Company Stock in Retirement Plans: Where Lies the Line Between Prudent and Imprudent Conduct?

Chris Carosa at Fiduciary News highlighted this New York Times article in his twitter feed the other day, in which the author argued that there is no reason, from the point of view of a participant/employee, to hold large amounts of company stock in a retirement portfolio (as opposed to, say, as part of a bonus plan or other compensation supplement that is external to a 401(k) plan or other retirement account). The author of the article makes a very persuasive case that, as a participant, holding company stock of their employer is a mistake, and violates basic, elementary rules of diversification and investment philosophy that any competent financial advisor would insist their clients live by. So, the author asks, how can it possibly make any sense to have company stock holdings in a 401(k) plan or to have company matches to retirement savings be in the form of company stock? The author’s answer, as you can tell from the summary above, is it doesn’t.

But if it doesn’t make any sense from the perspective of a participant, then how can it ever be a prudent decision for a fiduciary to offer it in the first place? A fiduciary is supposed to be acting as a knowledgeable expert and in the best interest of the participants, so if one accepts the premise that someone knowledgeable about retirement investing would not hold company stock in a 401(k) plan, then it would seem to never be in the interest of participants – and therefore compliant with a fiduciary’s obligations – to offer company stock in a retirement plan. Note that this question concerns general retirement savings of employee participants, and not ESOP holdings, which we know are deliberately and intentionally overweighted to holding company stock.

Now, this analysis needs one qualification. We all know that some companies do so well that employees and participants would be ill-served by not holding employer stock, and the returns on their retirement accounts would be severely reduced absent large holdings of company stock. All have heard the story of Microsoft millionaires (or Apple, or Facebook, or Google, or fill in the name of the tech company) but we also know that sometimes this has been true of employers in less glamorous industries as well (even if not to the same extent with regard to the appreciation of their stock). But these events are outliers in a bell curve, and are not the experience of most participants or of most employers offering company stock, just as the instances of company stock holdings going south, i.e., a stock drop, are outliers as well. For most participants in most plans in most companies, the potential gain certainly doesn’t outweigh the general risk, accepted in investment theory, of the accompanying excessive concentration of stock of any one company, which in this instance is the employer.

So, if this is the case, how can it ever be prudent to offer company stock in a 401(k) plan, and, if the stock falls in value, not have it be a fiduciary breach? Such an analysis would suggest that even holding or offering the company stock as an option is a fiduciary breach, as it is not prudent to offer it at all. But this is where ERISA meets the real world. The statute was not enacted in a vacuum, but was instead created by balancing competing interests. And the answer to the question, and the reason why such an argument would not succeed in a stock drop case, is that ERISA allows, to a certain extent, such holdings, so their very existence alone, without more, cannot constitute a fiduciary breach. The statute allows for it, so doing it can’t breach the statute.

And this, to a certain extent, is what Dudenhoeffer was about – the idea that a plan sponsor gets the protection of being allowed to do, without being accused of imprudent conduct, what the statute specifically allows, but is not insulated anymore than that from scrutiny of its conduct. So here, with regard to company stock, despite the idea that it is probably never prudent, as an individual retirement investor, to hold an excessive concentration of one company’s stock and in particular that of one’s employer, that alone cannot support a breach of fiduciary duty claim against a plan sponsor; instead, to impose fiduciary liability, that plan sponsor must have done something more than just offering that stock to employee participants.

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