Stay Tuned – the DOL Regulatory Agenda

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently published its Spring 2022 Regulatory Agenda, and here is a summary of several big ticket items:

ESG & ERISA: Plan sponsors and investment professionals have been waiting for final rules on the permissible use of environmental, social, and governance (“ESG”) considerations under ERISA when selecting plan investments and exercising shareholder rights with respect to plan assets. Based on the updated regulatory agenda, the DOL is planning to issue final ESG rules in December 2022.

Fiduciary Rule: Plan advisors and investment professionals have also been awaiting guidance on the DOL’s fiduciary rule re-write. The Trump era “fiduciary rule” is currently in effect and is a combination of a new and expansive definition of fiduciary advice and an exemption – PTE 2020-02 – from the prohibitions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code for certain conflicts of interest arising from nondiscretionary fiduciary recommendations. However, last year, the Biden administration announced that it is revisiting the definition of fiduciary investment advice and the requirements of various prohibited transaction exemptions. Based on the Agenda, we can expect a new proposed fiduciary rule in December 2022.

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Department of Labor Proposal Would Encourage Consideration of ESG Factors for Plan Investments

On October 13, 2021, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a new proposed regulation under ERISA that would replace the previous administration’s “pecuniary factors” rule – which is widely viewed as discouraging the use of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when selecting plan investments – with one that would encourage their consideration and provide a clearer pathway for plan fiduciaries to do so.

Background

Over the years, the DOL’s stated position on the consideration of ESG and other “social” factors when selecting plan investments has toggled back and forth, largely along party lines.

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Department of Labor Confirms It Will Not Enforce Controversial “Pecuniary Factors” Rule for ERISA Plan Investments

On March 10, 2021, the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), the agency charged with interpreting and enforcing ERISA, announced that it will not enforce the Trump-era “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments” rule, which has been perceived as potentially discouraging retirement plan fiduciaries from selecting investment alternatives which emphasize environmental, social, and governance factors (commonly referred to as “ESG investments”).

The rule, which was finalized in November 2020 and technically became effective on January 12, 2021, does not prohibit ESG investments.  However, it has been widely criticized as fostering a misapprehension that ESG investments may be subjected to a higher degree of fiduciary scrutiny than others.  Following the election, EBSA’s announcement of its non-enforcement policy comes as no surprise, as the Biden administration had already identified the rule on its “List of Agency Actions for Review.”

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