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While I was off exploring the Canadian Rockies with my friend and certified mountain guide Peter Amann, I found out when I returned that quite a bit had happened back here in the States. Bank of America buying Merrill Lynch, the largest brokerage firm; Lehman Brothers filing bankruptcy; and AIG, the largest insurance company in the world asking the Fed for $50 billion to tide them over until they can sell enough assets to spruce up their credit rating.

All of this, of course, has 401(k) participants concerned about how these events affect their account balances. They’re also concerned about how secure their account balances really are. David Pitt writing for Netscape addresses this issue in his recent article, Is Your 401(k) Plan Protected? 

Q: What safety measures are in place to protect the money I have invested in my company’s 401(k) account?

A: The federal government has established rules for the people running your 401(k) plan, whether it’s company officials – common in small companies – or a provider working with your company to administer the retirement plan.

What Mr. Pitt is referring to and what the rest of his article discusses are the ERISA  rules that govern fiduciary conduct overseen by the Department of Labor and the protection from a plan sponsor’s bankruptcy. But with all due respect to Mr. Pitt, it’s a little more complicated than that. 

The real focus, it seems to me, should be on potential insolvency issues involving those entities holding plan assets. I discussed one aspect of this issue back in April in my post, What Every Fiduciary Should Know about Their Brokers … and Also Their Custodial Banks, and Financial Contracts

Fiduciaries should also know about the protections plan assets should have from creditors of insurance companies offering 401(k) plans under group annuities. The degree of protection will vary depending on how the retirement plan account is funded which may include:

  • Investments in a separate account insurance product issued by the carrier
  • Investments held in a trust or custodial account with a Trust Company affiliated with the carrier
  • Guaranteed investments through the general account of the carrier
  • Self-directed brokerage accounts held at a broker/dealer
  • Mutual funds that are advised or sub-advised by investment firms experiencing financial difficulties

If you’ve been around long enough like me, you’ll recall the 1990s during which we struggled with insolvency issues affecting ERISA plans. I’m not suggesting that history is repeating itself. I am, however, suggesting that fiduciaries should evaluate whether their retirement plans are sufficiently protected by knowing their contractual and statutory remedies.