U.S. or non-U.S. real estate. While the specific terms of each pension plan vary, Malta law generally permits distributions to be made from such plans beginning at age 50.

The relevant Maltese pension rules allow an initial lump sum payment of up to 30% of the value of the member’s pension fund to be made free of Maltese tax. This initial payment must be made within the first year of the retirement date chosen by that member. Additional periodic payments generally must then be made from the pension at least annually thereafter, and while such payments may be taxable to the recipient, they are usually significantly limited in amount (generally being tied to applicable minimum wage standards in the recipient’s home jurisdiction). Beyond those minimum wage amounts, excess lump sum distributions of up to 50 percent of the balance of the plan generally can be made free of Malta tax.

U.S.-Malta Income Tax Treaty Provisions

As noted above, when the Treaty became effective in late 2010, Maltese pension plans became more attractive to U.S. taxpayers. The Treaty contains very favorable provisions that can result in significant tax benefits to U.S. members of a Maltese pension. In order for such U.S. members to take advantage of these benefits, the pension must qualify as a resident of Malta under the Treaty and also satisfy the limitation on benefits (LOB) article of the Treaty.

Article 4, paragraph 2 of the Treaty provides that a pension fund established in either the United States or Malta is a “resident” for purposes of the Treaty, despite that all or part of the income or gains of such a pension may be exempt from tax under the domestic laws of the relevant country. Under Article 22(2)(e) of the Treaty, a pension plan that is resident in one of the treaty countries satisfies the LOB provision as long as more than 75% of the beneficiaries, members, or participants of the pension fund are individuals who are residents of either the Unites States or Malta.[2]

Thus, as long as a Maltese pension is formed pursuant to relevant Maltese law and more than 75% of its members are U.S. and/or Maltese residents, the pension plan should be eligible for Treaty benefits.

Pursuant to Article 18 of the Treaty, income earned by a Maltese pension fund cannot be taxed by the United States until a distribution is made from that fund to a U.S. resident. This article of the Treaty contains no restrictions on the types of income that are covered, and thus is generally believed to apply broadly to all income (including, for example, income arising in connection with interests in U.S. real estate, PFIC stock, and assets connected to a U.S. trade or business).[3]

Article 17(1)(b) of the Treaty further provides that distributions from a pension arising in one country, and which would be exempt from tax in that country if paid to a resident of that country, must also be exempt from tax in the other country when paid to a  resident of the latter country.  The U.S. Treasury’s Technical Explanation to the Treaty further clarifies that, for example, “a distribution from a U.S. Roth IRA to a resident of Malta would be exempt from tax in Malta to the same extent the distribution would be exempt from tax in the United States if it were distributed to a U.S. resident.”[4]

As mentioned above, pursuant to Maltese law, the initial lump sum payment from a Maltese pension (up to 30% of the value of the relevant pension fund) generally is not taxable in Malta. Thus, based on Article 17(1)(b) of the Treaty, such amounts likewise must not be taxed in the United States when made to a U.S. resident beneficiary. Additionally, this same Maltese exemption generally applies to further lump sum payments received by Maltese resident beneficiaries in certain subsequent years (generally, such distributions may be made tax-free beginning three years after the initial lump sum distribution is received). Notably, any required annual (or more frequent) periodic payments would be taxable in Malta if made to a Maltese resident, and therefore also are taxable in the United States under Section 72 when received by a U.S. resident member of the pension fund.[5]

Finally, while under the so-called “savings clause” the United States generally reserves the right under its income tax treaties to tax its citizens and “residents” as though the treaty did not exist, this savings clause contains certain exceptions. Under the Treaty, Article 1(5) provides that Articles 17(1)(b) and 18 are excepted from the savings clause (found at Article 1(4)). Consequently, the savings clause of the Treaty should not prevent a U.S. citizen or resident member of a Maltese pension from qualifying for Treaty benefits under relevant provisions of Articles 17 and 18.

Example

Assume a U.S. resident individual 49-years of age owns both highly-appreciated U.S. real estate and founders’ shares of a technology start-up that is about to go public. In combination, the interests are worth approximately $100 million, and the aggregate tax basis of the assets is $10 million. As part of her retirement planning, this U.S. individual decides to contribute these assets to a Maltese pension fund.[6] During this same tax year, the real estate is sold for fair market value and the technology company goes public, though she is required to hold the shares for at least six months before disposing of them.  During the following tax year, after her lockup period expires, she sells her shares for fair market value, leaving her portion of the pension plan holding proceeds of $100 million. Since at this time she is at least 50 years of age, assuming the terms of the pension plan permit her to begin withdrawing assets at age 50, the U.S. individual can cause the pension plan to distribute to her during that tax year $30 million of the pension plan funds without the imposition of any tax, either in Malta or the United States.

At this point, the pensioner would need to wait until year 4 to be able to extract additional profits tax-free (pursuant to Maltese law, three years must pass after the initial lump sum distribution before additional lump sum distributions could be made to a resident of Malta tax-free). Thus, in year 4, additional assets can be distributed to the member without triggering tax liability. To calculate how much can be distributed free of tax, it is necessary to first determine the pension holds “sufficient retirement income.” This amount in turn is based, pursuant to Maltese law, on the “annual national minimum wage” in the jurisdiction where the member is resident. To the extent the pension plan balance exceeds the member’s “sufficient retirement income” (on a lifetime basis), 50% of the excess can be withdrawn tax-free each year. Assuming the $70 million remaining assets (after accounting for the initial lump sum distribution) had increased in value to $85 million by year 4, and further assuming it was determined that the individual needed $1 million as her sufficient retirement income, 50% of the $84 million excess, or $42 million, could be distributed to her that year free of tax. Such calculations could likewise be performed in each succeeding tax year, with 50% of the excess being available for tax-free receipt by the beneficiary each year. Consequently, while it is not possible to distribute 100% of the proceeds of such a pension tax-free, a substantial portion of any income generated in the pension (including gains realized with respect to appreciation accrued prior to contribution of assets to the pension fund) may be distributed without any Maltese or U.S. tax liability.

Conclusion

Some commentators have suggested that the purported benefits of Maltese pensions in this context were not intended by Treasury in negotiating the Treaty and that therefore the use of such pensions in this manner is “too good to be true.” The underlying legal principles, however, are not so different from those that apply to Roths in the United States. Like participants in Roths, participants in Maltese pensions can contribute after-tax dollars to the plan and never pay future tax on profits realized with respect to assets held in the plan. Admittedly, the biggest differences relate to the unlimited amounts that may be contributed to Maltese pensions and the fact that prior appreciation in assets that are contributed to the plan also may avoid being subjected to any U.S. tax. Regardless, these distinctions result from features of domestic Maltese law (not U.S. law), and make the use of such pension plans by U.S. residents so potentially attractive.

[1] Note, however, that U.S. information filing obligations may be triggered to the U.S. transferor member pursuant to Section 6048. Unless otherwise noted, all Section references are to the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”), and the Treasury regulations promulgated under the Code.

[2] For this purpose, the term resident includes a U.S. citizen.  Article 4(1) of the Treaty.

[3] It should be noted that the FIRPTA provisions of Section 897 and Section 1445 should not be applicable because the pension plan is treated as a foreign grantor trust for U.S. federal income tax purposes.

[4] Treasury Technical Explanation of the U.S.-Malta Income Tax Treaty, signed 8/8/2008, Article 17, paragraph 1.

[5] Under Section 72, a portion of each payment represents tax-free return of basis.

[6] Note that, as discussed above, there should be no U.S. tax implications on contribution of the assets (for example, under Section 684), as the pension plan should be classified as a grantor trust for U.S. federal income tax purposes.

This post was written by  Jeffrey L. Rubinger and Summer Ayers LePree of  Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod LLP.
Read more on the National Law Review.

Unanimous Supreme Court Decision in Favor of “Church Plan” Defendants

Today, the Supreme Court handed a long-awaited victory to religiously affiliated organizations operating pension plans under ERISA’s “church plan” exemption. In a surprising 8-0 ruling, the Court agreed with the Defendants that the exemption applies to pension plans maintained by church affiliated organizations such as healthcare facilities, even if the plans were not established by a church. Justice Kagan authored the opinion, with a concurrence by Justice Sotomayor.  Justice Gorsuch, who was appointed after oral argument, did not participate in the decision.  The opinion reverses decisions in favor of Plaintiffs from three Appellate Circuits – the Third, Seventh, and Ninth.

For those of you not familiar with the issue, ERISA originally defined a “church plan” as “a plan established and maintained . . . for its employees . . . by a church.”   Then, in 1980, Congress amended the exemption by adding the provision at the heart of the three consolidated cases.  The new section provides: “[a] plan established and maintained . . . by a church . . . includes a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.”  The parties agreed that under those provisions, a “church plan” need not be maintained by a church, but they differed as to whether a plan must still have been established by a church to qualify for the church-plan exemption.

The Defendants, Advocate Health Care Network, St. Peter’s Healthcare System, and Dignity Health, asserted that their pension plans are “church plans” exempt from ERISA’s strict reporting, disclosure, and funding obligations.  Although each of the plans at issue was established by the hospitals and not a church, each one of the hospitals had received confirmation from the IRS over the years that their plans were, in fact, exempt from ERISA, under the church plan exemption because of the entities’ religious affiliation.

The Plaintiffs, participants in the pension plans, argued that the church plan exemption was not intended to exempt pension plans of large healthcare systems where the plans were not established by a church.

Justice Kagan’s analysis began by acknowledging that the term “church plan” initially meant only “a plan established and maintained . . . by a church.” But the 1980 amendment, she found, expanded the original definition to “include” another type of plan—“a plan maintained by [a principal-purpose] organization.’”  She concluded that the use of the word “include” was not literal, “but tells readers that a different type of plan should receive the same treatment (i.e., an exemption) as the type described in the old definition.”

Thus, according to Justice Kagan, because Congress included within the category of plans “established and maintained by a church” plans “maintained by” principal-purpose organizations, those plans—and all those plans—are exempt from ERISA’s requirements. Although the DOL, PBGC, and IRS had all filed a brief supporting the Defendants’ position, Justice Kagan mentioned only briefly the agencies long-standing interpretation of the exemption, and did not engage in any “Chevron-Deference” analysis.  Some observers may find this surprising, because comments during oral argument suggested that some of the Justices harbored concerns regarding the hundreds of similar plans that had relied on administrative interpretations for thirty years.

In analyzing the legislative history, Justice Kagan aptly observed, that “[t]he legislative materials in these cases consist almost wholly of excerpts from committee hearings and scattered floor statements by individual lawmakers—the sort of stuff we have called `among the least illuminating forms of legislative history.’” Nonetheless, after reviewing the history, and as she forecasted by her questioning at oral argument (see our March 29, 2017 Blog, Supreme Court Hears “Church Plan” Erisa Class Action Cases), Justice Kagan rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the legislative history demonstrated an intent to keep the “establishment” requirement.  To do so “would have prevented some plans run by pension boards—the very entities the employees say Congress most wanted to benefit—from qualifying as `church plans’…. No argument the employees have offered here supports that goal-defying (much less that text-defying) statutory construction.”

In sum, Justice Kagan held that “[u]nder the best reading of the statute, a plan maintained by a principal-purpose organization therefore qualifies as a `church plan,’ regardless of who established it.”

Justice Sotomayor filed a concurrence joining the Court’s opinion because she was “persuaded that it correctly interprets the relevant statutory text.” Although she agreed with the Court’s reading of the exemption, she was “troubled by the outcome of these cases.”  Her concern was based on the notion that “Church-affiliated organizations operate for-profit subsidiaries, employee thousands of people, earn billions of dollars in revenue, and compete with companies that have to comply with ERISA.”  This concern appears to be based on the view that some church-affiliated organizations effectively operate as secular, for-profit businesses.

Takeaways:

  • Although this decision is positive news for church plans, it may not be the end of the church plan litigation.  Numerous, large settlements have occurred before and since the Supreme Court took up the consolidated cases, and we expect some will still settle, albeit likely for lower numbers.
  • In addition, Plaintiffs could still push forward with the cases on the grounds that the entities maintaining the church plans are not “principal-purpose organizations” controlled by “a church.”

René E. Thorne and Charles F. Seemann III of Jackson Lewis P.C..

Get the Most Out of Retirement: Checklist for Happiness, Health, Purpose and Financial Security

Get the Most Out of RetirementThe American Bar Association and AARP have partnered to bring you the book Get the Most Out of Retirement: Checklist for Happiness, Health, Purpose and Financial Security. As our population continues to age, more Americans are retiring.  These Americans will need help with all the aspects of retirement.  This book provides an easy step-by-step approach to making decisions that are tailored for this growing segment of the populace.

Click here to order.

Whether you’re planning for or already living in retirement, there’s a lot that goes into making the most of every day. From crafting a budget and managing your money to last a lifetime to simplifying your life so you can really focus on what you want to do next, Get the Most Out of Retirement walks you through the process.

You’ll get step-by-step, practical tips to

  • Nurture new and old relationships
  • Find meaning through volunteer and work opportunities
  • Take classes and pursue hobbies
  • Decide where to live
  • Retire abroad
  • Get organized and clean out the clutter
  • Stay within your budget
  • Simplify the legal paperwork
  • Live healthfully
  • And more!

Our generation has decades of [bonus] years ahead that our parents didn’t have. This is the one book you’ll need not just to manage the business of life wisely but to make your retirement rich with health, happiness, and meaning.

 

Get the Most Out of Retirement: Checklist for Happiness, Health, Purpose and Financial Security

Get the Most Out of RetirementThe American Bar Association and AARP have partnered to bring you Get the Most Out of Retirement: Checklist for Happiness, Health, Purpose and Financial Security. As our population continues to age, more Americans are retiring.  These Americans will need help with all the aspects of retirement.  This book provides an easy step-by-step approach to making decisions that are tailored for this growing segment of the populace.

Click here to order.

Whether you’re planning for or already living in retirement, there’s a lot that goes into making the most of every day. From crafting a budget and managing your money to last a lifetime to simplifying your life so you can really focus on what you want to do next, Get the Most Out of Retirement walks you through the process.

You’ll get step-by-step, practical tips to

  • Nurture new and old relationships
  • Find meaning through volunteer and work opportunities
  • Take classes and pursue hobbies
  • Decide where to live
  • Retire abroad
  • Get organized and clean out the clutter
  • Stay within your budget
  • Simplify the legal paperwork
  • Live healthfully
  • And more!

Our generation has decades of [bonus] years ahead that our parents didn’t have. This is the one book you’ll need not just to manage the business of life wisely but to make your retirement rich with health, happiness, and meaning.

 

IRS Announces Major Changes to its Determination Letter Program for Individually Designed Retirement Plans

On July 21, 2015, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued Announcement 2015-19 (the Announcement), which ends the five year remedial amendment cycles for individually designed plans effective January 1, 2017.  For remedial amendment cycles beginning after 2016, plan sponsors will no longer be able to apply for determination letters on their individually designed defined contribution and defined benefit plans, except for initial qualification and qualification upon termination. Effective on the Announcement date, off-cycle requests for determination letters will no longer be accepted. The IRS intends to publish additional guidance periodically, and seeks comments on the upcoming changes.

Background

The determination letter program allows retirement plan sponsors to request an IRS determination that the “form” of a plan (but not its operation) meets the requirements for favorable tax treatment under the Internal Revenue Code (Code). A determination letter is an IRS opinion that the terms of a retirement plan satisfy the complex requirements of Section 401(a) of the Code. It is standard practice to seek a favorable determination letter for an individually designed retirement plan. Plan sponsors, auditors, fiduciaries and others customarily rely on a favorable determination letter to establish that a plan’s terms comply with Code requirements.

Under the determination letter program, the sponsor of an individually designed plan generally applies for a determination once every five years according to staggered application cycles (Cycles A to E) based on the last digit of the plan sponsor’s employer identification number (EIN).

IRS Announcement 2015-19

The Announcement leaves unchanged the current remedial amendment period, Cycle E, ending January 31, 2016 for individually designed plans sponsored by employers with EINs ending in zero or five. Also unchanged is the next remedial amendment period, Cycle A, from February 1, 2016, through January 31, 2017, for EINs ending in one or six. Sponsors of Cycle A plans may submit determination applications until January 31, 2017. The Announcement ends the five year remedial amendment cycles for individually designed plans effective January 1, 2017. The end of the remedial amendment cycles will mean that required amendments generally must be adopted on or before the extended due date for filing the plan sponsor’s tax return for the year of a plan change. However, because the rules are changing, the IRS expects that a remedial amendment period will extend at least until December 31, 2017.

Future Compliance

The IRS and the Department of Treasury are considering ways to make it easier for sponsors to ensure that their plan documents satisfy the qualification requirements of the Code. This may include, in appropriate circumstances: (i) providing model amendments (safe harbor language), (ii) not requiring certain amendments to be adopted if they are not relevant for a particular plan (for example, because of the type of plan, employer, or benefits offered), or (iii) expanding plan sponsors’ options to document qualification requirements through “incorporation by reference.”

At a recent American Bar Association meeting, IRS officials informally discussed other possible compliance methods for plan sponsors including: (i) allowing plans sponsors to make minor changes to model amendments, (ii) making it easier to correct plan document failures under the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (EPCRS), and (iii) expanding the determination letter program for pre-approved plans.

In the Announcement, the IRS requests comments on the upcoming changes and specifically these issues: (i) changes to the remedial amendment period for individually designed plans, (ii) requirements for adoption of interim amendments, (iii) guidance to assist the conversion of individually designed plans to pre-approved plans and (iv) any modification of the EPCRS.

Observations

Cycle E and Cycle A plan sponsors should still submit timely determination letter requests for those plans. The Announcement on July 21, 2015, is likely just a first step, to be followed by other IRS guidance which may make it easier for plan sponsors to comply with documentary requirements. Questions and comments on the Announcement will probably be addressed later by the IRS. Plan sponsors with individually designed plans should consider the Announcement and subsequent IRS guidance in deciding on a course of action. When determination letters are no longer effective, sponsors of individually designed plans may decide to seek expert opinions that plan terms comply with Section 401(a) of the Code. Some sponsors of individually designed plans will consider transitioning those plans to a pre-approved format (Master and Prototype, or Volume Submitter), to take advantage of IRS opinion letters issued to pre-approved plans.

© 2015 McDermott Will & Emery

What ERISA Plans Should Know about Money Market Reform

Drinker Biddle Law Firm

Most U.S. money market funds will begin restructuring their operations beginning in 2014 and throughout 2015 and 2016 as a result of the SEC’s adoption of wide ranging changes to the rules regulating these funds.  Since many plan participants invest in money market funds, ERISA plan sponsors, recordkeepers and investment consultants and other advisers will need to plan for operational, contractual, disclosure and other changes in connection with these new rules.

Floating and Stable NAV Funds

One of the biggest rule changes involves how money market funds will be allowed to value their shares.  Currently, money market funds generally offer shares at a stable net asset value (“NAV’) of $1.00.  Under the SEC’s new money market rules, only government and “retail” money market funds can offer their shares at a stable NAV.  Government money market funds are those funds that hold at least 99.5% of their investments in government securities, cash or repurchase agreements collateralized by government securities.  Money market funds that don’t qualify to offer shares at a stable NAV because of the nature of their shareholder base (i.e., institutional money market funds) will have to float their NAVs, meaning the share price will fluctuate from day to day.

Retail money market funds are funds that restrict investors only to beneficial owners that are natural persons.  A beneficial owner is any person who has direct or indirect, sole or shared voting and/or investment power.  Under the new rules, retail money market funds will be required to reasonably conclude that beneficial owners of intermediaries are natural persons.  The SEC stated that tax-advantaged savings accounts and trusts, such as (i) participant-directed defined contribution plans; (ii) individual retirement accounts; (iii) simplified employee pension arrangements, and other similar types of arrangements, would qualify for the natural person test.  On the other hand, defined benefit plans, endowments and small businesses are not considered “natural persons” and would not be eligible to invest in a retail money market fund.

It is widely expected that the SEC’s new money market rules will result in many changes in fund offerings.  For example:

  • Money market funds that currently have both institutional and natural persons as holders may spin off the institutional holders into separate floating NAV funds;

  • Some institutional funds may decide to liquidate or merge with other funds;

  • Some advisers may begin offering new money fund-“like” products that only hold short term securities (60 days or less maturity) and therefore value fund holdings at amortized cost; and

  • Some prime money market funds may change their investment strategies to operate as a government money market fund in order to steer clear of the floating NAV and liquidity fee and gate rules (discussed below).

Effect on ERISA Plans.  The SEC provided examples of how funds could satisfy the natural person definition with intermediaries, including through: contractual arrangements, periodic certifications and representations or other verification methods.  Accordingly, ERISA service providers who hold fund shares in omnibus accounts may expect to be contacted by retail money market funds to provide these certifications or representations and/or to enter into new agreements with funds for this purpose.

ERISA plan sponsors and investment consultants and advisers will also need to be alert to potential changes to existing money market funds currently offered in plans to which they provide services and/or new fund offerings that may be appealing to and/or better serve the best interests of participants.

Liquidity Fees and Redemption Gates

All money market funds, except government money market funds, will be subject to the SEC’s new rules with respect to the imposition of liquidity (or redemption) fees and redemption gates during periods when a money market fund’s weekly liquid assets dip below certain thresholds.  Under these new rules a fund board may impose up to a 2% liquidity fee and a gate on fund redemptions if weekly liquid assets fall below 30% of total assets.  The fund board must impose a 1% liquidity fee if weekly liquid assets fall below 10% of total assets, unless the board decides otherwise.  Of course, if 10% of a money market fund’s assets are below 10% of a fund’s total assets, it would be unlikely that a board would not impose liquidity fees and redemption gates.  The redemption gates can last no longer than 10 days and cannot be imposed more than once in a 90-day period.

Effect on ERISA Plans.  The liquidity fee and gate requirements will usually only be triggered in times of extreme market stress.  But they are features that many ERISA participants and ERISA service providers will not find appealing.  For that reason, there may be more demand from participants for government money market funds, which may, but are not required to, comply with the fee and gate rules.  It is not expected that government money market funds will opt to become subject to these fee and gate rules.

The liquidity fee and redemption gate rules will require recordkeepers to make technical changes in their operations.  These operational changes could be expensive and time consuming to implement especially for smaller plans.  In particular, it should be noted that liquidity fees may vary in amount depending on a fund board’s determination and redemption gates may vary in the amount of days and will need to be removed quickly upon notice by a fund board.  Additionally, there may be contractual impediments to implementation of liquidity fees and gates, which are discussed below.

Many commenters on the proposed money market rules raised questions with the SEC regarding possible conflicts caused by the application of the fee and gate rules to funds in ERISA and other tax-exempt plans.  Specifically, commenters mentioned the following issues with the fee and/or gate rules:

  • possible violations of certain minimum distribution rules that could be interfered with by the gate rule;

  • potential taxation as a result of the inability to process certain mandatory refunds on a timely basis;

  • delays in plan conversions or rollovers;

  • possible conflicts with the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) qualified default investment (“QDIA”) rules; and

  • conflicts with plan fiduciaries’ duties regarding maintenance of adequate liquidity in their plans.

The SEC’s response generally was that these concerns either were unlikely to materialize or could be mitigated by ERISA plan sponsors or service providers.  For example, with respect to QDIAs, the SEC suggested that a plan sponsor or service provider could (i) loan funds to a plan for operating expenses to avoid the effects of a gate, or (ii) pay a liquidity fee on behalf of a redeeming participant.  In connection with rollovers or conversions, the SEC likewise pointed out that if the liquidity fee caused a hardship on a participant, then the ERISA fiduciary or its affiliate could simply pay the liquidity fee; failing that, the SEC suggested that the fiduciary consider a government money market fund for investment purposes, which is not required to comply with the fee and gate rules.

The SEC continues to work with the DOL on these and other ERISA-and tax exempt specific issues but thus far has not provided any relief from its fee and gate rules for these types of plans and accounts.  Thus, ERISA fiduciaries and plan sponsors may need to consider money market fund offerings in their plans in light of these issues.

Contractual Issues

As noted above, the “natural person” requirements for retail money market funds will require these funds to ascertain information regarding beneficial ownership of fund shares from ERISA intermediaries.  Retail money market funds may ask ERISA intermediaries to make representations about their customers through revised service agreements containing representations about the nature of the intermediaries’ customers.  These funds may also use periodic certifications or questionnaires to obtain this information.

In addition, many existing contracts between money market funds and intermediaries have restrictions in them regarding the imposition of redemption fees and may restrict a fund’s right to delay effecting redemptions thereby putting them in conflict with the new liquidity fee and redemption gate rules.  Recordkeepers who contract with retail or institutional money market funds may therefore be asked by these funds to amend or otherwise revise their servicing agreements with the funds to provide for liquidity fees and redemption gates.

Pricing Changes

The new money market rules will require all floating NAV money market funds to price their shares to four decimal places (e.g., $1.0000).  Recordkeepers will need to adjust their systems to accommodate the four-decimal place pricing system.

Disclosure and Education/Training

ERISA service providers will need to train and educate their personnel on the new money market rules and fund options so that they can answer participants’ questions.  ERISA service providers will need to develop disclosure for ERISA participants that clearly describes the risks and differences in money market funds and new fund options.

Compliance Dates

The new money market rules take effect in various stages over the next two years.  Importantly, the floating NAV, decimal pricing, and liquidity fee and gate rules become effective on October 14, 2016.  That said, the mutual fund industry appears to be moving quickly to prepare to comply, and it is probable that investment advisers to money market funds will begin to make some changes, for example, creating new funds and separating retail and institutional shareholders into different funds well ahead of the 2016 compliance date.  Therefore, ERISA service providers will need to be alert to the possibility that their operations may need to be adjusted as these changes occur.

The SEC’s new money market rules will usher in many changes to money market funds over the next 18-24 months that will affect ERISA and tax-exempt participants who invest in these vehicles and ERISA service providers.  ERISA service providers should begin preparing for these changes by assessing their systems, as applicable, to evaluate whether they can comply with the new rules and, if not, what other investment options might be available to address participants’ short-term investment needs.  ERISA service providers may also want to consider whether non-government money market funds or other short-term liquidity vehicles should be offered to ERISA participants in light of the new fee and gate rules.

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The Supreme Court of the United States Holds that ESOP Fiduciaries are not Entitled to a Presumption of Prudence, Clarifies Standards for Stock Drop Claims

Dickinson Wright Logo

On June 25, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that there is no special presumption of prudence for fiduciaries of employee stock ownership plans (“ESOPs”). Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, No. 12-751, 573 U.S. ___ (June 25, 2014) (slip op.).

Background

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA”) imposes legal duties on fiduciaries of employee benefit plans, including ESOPs.[1] Specifically, ERISA requires the fiduciary of an employee benefit plan to act prudently in managing the plan’s assets.[2] In addition, ERISA requires the fiduciary to diversify plan assets.[3]

ESOPs are designed to be invested primarily in employer securities.[4] ERISA exempts ESOP fiduciaries from the duty of diversify plan assets and from the duty to prudently manage plan assets, but only to the extent that prudence requires diversification of plan assets.[5]

The recent financial crisis generated a wave of ERISA “stock drop” cases, which were filed after a precipitous drop in the value of employer securities held in an ESOP. Generally, the plaintiff alleged that the ESOP fiduciary breached its duty of prudence by investing in employer securities or continuing to offer employer securities as an investment alternative. Defendant fiduciaries defended on the ground that the plaintiff failed to rebut the legal presumption that the fiduciary acted prudently by investing in employer securities or continuing to offer employer securities as an investment alternative.

The Federal Circuit Courts of Appeals that had considered the issue adopted the rebuttable presumption of prudence but split on the issues of (1) whether the legal presumption applied at the pleadings stage of litigation or whether the legal presumption was evidentiary in nature and did not apply at the pleadings stage of litigation and (2) the rebuttal standard that the plaintiff of a stock drop action must satisfy.[6]

Dudenhoeffer held that ESOP fiduciaries are not entitled to a legal presumption that they acted prudently by investing in employer securities or continuing to offer employer securities as an investment alternative.[7]

The Dudenhoeffer Case

Fifth Third Bancorp maintained a defined contribution plan, which offered participants a number of investment alternatives, including the company’s ESOP. The terms of the ESOP required that its assets be “invested primarily in shares of common stock of Fifth Third [Bancorp].”[8] The company offered a matching contribution that was initially invested in the ESOP. In addition, participants could make elective deferrals to the ESOP.

ESOP participants alleged that the ESOP fiduciaries knew or should have known on the basis of public information that the employer securities were overvalued and an excessively risky investment. In addition, the ESOP fiduciaries knew or should have known on the basis of non-public information that the employer securities were overvalued. Plaintiffs contended that a prudent ESOP fiduciary would have responded to this public and non-public information by (1) divesting the ESOP of employer securities, (2) refraining from investing in employer securities, (3) cancelling the ESOP investment alternative, and (4) disclosing non-public information to adjust the market price of the employer securities.

Procedural Posture

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that ESOP fiduciaries were entitled to a presumption of prudence with respect to their collective decisions to invest in employer securities and continue to offer employer securities as an investment alternative.[9] The District Court concluded that presumption of prudence applied at the pleadings stage of litigation and that the plaintiffs failed to rebut the presumption.[10]

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court judgment, holding that the presumption of prudence is evidentiary in nature and does not apply at the pleadings stage of litigation.[11] The Sixth Circuit concluded that the complaint stated a claim for a breach of the fiduciary duty of prudence.[12]

ESOP Fiduciaries Not Entitled to Presumption of Prudence

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held that ESOP fiduciaries are not entitled to a presumption of prudence with regard to their decisions to invest in employer securities and continue to offer employer securities as an investment alternative; rather, ESOP fiduciaries are subject to the same duty of prudence that applies to other ERISA fiduciaries, except that ESOP fiduciaries need not diversify plan assets.[13]

The Court began its analysis b
y acknowledging a tension within the statutory framework of ERISA. On the one hand, ERISA imposes a duty on all fiduciaries to discharge their duties prudently, which includes an obligation to diversify plan assets. On the other hand, ERISA recognizes that ESOPs are designed to invest primarily in employer securities and are not intended to hold diversified assets. The Court concluded that an ESOP fiduciary is not subject to the duty of prudence to the extent that the legal obligation requires the ESOP fiduciary to diversify plan assets. The Court found no special legal presumption favoring ESOP fiduciaries.

New Standards for Stock Drop Claims

Although the Court rejected the presumption of prudence, it vacated the judgment of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which held that the complaint properly stated a claim) and announced new standards for lower courts to observe in evaluating whether a complaint properly pleads a claim that an ESOP fiduciary breached its fiduciary duty of prudence by investing in employer securities or continuing to offer employer securities as an investment alternative.

Public Information

First, the Court concluded that “where a stock is publicly traded, allegations that a fiduciary should have recognized from publicly available information alone that the market was over- or undervaluing the stock are implausible as a general rule, at least in the absence of special circumstances.”[14] In other words, a plaintiff generally cannot state a plausible claim of imprudence based solely on publicly available information. An ESOP fiduciary does not necessarily act imprudently by observing the efficient market theory, which holds that a major stock market provides the best estimate of the value of employer securities. To be clear, the Court did not rule out the possibility that a plaintiff could properly plead imprudence based on publicly available information indicating special circumstances affecting the reliability of the market price.

Non-Public Information

Second, the Court concluded that “[t]o state a claim for breach of the duty of prudence on the basis of inside information, a plaintiff must plausibly allege an alternative action that the [fiduciary] could have taken that would have been consistent with [applicable Federal and state securities laws] and that a prudent fiduciary in the same circumstances would not have viewed as more likely to harm the [ESOP] than to help it.”[15]

The Court reasoned that where a complaint alleges imprudence based on an ESOP fiduciary’s failure to act on non-public information, a lower court’s analysis should be guided by three considerations. First, ERISA does not require a fiduciary to violate applicable Federal and state securities laws. In other words, an ESOP fiduciary does not act imprudently by declining to divest the ESOP of employer securities or by prohibiting investments in employer securities on the basis of non-public information. Second, where a complaint faults fiduciaries for failing to decide, on the basis of non-public information, to refrain from making additional investments in employer securities or for failing to disclose non-public information to correct the valuation of the employer securities, lower courts should consider the extent to which the duty of prudence conflicts with complex insider trading and corporate disclosure requirements imposed by Federal securities laws or the objectives of such laws. Third, lower courts should consider whether the complaint has plausibly alleged that a prudent fiduciary could not have concluded that discontinuing investments in employer securities or disclosing adverse, non-public information to the public, or taking any other action suggested by the plaintiff would result in more harm than good to the ESOP by causing a drop in the value of the employer securities.

Quantifying the Unknowns

Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer will undoubtedly reshape the landscape of ERISA litigation and, specifically, stock drop litigation. To fully understand the decision’s impact, a number of questions must still be answered, including the correct application of the standards espoused by the Court. In addition, Dudenhoeffer involved a publicly-traded company; it is unclear what application, if any, the decision will have in the context of employer securities of a privately held company.

 
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[1] See generally, ERISA § 404(a).

[2] ERISA § 404(a)(1)(B).

[3] ERISA § 404(a)(1)(C).

[4] Code § 4975(e)(7)(A).

[5] ERISA § 404(a)(2).

[6] See e.g. Moench v. Robertson, 62 F.3d 553, 571 (3d Cir. 1995); In re Citigroup ERISA Litig., 662 F.3d 128, 138 (2d Cir. 2011); Kirschbaum v. Reliant Energy, Inc., 526 F.3d 243, 254 (5th Cir. 2008); Kuper v. Iovenko, 66 F.3d 1447 (6th Cir. 1995); White v. Marshall & Ilsley Corp., Case No. 11-2660, 2013 WL 1688918 (7th Cir. Apr. 19, 2013); Quan v. Computer Sciences Corp., 623 F.3d 870, 881 (9th Cir. 2010);Lanfear v. Home Depot, Inc., 679 F.3d 1267 (11th Cir. 2012).

[7] No. 12-751, 573 U.S. ____ at 1-2.

[8] Id.

[9] Dudenhoeffer v. Fifth Third Bancorp, Inc., 757 F. Supp. 2d 753, 759 (S.D. Ohio 2010).

[10] Id. At 762.

[11] Dudenhoeffer v. Fifth Third Bancorp, 692 F. 3d 410, 418-19 (2012).

[12] Id. At 423.

[13] Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, No. 12-751, 573 U.S. ___ at 1-2.

[14] Id. At 16.

[15] Id. At 18.