Our sister blog reported recently that the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) published final regulations that reform money market mutual funds (“MMFs”). The regulations provide for two core reforms: (1) “Institutional” MMFs, other than those invested primarily in government securities, are prohibited from using a stable net asset value (“NAV”), and (2) MMFs must impose redemption fees or liquidation gates when the fund’s liquidity falls below certain levels. The specific details of these rules are beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, the message of this blog is that these regulations could affect many ERISA plans because MMFs are an important part of the investment strategy of both defined contribution and defined benefit plans. Unfortunately, the regulations raise several ERISA questions and provide little in the way of answers. The SEC has acknowledged these concerns in the preamble of the regulations and has promised to work with the Department of Labor (the “DOL”) to answer these questions. In the meantime, however, plan sponsors and fiduciaries should consider several issues.

  1. General Fiduciary Responsibilities Prime MMFs.

With respect to the requirement that ERISA plan fiduciaries prudently manage plan assets, the DOL staff advised the SEC staff that a MMF’s liquidity and potential for redemption restrictions is just one of many factors a plan fiduciary would need to consider in evaluating the role of a MMF in a plan’s investment portfolio. This issue is a particular concern to defined benefit plans that invest in prime MMFs. Fiduciaries of defined benefit plans must recognize that prime MMFs under the new rules will have more volatility and less liquidity than MMFs that invest in governmental securities. Fiduciaries should consult the fund strategy and investment policies to determine whether prime MMFs still fit in the investment strategy.

Defined contribution plans generally should not have these concerns because under the “retail” exception, MMFs offered as investment options under these plans may still have a fixed $1 per share value.

  1. QDIAs.

The SEC acknowledged in the preamble that the imposition of a liquidity fee or redemption gate within 90 days of a participant’s default investment to a MMF could impair the ability of the MMF to qualify for QDIA relief. The SEC cited DOL Field Assistance Bulletin in 2008-03 and said that to avoid this concern, a plan sponsor or service provider could pay the fee rather than the participant. Alternatively, the plan sponsor or other party in interest could loan the funds for the payment of ordinary expenses of the plan for a purpose incidental to the ordinary operating expenses of the plan to avoid the effects of the fee or gate. The preamble to the regulations state that the DOL and the SEC will work together to provide additional guidance on this issue at a later date.

  1. RMDs and Refunds.

With respect to the processing of required minimum distributions and certain distributions of refunds on a timely basis, the SEC was less helpful. It said generally that it seems rare that these types of issues would arise. To the extent that a redemption fee prevented a timely distribution of RMDs, the individual could file a Form 5329 with the IRS to require a waiver from excise taxes. The SEC acknowledged in a footnote that the discretion to grant or waive the excise taxes rests with the IRS. Additionally, if a refund could not be distributed in a timely basis because of a redemption fee or gate, and that raised plan qualification issues, employers should consult with EPCRs.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is encouraging that the SEC and DOL are aware of these issues and have promised to provide guidance in the future. The potential problem, however, is that the DOL or the IRS could take positions in an audit that put the plan sponsors or fiduciaries on the defensive, despite the lack of guidance. What should plan sponsors and fiduciaries do in the meantime? They should review their MMF fund offerings and determine if they continue to remain appropriate investment options. They also should plan for any redemption fees or gates. Finally, they should document any decisions they make with respect to these issues. Hopefully, the SEC and DOL will provide additional guidance in the future that will make these decisions easier. Until then, the classic fiduciary advice of monitoring investments and documenting the reasons for making decisions is critically important.