The Securities Act of 1933 prohibits the offer or sale of securities unless either a registration statement has been filed with the SEC or an exemption from registration is applicable. Although most qualified plan interests qualify for an exemption from the registration requirement, offers or sales of employer securities as part of a 401(k) plan generally will not qualify for such an exemption. Accordingly, 401(k) plans with a company stock investment option typically register the shares offered as an investment option under the plan using Form S-8.
On September 22, 2016, the SEC released a Compliance and Disclosure Interpretation addressing the application of the registration requirements to offers and sales of employer securities under 401(k) plans that (i) do not include a company securities fund but (ii) do allow participants to select investments through a self-directed brokerage window. Open brokerage windows typically allow plan participants to invest their 401(k) accounts in publicly traded securities, including, in the case of a public company employer, company stock. The SEC determined that registration in this situation would not be required as long as the employer does no more than (i) communicate the existence of the open brokerage window, (ii) make payroll deductions, and (iii) pay administrative expenses associated with the brokerage window in a manner that is not tied to particular investments selected by participants. This means that the employer may not draw participants’ attention to the possibility of investing in employer securities through the open brokerage window.
The SEC apparently was concerned that some employers have been advising participants regarding their ability to invest 401(k) plan assets in company securities through open brokerage windows. This might occur, for example, when an employer has decided to remove the company stock fund as an investment option because of concern over potential stock drop litigation; in communicating such a change, the employer might point out to participants that they still have the ability to purchase company stock through the open brokerage window.
The takeaway for public companies that do not offer a company securities fund in their 401(k) plan but do offer an open brokerage window is clear. They should either assure that communications to 401(k) participants include no reference to the option to purchase company securities through the open brokerage window or, if such communications are desirable, register an appropriate number of securities using Form S-8.