Private equity gets Trump administration’s nod to tap 401(k)s

Ben Bain

Private-equity firms notched a major win in Washington with the Trump administration paving the way for the industry to tap a massive pot of money that has long been off limits: the trillions of dollars held in Americans’ retirement accounts.

The Labor Department issued guidance Wednesday effectively allowing 401(k) plans to invest in buyout firms. The agency said the move will bolster investment options for consumers and let them access an asset class that can provide better returns than stocks and bonds.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia speaks during a roundtable in the State Dining Room of the White House, Friday, May 29, 2020.

In a statement, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said the action “will help Americans saving for retirement gain access to alternative investments that often provide strong returns.”

The announcement is a significant de-regulatory decision that private-equity lobbyists have sought for years. It is sure to face harsh criticism from consumer groups and progressive Democratic lawmakers, who argue that high-fee private equity firms are inappropriate for unsophisticated investors because the industry locks-up clients’ money for years and invests in businesses seen as far more risky than a plain-vanilla bond fund.

De-regulatory Agenda

Public pension funds that manage employees’ retirement savings have a long history of investing in private equity. But complex regulations and concerns about being sued have until now kept individuals’ 401(k) plans out. The private-equity industry has ramped up its campaign to change the rules during the Trump administration, which has made cutting back regulations a core element of its economic platform.

Labor’s guidance was focused on professionally-managed investment funds that include several types of assets. The agency said it wasn’t green-lighting private equity investments to be offered as a standalone option.

The announcement was praised by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, whose agency has been considering ways to let retail investors access asset classes that have been largely reserved for the wealthy.

Under current SEC regulations, firms such as Apollo Global Management Inc., Blackstone Group Inc., Carlyle Group Inc. and KKR & Co. are mostly limited to raising money from the super rich, sovereign wealth funds and pension funds.

Democratizing Investments

Groom Law Group principal David Levine, whose firm requested the Labor Department guidance on behalf of its clients, said the move would have a notable impact on workers saving for retirement.

“By issuing the guidance, the Department of Labor has taken great steps to democratize the use of private equity in many Americans’ largest investment asset – their retirement accounts,” he said.