Sponsors Need to Understand Potential Participant Losses from SecLending

March 18, 2011 (PLANSPONSOR.com) – In recent testimony, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that 401(k) plan participants only receive a portion of the return when the reinvested cash collateral taken in securities lending transactions earns more than the amounts owed to others engaged in the transaction.

The GAO pointed out that in the past few years, risky assets in the cash collateral pool, which lost value and were difficult to trade, caused realized and unrealized losses to 401(k) plan participants. Participants and some plan sponsors are often unaware that 401(k) plan investment options are engaged in securities lending with cash collateral reinvestment and that these arrangements can pose risks to plan participants.   

The agency recommended that the Department of Labor provide more guidance to plan sponsors about fees and returns when plan assets are utilized in securities lending with cash collateral reinvestment, amend its participant disclosure regulation to include provisions specific to securities lending with cash collateral reinvestment information, and make cash collateral reinvestment a prohibited transaction unless the gains and losses for participants are more symmetrical.  

The agency’s report explained that some 401(k) investment options that hold assets on behalf of plan participants lend out those assets for a period of time to a third party in exchange for collateral. In the United States, cash is the primary form of collateral taken in these securities lending transactions. When cash is received it is typically reinvested in a cash collateral pool to earn a greater return for participants. Many investment options offered by 401(k) plans engage in securities lending with cash collateral reinvestment, and the structure of the investment options offered by the plan affects the type of securities lending the plan engages in–direct or indirect securities lending–and the way the gains and losses are allocated to plan participants. 401(k) plan participants share any gains but fully bear any losses from cash collateral pool investments in the case of securities lending with cash collateral reinvestment.  

In another report, the GAO recommended the DoL  look into ways retirement plan sponsors and participants can be made more aware of the risks of investments that may have distribution restrictions, including those that lend securities (see DoL Asked to Add to Participant Disclosure Rules).  

The securities lending testimony can be downloaded from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-359T.