DOL Releases ESG Final Rule

The Department of Labor (DOL) has announced the release of a final rule to remove barriers in considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in plan investments. 

The DOL emphasizes in the executive summary that the final rule does not change two longstanding principles. First, the final rule retains the core principle that the duties of prudence and loyalty require ERISA plan fiduciaries to focus on relevant risk-return factors and not subordinate the interests of participants and beneficiaries to objectives unrelated to the provision of benefits under the plan. Second, the fiduciary duty to manage plan assets that are shares of stock includes the management of shareholder rights relative to those shares, including the right to vote proxies. The final rule makes several other changes that are highlighted in the summary.

  • Amends the current regulation to delete the “pecuniary/non-pecuniary” terminology based on concerns that the terminology causes confusion and a chilling effect to financially beneficial choices.
  • Confirms that a fiduciary may include as part of a risk and return analysis the economic effects of ESG on a particular investment determination or course of action.
  • Amends the current regulation to remove the stricter rules for QDIAs, such that, under the final rule, the same standards apply to QDIAs as to investments in general.
  • Amends the current regulation’s “tiebreaker” test to provide that when a fiduciary concludes prudently that competing investments, or competing investment courses of action, equally serve the financial interests of the plan over the appropriate time horizon—the fiduciary is not prohibited from selecting the investment or investment course of action based on collateral benefits other than investment returns.
  • Adds a new provision clarifying that fiduciaries do not violate their duty of loyalty solely because they take participants’ preferences into account when constructing a menu of prudent investment options for participant-directed individual account plans.
  • Eliminates the statement in paragraph (e)(2)(ii) of the current regulation that “the fiduciary duty to manage shareholder rights appurtenant to shares of stock does not require the voting of every proxy or the exercise of every shareholder right”, as it may be misread as suggesting that plan fiduciaries should be indifferent to the exercise of their rights as shareholders, even if the cost is minimal.
  • Removes two “safe harbor” examples for proxy voting policies permissible under paragraphs (e)(3)(i)(A) and (B) of the current regulation. The DOL believed that these examples encouraged abstention as the normal course and failed to recognize the importance that prudent management of shareholder rights can have in enhancing the value of plan assets or protecting plan assets from risk.
  • Modifies requirements in order to more generally cover monitoring obligations, and address concerns that could be read as requiring obligations above and beyond the statutory duties of prudence and loyalty that generally apply to monitoring the work of service provider.
  • Amends to eliminate from paragraph (e)(2)(ii)(E) of the current regulation a specific requirement on maintaining records on proxy voting activities and other exercises of shareholder rights, due to perception of treating proxy voting and other exercises of shareholder rights as carrying a greater fiduciary obligation than other fiduciary activities.

The final rule is effective 60 days after publication in the federal register.