Not much has been written about ERISA considerations for referring investment managers to retirement plans . . . and the receipt of solicitor’s fees for a referral.

However, there are a host of legal issues.

First, the person making the referral is receiving “indirect” compensation (that is, the solicitor’s payment by the investment manager), which makes that person a “covered service provider” or “CSP.” As a CSP, he must make 408(b)(2) disclosures (i.e., services, status and compensation). The failure to make timely disclosures is a prohibited transaction.

Second, the compensation cannot be more than a reasonable amount . . . as measured by the value of the services to the plan. But, what if the CSP doesn’t provide any ongoing services to the plan? Does the “compensation” become unreasonable after five years of payments? Ten years? I am not aware of any guidance on that point.

Third, the referral can result in the CSP becoming an ERISA fiduciary adviser. The DOL takes the position that a referral to a discretionary manager is the same as the recommendation of an investment. If it is individualized, based on the particular needs of the plan (or a participant), the DOL says it’s a fiduciary act. For example, in the preamble to its participant advice regulation, the DOL said:  “. . .the Department has long held the view that individualized recommendations of particular investment managers to plan fiduciaries constitutes the provision of investment advice within the meaning of section 3(21)(A)(ii) in the same manner as recommendations of particular securities or other property. The fiduciary nature of such advice does not change merely because the advice is being given to a plan participant or beneficiary.” That conclusion means that the CSP should engage in a prudent process and its compensation must be “level” (that is, cannot vary depending on which investment manager is recommended). I am not aware of any enforcement activity on these issues. However, the DOL position is clear.

While I have opinions about these unanswered questions, the purpose of this article is to alert people about the issues and risks.