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Highlights

Millions of retired Americans rely on defined benefit pension plans for their financial well-being. Recent reports have noted that some plans are investing in 'alternative' investments such as hedge funds and private equity funds. This has raised concerns, given that these two types of investments have qualified for exemptions from federal regulations, and could present more risk to retirement assets than traditional investments. To better understand this trend and its implications, GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which plans invest in hedge funds and private equity; (2) the potential benefits and challenges of hedge fund investments; (3) the potential benefits and challenges of private equity investments; and (4) what mechanisms regulate and monitor pension plan investments in hedge funds and private equity. To answer these questions GAO interviewed relevant federal agencies, public and private pension plans, industry groups and investment professionals, and analyzed available survey data.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor To ensure that all plan fiduciaries can better assess their ability to invest in hedge funds and private equity, and to ensure that those that choose to make such investments are better prepared to meet these challenges, the Secretary of Labor should provide guidance specifically designed for qualified plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). This guidance should include such things as (1) an outline of the unique challenges of investing in hedge funds and private equity; (2) a description of steps that plans should take to address these challenges and help meet ERISA requirements; and (3) an explanation of the implications of these challenges and steps for smaller plans. In doing so, the Secretary may be able to draw extensively from existing sources, such as the finalized best practices document that will be published in 2008 by the Investors' Committee formed by the President's Working Group on Financial Markets.
Closed - Not Implemented
Labor generally agreed with this recommendation but noted that, given the lack of uniformity among hedge funds, private equity funds, and their underlying investments, it may prove difficult to develop comprehensive and useful guidance for plan fiduciaries. Nonetheless, the agency agreed to consider the feasibility of developing guidance describing the ERISA obligations that apply when plan fiduciaries are selecting, valuing, accounting for, and monitoring hedge fund, private equity, and other hard to value investments. In FY10, EBSA's Office of Chief Accountant's (OCA) reviewed several hedge funds and master trusts to determine the policies and procedures used to value "hard to value" assets within several hedge funds and master trusts. However, the agency continued to raise concerns about issuing guidance. Despite these concerns, the agency noted that it would be sensitive to changes that may alter these views. In FY12, the agency reported that it received a similar recommendation from the agency's ERISA Advisory Council. Accordingly, Labor plans to consult with other federal agencies with regulatory or enforcement responsibilities for hedge funds and private equity investments to discuss whether and how to develop useful investor guidance regarding these investments and investment strategies. The diversity among hedge funds and private equity investments could make development of comprehensive and useful guidance difficult, however, the agency will reach out to the SEC to advance this discussion. GAO is closing this recommendation without implementation because the guidance was not developed.

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