DOL Clarifies Stance on Private Equity Investments in DC Plans

The supplemental statement refines its June 2020 information letter on including private equity investments in participant-directed retirement savings plans.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has issued a statement cautioning plan fiduciaries against the perception that private equity (PE) is generally appropriate as a component of a designated investment alternative in a typical defined contribution (DC) plan, in response to stakeholder concerns.

The DOL said plan-level fiduciaries of small plans will typically not have the expertise necessary for the complex evaluation needed to determine the prudence of private equity investments in designated investment options in participant-directed plans.  

The DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued its most recent statement as a response to stakeholders’ concerns that its 2020 information letter could be misapplied as broadly endorsing the benefits of private equity investments and downplaying the risks. Additionally, EBSA officials stressed provisions in the letter regarding the fiduciary expertise needed to evaluate and monitor private equity investment options included in DC plans.

The DOL concluded that the regulator should supplement the information letter to “ensure that plan fiduciaries do not expose plan participants and beneficiaries to unwarranted risks by misreading the letter.” The regulator clarified that private equity investments, outside of limited use cases, are not generally appropriate for a typical 401(k) plan.   

“After considering reactions to the information letter by stakeholders, the department concluded it was important to release a statement cautioning fiduciaries, especially in small plans, against marketing efforts that may misrepresent the information letter as a U.S. Department of Labor endorsement or recommendation of these investments for 401(k) plans,” says Ali Khawar, acting assistant secretary for EBSA. “The supplemental statement emphasizes the limited focus of the information letter as a response to large plan sponsors who offer both defined benefit [DB] plans and participant-directed retirement savings plans, and who invest in private equity for their defined benefit plans but do not do so for the participant-directed plans.”

Many DB plans have unwound plan investment exposures to public equities and diverted some risk investments into private equity, real estate and hedge funds for alternative assets exposure. Alternative investments can offer diversification away from volatile equities and may offer superior risk-adjusted returns to public market counterparts.

“Except in this minority of situations, plan-level fiduciaries of small, individual account plans are not likely suited to evaluate the use of PE investments in designated investment alternatives in individual account plans,” the DOL says in its supplemental statement. “The department further notes that ERISA [the Employee Retirement Income Security Act] Section 404(c) does not relieve a plan fiduciary of the prudence duties that apply to the selection and monitoring of designated investment alternatives, investment managers and investment advice service providers.”

A study published last year by Neuberger Berman research partner the Defined Contribution Alternatives Association (DCALTA), completed with the Institute for Private Capital (IPC), suggests that adding private equity funds in DC plan portfolios improves performance and has diversification benefits that reduce overall portfolio risk.  

The June 2020 information letter addressed concerns with offering private equity investments in DC plans and detailed considerations for plan fiduciaries in evaluating and monitoring the investments.

The DOL’s new statement can be read in full here.