Fiduciary Compliance Checklists By: Gabriel PotterMBA, AIFA®

Checklists Are A Life Saver… Literally

Simple checklists to demonstrate adherence to proper procedure is a well-known advantage to a variety of professional endeavors including everything from spaceflight, air travel, medicine, nuclear energy, military operations, and so on. For example, momentarily disregard this magazine’s usual scope of investing and fiduciary matters; let us consider the medical field, specifically surgery. Several studies have been conducted which have demonstrated that a simple checklist is invaluable tool for reducing risk. A 2009 Harvard study suggested that a surgical checklist reduced complication and death rates by a third, with subsequent studies corroborating these results many times over.

In short, whenever consequences of failure are high, using a checklist can significantly reduce worst case scenarios. Checklists can be the difference between good intentions and high quality execution.

A Special Reason For Fiduciary Compliance Checklists

Imagine, for a moment, the items you might find on the aforementioned surgical team’s checklist: apply antibiotics, sterilize equipment, verify type-specific blood reserves, etc. These real-world items (or actions) are often distinct and tangible. By contrast, elements of compliance checklist are driven by intangible legal and ethical precepts and, therefore, harder to define. 
Going through the exercise of creating (or applying) a checklist to clarify the required elements of compliance can crystallize the vague good intentions of an investment committee into constructive real-world results.

Some Checklists You Can Use

There are a variety of checklists which can be useful when conducting a fiduciary review. These include an Investment Policy Statement provision checklist, a compliance-documentation checklist, or safe harbor protection checklists which delve into features of specific laws, such as a Pension Protection Act (PPA) QDIA checklist or an Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) 404(c) checklist.

What sort of elements might belong on each of these lists? An Investment Policy Statement (IPS), as most readers know, describes the investment goals and details the appropriate strategies that an institution could use to attain these goals. However, a cursory search on any search engine will show sample investment policy statements in all sizes and levels of specificity as they become tailored to the unique goals of any individual or institution. For instance, IPSs commonly detail their risk tolerances, return requirements and allowable investment strategies. However, an individual’s IPS might include estate planning guidelines whereas an institutional IPS, given the additional layers of complexity, should define the roles of the multiple vendors and consultants working on behalf of the plan. Moreover, a foundation’s IPS might include a static strategic allocation target (e.g—60% equity / 40% fixed income) whereas a defined benefit plan might allow for changes in the strategic allocation if they are perusing a liability driven investment (LDI) strategy. The required elements in an IPS can be as unique as the client, and the checklist should reflect that.

Compliance checklists, for QDIA or 404(c), might delineate the key features of the law and specify how an institution is meeting the specifications of the law. For example, a QDIA list might check how often participants can opt-out of a QDIA, or verify how the annual QDIA notice was communicated to participants. Alternatively, a 404(c) checklist might check if participants are informed of the investments’ limitations, such as voting rights or additional penalties for fund transfers within a plan.

Moving Forward

Again, the process of designing a comprehensive checklist can be helpful in determining which lists are necessary for your institution and which elements are being satisfied. Be sure to work with a qualified fiduciary consultant for guidance when creating a list or customizing one to work for you.

Whenever consequences of failure are high, using a checklist can significantly reduce worst case scenarios. Checklists can be the difference between good intentions and high quality execution.”

Gabriel Potter

Gabriel is a Senior Investment Research Associate at Westminster Consulting, where he is responsible for designing strategic asset allocations and conducts proprietary market research.

An avid writer, Gabriel manages the firm’s blog and has been published in the Journal of Compensation and Benefits,...

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