Fidelity Investments recently announced it is making a Bitcoin account available as an investment option for 401(k) plans, fueling a debate about cryptocurrencies and fiduciary responsibilities under ERISA.
In what might have been a preemptive strike, the Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) of the Department of Labor — the agency charged with enforcement for Title I of ERISA — weighed in with its analysis on the issue shortly before the Fidelity announcement. EBSA Compliance Assistance Release No. 2022-1, March 10, 2022. EBSA is, at best, skeptical about cryptocurrency as a 401(k) plan investment option, citing among other concerns cryptocurrency’s volatility and what EBSA says is cryptocurrency’s vulnerability to fraud and theft. Perhaps more relevant to plan fiduciaries than what the Release says about possible fiduciary considerations is what EBSA had to say about EBSA’s enforcement position. Presumably in an effort to chill enthusiasm for cryptocurrency as a 401(k) option, EBSA warns that “EBSA expects to conduct an investigative program aimed at plans that offer participant investments in cryptocurrencies and related products, and to take appropriate action to protect the interests of plan participants and beneficiaries with respect to these investments.”
Fidelity has been vocal in defending its decision to offer Bitcoin as a 401(k) investment option. The news media has reported that Fidelity has met with EBSA officials in order to address EBSA’s concerns but, according to the media reports, EBSA remains unconvinced.
The subject is a complicated one. The landscape for measuring fiduciary conduct when selecting investment offerings in a 401(k) plan changed in an important way with the Supreme Court’s January 2022 decision in Hughes v. Northwestern University. Other issues implicated in the cryptocurrency/401(k) debate include:
There is no doubt that cryptocurrency has been a hot topic in recent years, and now that hot topic has moved into the 401(k) arena.
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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.
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