Investment policy statement

An Investment policy statement (IPS) is a document, generally between an investor and the assisting investment manager, recording the agreements the two parties come to with regards to issues relating to how the investor’s money is to be managed.

In other cases, an IPS may also be created by an investment committee (e.g., those charged with making investment decisions for an endowment or pension plan) to help establish and record its own policies in order to assist in future decision-making or to help maintain consistency of its policies by future committee members or to clarify expectations for prospective money managers who may be hired by the committee.

The presence of an IPS helps to clearly communicate to all relevant parties the procedures, investment philosophy, guidelines and constraints to be adhered to by the parties. It can be seen as a directive from the client to the investment manager about how the money is to be managed, but at the same time the IPS should provide the guidelines for all investment decisions and responsibilities of each party. As a policy document rather than an implementation directive, the IPS should provide guidance for how investment decisions will be made; it should not be a list of the specific securities to be used.

When the investor is an individual client, as a general rule, the investment manager (or financial advisor) has the responsibility of creating the document, since the manager is generally more familiar with its purpose and normal content. Both the manager and the client generally sign the document, indicating acknowledgment of and agreement to its several parts. This can serve to protect both parties in the event of a future disagreement, as long as they have respectively adhered to the content of the IPS. A properly written investment policy statement can be critical in minimizing the legal liability of those serving in a fiduciary capacity (e.g., qualified plan trustees and trustees of irrevocable trusts, endowments, foundations and charitable trusts).

Use of an IPS with each investment client is now considered a best practice for investment managers and should be expected by clients hiring a professional investment manager.

The presence of an IPS helps to create an environment of transparency in the relationship between client and advisor. The IPS offers clients a better understanding of what to expect from their advisor. That clarity generally helps to build a much higher level of trust and respect and it helps ensure the investment manager is aware of the expectations of the client.

The regulatory environment

There are two levels of legal and regulatory oversight: the legal requirements for clients who are fiduciaries or trustees for an account, and the regulations applicable to an advisor’s practice. It is important to understand the requirements for each.

ERISA: a clear policy and prudent procedures

An investment policy is required under virtually all investor circumstances, with the exception of individual investors. According to the US Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA), for every qualified company retirement plan (e.g., 401[k], profit sharing, pension, 403[b]) there are certain fiduciary responsibilities for managing the plan assets with the care, skill, prudence and diligence of a prudent expert and by diversifying the investments of the plan so as to minimize the risk of large losses. The IPS documents these fiduciary responsibilities and ensures fiduciaries are adhering to these responsibilities.

When auditing an ERISA plan, the U.S. Department of Labor regularly asks to review the associated IPS. The rationale for this request is in the Department of Labor Interpretive Bulletin 29 CFP 2509.94-2 which references ERISA Sections 404(a)(1)(A) and 404(a)(1)(B, specifically stating, “The maintenance by an employee benefit plan of a statement of investment policy designed to further the purposes of the plan and its funding policy is consistent with the fiduciary obligations set forth in ERISA Section 404(a)(1)(A) and (B). For purposes of this document, the term “statement of investment policy” means a written statement that provides fiduciaries who are responsible for plan investments with guidelines or general instructions concerning various types or categories of investment management decisions….”[1]

Under ERISA, all qualified plan trustees have a special responsibility to “prudently” manage their plan assets for the sole benefit of the plan participants. ERISA and the Department of Labor have established the following prudent procedures for plan trustees:

  • An investment policy must be established [2]
  • Plan assets must be diversified [3]
  • Investment decisions must be made with the skill and care of a prudent expert [4]
  • Prohibited transactions must be avoided [5]

A properly written IPS should help ensure compliance with these required procedures. The IPS sets forth the objectives, restrictions, funding requirements and general investment structure for the management of the plan’s assets, and provides the basis for evaluating the plan’s investment results. By establishing the criteria and procedures for selecting investments and investment managers, an IPS can minimize “Monday morning quarterbacking” if investment performance is disappointing.

An IPS also can help trustees communicate a plan’s investment guidelines and procedures to those assisting in the investment process, such as investment advisors or money managers. Finally, and most importantly, an IPS provides a guide for making future investment decisions. Having and using the policy statement compels the trustees to be more disciplined and systematic, which in itself should improve the odds of meeting the investment goals.

UPIA and other recent legislation: a focus on the total portfolio

The US Uniform Prudent Investor Act (UPIA) is state-adopted legislation that governs the investment conduct of private family trusts. First enacted in 1994, it serves as the hallmark of subsequent legislation (as well as how the courts now interpret such requirements relating to ERISA). UPIA requires a written investment policy for every trust in which trustees manage assets for the benefit of others. UPIA formally requires a focus on the total portfolio, rather than following its earlier regulatory guidance that individual investments should be evaluated independent of whether or not they were appropriate for portfolio inclusion. The total portfolio is now the fiduciary’s central consideration when judging the trade off between risk and return. There are no more restrictions on the types of investments that can be included in the portfolio; the trustee can invest in anything that helps achieve the risk/return objectives of the trust and that meets the other requirements of prudent investing.

UPIA specifies that diversification is part of the definition of prudent investing. It also makes clear that if appropriate investment processes are in place and followed, the trustees will not be held responsible for the results. Under UPIA, the delegation of investment and management functions is permitted and encouraged. Establishing and maintaining an IPS facilitates such delegation.

Additional legislation

The following two acts are substantially similar to UPIA; both require a written IPS.

  • The 1997 Uniform Management Public Employee Retirement Systems Act. Addresses trustee responsibilities of government-sponsored qualified employee benefit plans
  • The 2006 Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act. Addresses the responsibilities of trustees of nonprofit monies (primarily foundations and endowments)

Legal requirements for financial advisors and investment managers

The regulatory environment is constantly evolving, but trends are currently moving toward greater consumer protection. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) member firms and Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) are subject to two primary obligations in terms of consumer protection: “suitability” and “fair dealing.” RIA firms must satisfy additional fiduciary standards of care and client protection. Well thought-out procedures are critical to satisfying these requirements. An IPS can help satisfy regulatory auditors by documenting the appropriate implementation of these procedures.

FINRA member firms are subject to a “suitability” requirement; this is described in the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Rule 2310. When a broker recommends that a client buy or sell a particular security, that broker must have a reasonable basis for believing that the recommendation is suitable for that client. In making this assessment, the broker must consider the client’s risk tolerance, other security holdings, financial situation (income and net worth), financial needs and investment objectives, among other things. Registered Investment Advisors are subject to fiduciary standards for suitable recommendations.

In addition to the suitability requirement, brokers are subject to a “fair dealing” requirement which is also described in FINRA 2310. According to this rule, sales efforts will be judged on the basis of whether they can be reasonably said to represent fair treatment for the persons to whom the sales efforts are directed. An “obligation of fair dealing” means that brokers must have reasonable basis for believing that their securities recommendations are suitable for and appropriate to certain customers in light of the customers’ financial needs, objectives and circumstances.

A well-crafted IPS will include all the relevant information needed for the broker to establish that both the suitability and fair dealing requirements have been satisfied.

Additional requirements for Registered Investment Advisory firms

RIA firms must be registered as providing investment management services with either the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or with the equivalent state office. RIAs have an even higher standard of care established by fiduciary standard to carry out their responsibilities with “good faith, honesty, integrity, loyalty and undivided service of the beneficiary’s interest.” The good faith clause requires RIAs to act reasonably in order to avoid negligent handling of the beneficiary’s interests, and to not favor anyone else’s interest, including the fiduciary’s, over that of the client.

Whether or not fiduciary responsibilities have been satisfied is not determined by investment performance, but by whether prudent investment practices and standards were followed. To establish those practices and standards, the preparation of the IPS is one of the most important functions of the RIA. To emphasize its importance, in some SEC districts, SEC auditors are asking to see the IPS for a sampling of client relationships.

The Investment Process and How an IPS Fits into It

The investment process can be seen as occurring in six steps, as described below. Many experts believe that the creation of the IPS is the single most important step in this process.[6] All the other steps either lead into the IPS, or are directed by the IPS.

  1. Initial discovery: The initial discussions and sharing of documents that allows both the client and the advisor to learn about one another. On the one hand, this might include learning about the client’s circumstances, goals, income needs, restrictions, current holdings, risk tolerance, etc. The client should also attempt to learn as much as possible about the investment manager’s investment philosophy, practices and procedures.
  2. Discussion and agreement: All the issues related to what is to happen between client and advisor should be placed on the table. Where there are questions or a lack of clarity exists, further discussion may be needed. Eventually the client and advisors need to come to agreement on issues such as the degree of client involvement, the asset allocation to be used, the kinds of instruments to be utilized (or not), how tax considerations will be treated, investment goals, needs for liquidity or income, investment restrictions, investment methodology, and responsibilities of each party to the other.
  3. Creating the IPS: Once the agreements have been reached on the full list of issues and policies to be followed, they need to be recorded. This document will become the IPS. The client(s) and the advisor sign the document, signifying each party’s acknowledgment of the agreements.
  4. Investment implementation: Until there is agreement between the advisor and client about the policies to be followed, no investment trades can responsibly happen. Once the IPS has been signed by all parties, the initial and ongoing trades can be implemented according to the road map provided by the IPS.
  5. Ongoing communication: Meetings, reports and other communications will occur between advisor and client, generally as suggested in the IPS.
  6. Monitoring and adjustment: Rarely does a portfolio stay as originally structured. The IPS should describe how the portfolio will be monitored for poor performers, how good performers will be identified, how (and if) re balancing and tax loss harvesting opportunities will be implemented, and it should address any other ways in which the investment manager will try to ensure that the portfolio will stay in line with the objectives set forth in the IPS.

Clients and their needs change over time. It is therefore important that the advisor periodically return to the first step “discovery” to make sure the client’s then-current needs and wishes are being addressed. Every year or two, the IPS should be reviewed by the client and the advisor to ensure continued agreement with its provisions.

What should be included in an IPS?

First and foremost, nothing should be included in the IPS to which the advisor or client cannot commit and be sure will be implemented.

An IPS usually has five major components that should be unique to each client.

  1. All key factual data about the client, including where the client’s assets are held, the amount of their assets under the management of portfolio manager, and the identification of the trustees or interested parties to the account. This can be as detailed or as simple as desired.
  2. A discussion and review of the client’s investment objectives, investment time horizon, anticipated withdrawals or deposits, need for reserves or liquidity, and attitudes regarding tolerance for risk and volatility.
  3. Any constraints and restrictions on the assets, such as liquidity and marketability requirements, diversification concentrations, the advisor’s investment strategy (including tax management), locations of assets by account type (taxable versus tax-deferred), how client accounts that are not being managed (if any) will be handled, and any transaction prohibitions.
  4. The security types and asset classes to be included in or excluded from the portfolio, and the basic allocation among asset categories and the variance (rebalancing) limits for this allocation.
  5. The monitoring and control procedures and responsibilities of each party.

The IPS and the advisor–client relationship

The IPS development process lays the foundation for a successful relationship between advisors and clients. An important benefit of utilizing and IPS in clarifying needs, procedures and expectations is that clients have a better understanding of what the advisor is going to do with their money, and of their advisor’s approach. Clients have an opportunity to understand the reasons why each action is to be taken. As a result, clients tend to have more confidence in the advisor’s abilities.

Having that increased level of understanding and confidence becomes important when markets go through a down period. The IPS establishes investment guidelines and a framework for long-term investment thinking and can help calm nerves when things are particularly volatile.

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