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Prohibited transactions: Rules of the road for benefit plan fiduciaries

02.25.21

Read this if you are an employee benefit plan fiduciary.

This article is the second in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. In our last article, we looked into the background of ERISA, which established important standards for the sound operation of employee benefit plans, as well as who is and isn’t a plan fiduciary, and what their responsibilities are. 

One important ERISA provision, found in Section 406(a), covers the types of transactions a plan fiduciary can and can’t engage in. ERISA terms the latter prohibited transactions, and they’re a lot like traffic lights—when it comes to avoiding conflicts of interest in business dealings, they’re your guide for when to stop and when to go. By knowing and abiding by these rules of the road, plan fiduciaries can steer clear of tickets, fines, and other damaging mishaps. 

Parties-in-interest—keep them out of the passenger seat 

Much like driver’s ed., fiduciary responsibility boils down to knowing the rules—plan fiduciaries need to have a strong working knowledge of what constitutes a prohibited transaction in order to ensure their compliance with ERISA. The full criteria are too detailed for this article, but one sure sign is the presence of a party-in-interest.

ERISA’s definition of a party-in-interest

The definition includes any plan fiduciary, the plan sponsor, its affiliates, employees, and paid and unpaid plan service providers, and 50%-or-more owners of stock in the plan sponsor. If you’d like to take a deeper dive into ERISA’s definition of parties-in-interest, see “ERISA's definition of parties-in-interest" at right.

Prohibited transactions—red lights on fiduciary road 

Now that we know who fiduciaries shouldn’t transact with, let’s look at what they shouldn’t transact on. ERISA’s definition of a prohibited transaction includes: 

  • Sale, exchange, and lease of property 
  • Lending money and extending credit 
  • Furnishing goods, services, and facilities 
  • Transferring plan assets 
  • Acquiring certain securities and real property using plan assets to benefit the plan fiduciary 
  • Transacting on behalf of any party whose interests are adverse to the plan’s or its participants’ 

Transacting in any of the above is akin to running a red light—serious penalties are unlikely, but there are other consequences you want to avoid. Offenders are subject to a 15% IRS-imposed excise tax that applies for as long as the prohibited transaction remains uncorrected. That tax applies regardless of the transaction’s intent and even if found to have benefited the plan. 

The IRS provides a 14-day period for plan fiduciaries to correct prohibited transactions and avoid associated penalties. 

Much like owning a car, regular preventative maintenance can help you avoid the need for costly repairs. Plan fiduciaries should periodically refresh their understanding of ERISA requirements and re-evaluate their current and future business activities on an ongoing basis. Need help navigating the fiduciary road? Reach out to the BerryDunn employee benefit consulting team today. 
 

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ERISA’s definition of parties-in-interest

If you’re a plan fiduciary and you’re planning business with any of the following, it’s time to hit the brakes: 

  • Plan fiduciaries, counsel, and employees 
  • Vendors who serve the plan 
  • Employers and employee organizations with employees/members covered by the plan 
  • Half-or-more owners, direct or indirect, of those entities’ voting power or shares, partnership interest on capital/profits, or beneficial interest of a trust or unincorporated enterprise 
  • The corporations, partnerships, trusts, or estates to which those owners belong 
  • Relatives of any individual previously described 
  • Employees, officers, directors, or 10%-or-more shareholders, direct or indirect, of any individual listed above or of the plan 
  • A 10%-or-more partner or joint venturer of any individual listed above, including employees of vendors who serve the plan
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ERISA's definition of parties-in-interest

Read this if you are a community bank.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) recently issued its second quarter 2021 Quarterly Banking Profile. The report provides financial information based on Call Reports filed by 4,951 FDIC-insured commercial banks and savings institutions. The report also contains a section specific to community bank performance. In second quarter 2021, this section included the financial information of 4,490 FDIC-insured community banks. BerryDunn’s key takeaways from the community bank section of the report are as follows:

  • There was a $1.9 billion increase in quarterly net income from a year prior despite continued net interest margin (NIM) compression. This increase was mainly due to higher net interest income and lower provision expenses. Net interest income had increased $1.4 billion due to 1) lower interest expense, 2) higher commercial and industrial (C&I) loan interest income, and 3) loan fees earned through the payoff and forgiveness of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Provision expense decreased $2.3 billion from second quarter 2020. However, it remained positive at $46.1 million. For non-community banks, provision expense was negative $10.8 billion for second quarter 2021.
  • Quarterly NIM declined 26 basis points from second quarter 2020 to 3.25%. The average yield on earning assets fell 57 basis points to 3.57% while the average funding cost fell 31 basis points to 0.32%. Both of which are record lows.
  • Net operating revenue (net interest income plus non-interest income) increased by $1.6 billion from second quarter 2020, a 6.5% increase. This increase is attributable to higher revenue from service charges on deposit accounts (increased $134.8 million, or 23.5%, during the year ending second quarter 2021) and an increase in “all other noninterest income,” including, but not limited to, bankcard and credit card interchange fees, income and fees from wire transfers, and income and fees from automated teller machines (up $203.6 million, or 9.3%, during the year ending second quarter 2021).
  • Non-interest expense increased 7.8% from second quarter 2020. This increase was mainly attributable to salary and benefit expenses, which saw an increase of $688.2 million (7.8%). That being said, average assets per employee increased 8.4% from second quarter 2020. Non-interest expense as a percentage of average assets declined 18 basis points from second quarter 2020.
  • Noncurrent loan balances (loans 90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) declined by $894.6 million, or 7.1%, from first quarter 2021. The noncurrent rate improved 5 basis points to 0.68% from first quarter 2021.
  • The coverage ratio (allowance for loan and lease losses as a percentage of loans that are 90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) increased 39.8 percentage points year-over-year to 191.7%, a record high, due to declines in noncurrent loans. This ratio is well above the financial crisis average of 64.5%. The coverage ratio for community banks is 15.4 percentage points above the coverage ratio for non-community banks.
  • Eighty-eight community banks had adopted current expected credit loss (CECL) accounting as of second quarter. Community bank CECL adopters reported negative provision expense of $208.3 million in the second quarter compared to positive $254.5 million for community banks that have not yet adopted CECL.
  • Net charge-offs declined 8 basis points from second quarter 2020 to 0.05%. The net charge-off rate for consumer loans declined most among major loan categories, having decreased 51 basis points.
  • Trends in loans and leases showed a slight decrease from first quarter 2021, decreasing by 0.5%. This decrease was mainly seen in the C&I loan category, which was driven by a $38.3 billion decrease in PPP loan balances. The decrease in PPP loans was driven by the payoff and forgiveness of such loans. Despite the decrease in loans quarter-over-quarter, total loans and leases increased by $5.7 billion (0.3%) from second quarter 2020. The majority of growth was seen in commercial real estate portfolios (up $61.7 billion, or 8.9%), which helped to offset the decline in C&I, agricultural production, and 1-4 family mortgage loans during the year.
  • Two-thirds of community banks reported an increase in deposit volume during the second quarter. Growth in deposits above the insurance limit, $250,000, increased by $47.8 billion, or 4.7%, while alternative funding sources, such as brokered deposits, declined by $3.8 billion, or 6.7%, from first quarter 2021. 
  • The average community bank leverage ratio (CBLR) for the 1,789 banks that elected to use the CBLR framework was 11%.
  • The number of community banks declined by 38 to 4,490 from first quarter 2021. This change includes two new community banks, 12 banks transitioning from community to non-community banks, one bank transitioning from non-community to community bank, 27 community bank mergers or consolidations, and two community bank self-liquidations.

Second quarter 2021 was another strong quarter for community banks, as evidenced by the increase in year-over-year quarterly net income of 28.7% ($1.9 billion). However, tightening NIMs will force community banks to find creative ways to increase their NIM, grow their earning asset bases, or find ways to continue to increase non-interest income to maintain current net income levels. Some community banks have already started dedicating more time to non-traditional income streams, as evidenced by a 4.3% year-over-year increase in quarterly non-interest income. The importance of the efficiency ratio (non-interest expense as a percentage of total revenue) is also magnified as community banks attempt to manage their non-interest expenses in light of declining NIMs. Banks appear to be strongly focusing on non-interest expense management, as seen by the 18 basis point decline from second quarter 2020 in non-interest expense as a percentage of average assets, although inflated balance sheets may have something to do with the decrease in the percentage.

Furthermore, much uncertainty still exists. For instance, although significant charge-offs have not yet materialized, the financial picture for many borrowers remains uncertain. And, payment deferrals have made some credit quality indicators, such as past due status, less reliable. Payment deferrals for many borrowers are coming to a halt. So, the true financial picture of these borrowers may start to come into focus. The ability of community banks to maintain relationships with their borrowers and remain apprised of the results of their borrowers’ operations has never been more important. This monitoring will become increasingly important as we transition into a post-pandemic economy. For seasonal borrowers, current indications, such as the most recent results from the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book, show that economic activity was relatively strong over the summer of 2021. However, supply chain pressures and labor shortages could put a damper on the uptick in economic activity for these borrowers, making a successful transition into the “off-season” months that much more important. 

Also, as offices start to open, employers will start to reassess their office needs. Many employers have either created or revised remote working policies due to changing employee behavior. If remote working schedules persist, whether it be full-time or hybrid, the demand for office space may decline, causing instability for commercial real estate borrowers. Recent inflation concerns have also created uncertainty surrounding future Federal Reserve monetary policy. If an increase in the federal funds target rate is used to combat inflation, community banks could see their NIMs in another transitory stage.

As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out to BerryDunn’s Financial Services team if you have any questions.

Article
FDIC Issues its Second Quarter 2021 Quarterly Banking Profile

Read this if you use QuickBooks. 

Want to break up an estimate into multiple invoices? QuickBooks Online supports progress invoicing.

If you do large, multi-part projects for customers, you may not want to wait until absolutely everything is done before you send an invoice. This can be especially problematic when you have to purchase a lot of materials for a job that will eventually be billed to the customers.

QuickBooks Online has a solution for this: progress invoicing. Once you’ve had an estimate approved, you can split it into as many pieces as you need, sending partial invoices to your customer for products and services as you provide them, rather than waiting until the project is complete. If cash flow is a problem for you, this can be a very effective solution. You might be able to take on work that you otherwise couldn’t because you’ll be getting paid periodically.

Setup Required

Progress invoicing requires some special setup steps. First, you’ll need to see whether QuickBooks Online is prepared for the task. Click the gear icon in the upper right and select Account and settings under Your Company. Click the Sales tab and scroll down to Progress Invoicing. It may just say On to the right of Create multiple partial invoices from a single estimate. If it doesn’t, click the pencil icon to the right and turn it on. Then click Save and Done.

You’ll also have to choose a different template than the one you use for standard invoices. Click the gear icon and select Custom form styles. Click New style in the upper right and then click Invoice. Enter a new name for the template to replace My INVOICE Template, like Progress Invoice. Then click Dive in with a template or Change up the template under the Design tab. Select Airy new by clicking on it. This is the only template you can use for progress invoicing.

When you’re creating a template for your progress invoices, you’ll have to select Airy new.

Now, click on Edit print settings (or When in doubt, print it out). Make sure there’s no checkmark in the box in front of Fit printed form with pay stub in window envelope or Fit to window envelope. Then click on the Content tab. You’ll see a preview of the template (grayed out) to the right. Click the pencil icon in the middle section. Select the Show more activity options link at the bottom of the screen.

If you want to Group activity by (Day, Week, Month, or Type), check that box and select your preference. Go through the other options here and check or uncheck the boxes to meet your needs. Then click Done. You’ll see your new template in the list of Custom form styles.

QuickBooks Online allows you to designate one form style as the default. This is the form that will open when you create a new invoice or estimate template. If you plan to send a lot of progress invoices, you might want to make that the default. To do this, find your new template in the list on this page and click the down arrow next to Edit in the Action column. Click Make default. If you leave your standard invoice as the default, you can always switch when you’re creating an invoice by clicking the Customize button at the bottom of the screen.

Creating a Progress Invoice


You can see what your options are for your progress invoice.

Invoice and estimate forms in QuickBooks Online are very similar. The only major difference is that estimates contain a field for Expiration date. To start the process of progress invoicing, select an estimate that you want to bill that way. Click the Sales tab and select All Sales. Find your estimate and click on Create invoice in the Action column. A window like the one in the above image will appear.

You can bill a percentage of each line item or enter a custom amount for each line.  If you choose the latter, the invoice that opens will have zeroes in the Due column. You can alter the amount due for any of these by either a percentage or an amount and/or leave them at zero if you don’t want to bill a particular product or service. Either way, the Balance due will reflect your changes. When you’ve come to the last invoice for the project, you’ll check Remaining total of all lines.

Once you’ve chosen one of these options, click Create invoice. Double-check the form and then save it. You can now treat it as any other invoice. To see a list of your progress invoices, run the Estimates & Progress Invoicing Summary by Customer report.

As you can see, there are numerous steps involved in creating progress invoices. Each has to be done with precision, so the customer is billed the exact total amount due at the end. We can help you accomplish this. We’re also available to help with any other QuickBooks Online issues you have. Contact our Outsourced Accounting team to set up a consultation.

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How does progress invoicing work in QuickBooks Online?

Read this if you are responsible for meeting your broker-dealer’s annual report filing requirement under Securities Exchange Act (SEA) Section 15.

In February, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved a 30-day extension for eligible broker-dealers to file their annual reports, effective immediately. Firms that meet the criteria should consider taking advantage of the filing extension. Here are a few details and tips to help broker-dealers understand more about the 30‑day extension.

SEA Section 15 filing extension background

Normally, each broker-dealer registered under Securities Exchange Act (SEA) Section 15 must file annual reports—including financial and compliance or exemption reports, along with those prepared by an independent accountant—no more than 60 days after the broker-dealer’s fiscal year ends. But in light of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) requested that the SEC allow broker-dealers an extra 30 days to file their annual reports. The extension, FINRA argued, would allow broker-dealers more time to obtain audit services.

Criteria for broker-dealers eligible for the extension

To qualify for a filing extension of 30 calendar days, a broker-dealer must meet the following criteria:

  1. Was in compliance with 15c3-1 (Net Capital) as of its most recent fiscal year end and had total capital and allowable subordinated liabilities of less than $50 million,
  2. Is permitted to file an exemption report as part of its most recent fiscal year-end annual reports,
  3. Submits written notification to FINRA and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) of its intent to rely on this order on an ongoing basis for as long as it meets the conditions of the order, and
  4. Files the annual report electronically with the SEC using an appropriate process.

The extension does not apply to just this year alone. It is understood to be in effect on an ongoing basis.

How to notify FINRA of your intent to take advantage of the extension

Broker-dealers that meet the aforementioned conditions are required to notify FINRA of their intent to take advantage of the extension. FINRA advises eligible broker-dealers to send an email to their Risk Monitoring Analyst with a message structured according to the following template:

“My firm wishes to have an additional 30 calendar days for filing its annual report on an ongoing basis for as long as my firm meets the conditions set forth in the SEC Order of February 12, 2021, regarding additional time for filing annual reports under SEA Rule 17a-5.”

How to file electronically

In addition to notifying FINRA, those looking to benefit from the extension are required to file electronically. There are multiple ways to do so, but the most user-friendly and efficient avenue to electronic filing is through the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) system.

Using the EDGAR system, broker-dealers must upload only two attachments maximum. The EDGAR system offers two options for electronic filing:

  1. The broker-dealer could attach one document containing all the annual reports as a public document; or
  2. The broker-dealer could attach two documents to its submission: (1) a public document containing the statement of financial condition, the notes to the statement of financial condition and the accountant’s report which covers the statement of financial condition, and (2) a non-public document containing all the components of the annual reports.

Implications for annual filings

An upcoming filing deadline is a stressful event, especially for broker-dealers contending with the upheaval of the past 18 months. Fortunately, FINRA has advocated on their behalf, and the SEC has complied by offering a 30-day filing extension.

The extension provides broker-dealers excess time to review documents and schedule a session with their auditor. Auditors will likely appreciate the extension as well, as it allows them to serve their various clients over a longer period of time, alleviating some of the pressure traditionally associated with filing season.

For these reasons and more, broker-dealers who qualify are encouraged to take the steps required to benefit from this grace period. If you have questions or would like more information, please contact our broker-dealer consulting team. We're here to help.

Article
Eligible broker-dealers: Take advantage of SEC's 30-day filing extension

Read this if you are interested in tax policy and infrastructure.

The Biden Administration has made tax policy a legislative priority, and the Treasury Department’s Green Book released in May provides additional details on these tax policy proposals. Congressional Democrats have also indicated their interest in tax legislation. The question is: Will we see federal tax legislation in the near future? To answer this question, we need to look at the Administration’s and Congress’ infrastructure legislative plans.

Infrastructure one

President Biden has been negotiating an infrastructure package with members of both parties. Although a bipartisan agreement fizzled in July, new life seems to have been breathed into a new agreement. During the week of July 26, 2021, the Senate reached bipartisan agreement on a $1 trillion package that includes roads, bridges, rail, airports, electric vehicles, clean water, and broadband internet, with revenue offsets such as new cryptocurrency information reporting requirements and an excise tax on chemicals. On August 10, 2021, the Senate voted 69 to 30 to pass the bill.

House consideration of the package is expected in coming weeks. Some progressive Democratic members of the House, however, have indicated that they may not vote in favor of this package unless a far larger second infrastructure package is ultimately approved.

This first infrastructure package is reportedly “paid for” outside income tax increases, which means that this infrastructure bill generally would not include the Administration’s tax proposals. There would likely be little to no Republican support for the package if the Administration’s tax priorities were included.

There does, however, continue to be strong interest by the Administration in moving forward with its tax policy priorities. That’s where a second infrastructure package comes in.

Infrastructure two

A second infrastructure package, referred to in the press as “human infrastructure,” is intended to address more intangible priorities, such as extension of the child care tax credit, healthcare, immigration and climate change. It is expected that the Administration’s and Congress’ tax policy priorities would be included in this bill. At this time, this estimated $3.5 trillion package does not enjoy bipartisan support. The package would be expected to pass the House, as House rules require only a simple majority for passage. Its path through the Senate, however, remains unclear.

In general, legislation needs only a simple majority to pass the Senate. Under current Senate rules, any senator may filibuster a piece of legislation, which amounts to unlimited speech and debate and, if unstopped, can effectively derail legislation. However, if 60 senators agree, they may vote to invoke “cloture,” which will end the filibuster and move the legislation to a substantive vote. (Cloture was invoked for Infrastructure One by a 67-33 vote.) It is expected that a second infrastructure bill would not pick up any Republican Senate votes, and there likely would be a Republican filibuster. Without any Republican support, cloture would be virtually impossible. 

There is, though, a procedural option available in the Senate to bypass the filibuster/cloture rules. Under the “budget reconciliation” process, legislation can pass the Senate with a simple majority without the threat of filibuster. While the budget reconciliation process also applies in the House, because there is no filibuster threat, the House does not need the procedure to advance legislation to a simple majority vote. 

Reconciliation bills must involve spending, revenue, or debt. There is a limit to the number of bills that may pass the Senate under budget reconciliation each year. The American Rescue Plan enacted in March 2021 utilized the budget reconciliation process to pass the Senate. The Senate parliamentarian has indicated that additional reconciliation bills may pass the Senate this year. Despite further availability of the budget reconciliation process in the Senate this year, passage of Infrastructure two is not a foregone conclusion. 

For a bill to pass the Senate under the budget reconciliation process, it needs only to garner a simple majority of votes, which, with the current Senate makeup, means 50 Democrats voting in favor, plus a 51st vote cast by Vice President Harris. There are, however, moderate Democratic senators who have indicated in recent weeks that they may not be willing to use the budget reconciliation process to advance any further legislation, at least in the short term.  

Nonetheless, on August 11, 2021, the Senate approved a budget resolution on party lines; this budget resolution will serve as the framework with which Infrastructure two will be considered on its merits. House Speaker Pelosi previously indicated that the House will not vote on a first infrastructure bill until the Senate takes procedural steps regarding Infrastructure two, so this crucial step makes the future of both packages brighter in both chambers of Congress.

Likelihood of a 2021 tax bill?

Infrastructure two is expected to be the vehicle in which tax policy priorities are included. With passage of the budget resolution in the Senate, this step certainly makes the prospects of ultimate passage much better. What remains unclear is what the underlying provisions will look like, as there remains some discomfort on the part of some moderate senators with its $3.5 trillion price tag.

All eyes are focused on two moderate Democratic senators: Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. While Sinema has been instrumental in helping to reach a bipartisan deal on Infrastructure one, she indicated the week of July 26, 2021 that she does not currently support the price tag of the second bill. Manchin has also indicated displeasure with the bill’s cost. Without the support of both senators, a second bill would likely stall.

There is still plenty of time on the legislative calendar for negotiation and minds to change. Some issues members of Congress will consider are the price tag of any second infrastructure bill, whether they want to be the sole detractor within their party and whether there may be opportunity to address the policy issues in future legislation. 

Timing of a possible tax bill?

Although Congress is expected to take up consideration of Infrastructure two in the fall, whether it ultimately passes and what provisions it will contain is unclear. Senators Sinema and Manchin are two to watch over the coming weeks. 

What would be included?

The Green Book is a good starting point to understand the Administration’s tax policy priorities. Congress will have its priorities as well. If we do see tax legislation, some major provisions that can be expected to be included in a bill include increases in the corporate tax rate, individual tax rates, and capital gains rates, as well as estate tax changes and changes to international tax policy.

Article
2021 federal tax legislation? A review of the state of play

Read this if you are a plan sponsor of employee benefit plans.

This article is the ninth in a series to help employee benefit plan fiduciaries better understand their responsibilities and manage the risks of non-compliance with Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requirements. You can read the previous articles here

Employee benefit plan loan basics 

If your plan’s adoption agreement is set up to allow loans, participants can borrow against their account balance. Some participants may find this an attractive option as the interest they pay on the loan is returned to their retirement account as opposed to other loans where the interest is paid to the lender. 

Additionally, while interest is charged at the market rate, it may be lower than other options available to the participant, such as a credit card or other unsecured debt. Unlike hardship distributions, there are no restrictions on the circumstances under which a participant may take a loan. A potential downside is that if the borrower defaults on the loan or ends their employment and cannot repay the loan in full, it converts from a loan to a deemed distribution, potentially incurring taxes and penalties.

If a participant decides that an employee benefit plan loan is their best option, they will apply for the loan through your plan administrator. Loans are limited in both size and quantity. Participants may take loans up to 50% of their vested account balance with a maximum loan of $50,000. The provisions of a plan determine how many loans an employee may have at once; however, the combined loan balances cannot exceed 50% of the employee’s vested balance or $50,000. Furthermore, the $50,000 loan maximum must also consider payments made on loans within the previous 12 months.

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans

Repayment of employee benefit plan loans may be done through after tax payroll contributions, making it a relatively easy process for the participant. If a plan sponsor elects to provide this repayment option, they must ensure that repayments are remitted to the plan in a timely manner, just as they must with other employee funded contributions. The term of the loan is typically limited to five years and must be repaid in at least quarterly installments. However, a loan can be extended to as long as thirty years if specified within the plan’s loan policy. If the loan term is for longer than five years, the loan proceeds must be used to purchase a primary residence.

Like any source of debt, there are pros and cons to taking out an employee benefit plan loan, and it remains an important option for participants to understand. The benefits include the ease of applying for such a loan and loan interest that is then added to the participant’s retirement account balance. Potential pitfalls include lost earnings during the loan period and the risk of the loan becoming a deemed distribution if the participant is unable to repay within the allotted time. 

If you would like more information, or have specific questions about your specific situation, please contact our Employee Benefits Audit team.

Article
Retirement plan loans: A brief review

Read this if you are at a financial institution that uses FedLine® Solutions.

In response to an evolving security threat landscape, the Federal Reserve Bank has implemented a Security and Resiliency Assurance Program (“Assurance Program”). Financial institutions that use FedLine® Solutions will need to take action before year-end to comply with Assurance Program requirements. Here’s what you need to know.

Required assessment to be completed annually

Financial institutions are already required to implement, maintain, and assess technical and procedural security controls to safeguard their FedLine® connections. Starting in 2021, financial institutions must conduct an assessment of their compliance with the Federal Reserve Bank's FedLine® security requirements and submit an attestation that they have completed the assessment. The deadline for submitting the first attestation is December 31, 2021. Moving forward, this assessment and attestation must be completed annually.

This assessment can be performed internally by an independent internal department/function such as an internal audit or compliance department. The Federal Reserve Bank may, in its discretion, require the assessment be conducted or reviewed by an independent third party. End User Authorization Contacts (EUAC) for each organization were sent an Assurance Program kick-off packet with requirements and instructions in January 2021 to assist with the process. 

Immediate action 

Evaluate the requirements for your financial institution’s Assurance Program assessment as soon as possible. Planning for the 2021 assessment should be well underway. If you would like to discuss the Assurance Program requirements or you’ve been notified that your financial institution needs an independent third party review, contact us today.

Article
The Federal Reserve's FedLine® Solutions Security and Resiliency Assurance Program

Read this if you have a blended workforce with both in-office employees and remote workers.

It is hard to believe it has been nearly a year and a half since we started our remote work journey. At the time, many thought the move to working remotely would be short term. Then, a couple of weeks turned into a month, a month into another month, another month into a year and, some employers are now finally considering re-opening their offices.

Back in April 2020, we provided some internal control challenges, and potential solutions, faced by working in a remote environment. These challenges included exercising appropriate tone at the top, maintaining appropriate segregation of duties, and ensuring timely review, amongst others. Although these challenges still exist, there are new considerations to address as we transition into (hopefully) a post-pandemic world.

Blended workforces

As we mentioned in that article, since people have now been forced to work in a remote environment, they will be more apt to continue to do so. For some employees, the perks of ditching that long commute outweighs the free coffee they receive in the office. Employers have a decision to make—do we allow our employees the option to continue to work from home or, do we require employees to work from the office, as was standard pre-pandemic? Now that employees have exhibited the ability to work from home efficiently and effectively, it may be difficult to move all employees back into the office. Requiring all employees to return to the office could result in employees seeking employment elsewhere, and the option to work remotely is a selling point for many recruiters. Furthermore, disallowing remote work could cause employees to feel distrusted or undervalued, possibly leading to less efficient and effective work.

However, remote work comes with many challenges. Although video chat has been instrumental in navigating the remote work environment, it still has limitations. Nothing can beat in-person conversations and the relationships they help build. Nearly every video chat has a purpose, and unfortunately, you can’t just “run” into somebody in a video chat as you can in the office. Building camaraderie and instilling your company’s culture is difficult in a remote environment. And, if your workforce is blended, with some working in the office while others work remotely, building culture may be even more difficult than if your entire workforce was remote. Employees in the office may be less apt to communicate with remote colleagues. If you have a task you wish to delegate, you may think of giving the assignment to someone in the office prior to thinking of your remote co-workers that may be just as able and willing to complete the assignment. It will be important to ensure all employees are provided with equal opportunities, no matter of where they work.

Remote work policy

Regardless of your company’s decision to allow employees to work remotely or not, we recommend developing a remote work policy addressing expected behaviors. When developing such a policy, consider:

  •  Will the policy’s provisions apply to the entire company or will there be different provisions by department? If the latter, consider what the implications may be on employee morale.
  • Will there be a minimum amount of days per week that must be spent in the office?
  • If employees are allowed to work remotely, do they need to work a set schedule or can the frequency, and which days they work remotely, change from week to week?
  • Who should the employee communicate their decision to? How will this information then be shared company-wide?
  • How do remote employees address document destruction? If they are handling sensitive and confidential documents, how should they dispose of these documents?
  • Similarly, what are the expectations for protecting sensitive and confidential information at home?
  • Are employees allowed to hook up company-provided equipment to personal devices, such as personal printers?
  • If an employee is customer/client facing, what are the expectations for dress code and backgrounds for video chat meetings?
  • What will staff development look like for individuals working remotely? Alternatively, what will their involvement look like in onboarding/developing new employees?
  • What are the expectations for meetings? Will all meetings be set up in a manner that accommodates in-person and remote attendees? Are there meetings where in-person attendance is mandatory?

The importance of these considerations will likely differ from company to company. Some of these considerations may be addressed in other, already existing policies.

Are your internal controls “blended workforce” ready?

If your company plans to allow employees to work remotely, you will need to assess if your internal controls make sense for both in-office and remote employees. Typically, internal controls are written in a manner irrespective of where the employee resides. However, there may be situations that require an internal control be re-worked to accommodate in-office and remote employees. For instance, do you have an internal control that references a specific report that can only be run in-office? If the control owner plans to transition to a hybrid work schedule, does the frequency of the internal control need to change to reflect the employee’s new schedule? Alternatively, does it make sense to transition this internal control to someone else that will be in the office more frequently?

Internal control accommodations

The transition to a remote environment was expeditious and many thought the remote environment would be over quickly. As a result, there may have been modifications to internal controls that were made out of necessity, although they were not ideal from an internal control standpoint. The rationale for these accommodations may have been the expectation that the remote environment would be short-lived. Although these accommodations may have made sense for a short amount of time, and posed little to no additional risk to your company, the longer these accommodations remained in effect, the greater the chance for unintended consequences. 

We recommend reviewing your internal controls and creating a log of any internal control accommodations that were made due to the pandemic. Some of these modifications may continue to make sense and, after operating under the new internal control for an extended period of time, may even be preferable to the previous internal control. However, for those modifications that do appear to have increased control risk, control owners should assess if the length of the pandemic could have resulted in inadequately designed internal controls. And, if so, what could the consequences of these poorly designed internal controls have been to the company?

Internal control vs. process

While reviewing your company’s internal controls, it will also be a good time to ensure your internal control descriptions actually describe an internal control rather than simply a process. Although having well-documented processes for your company’s various transaction cycles is important, a good internal control description should already incorporate the process within it. Think of your internal control descriptions as writing a story—the “process” provides background information on the characters and setting, while the “internal control” is the story’s plot.

For example: The Accounting Manager downloads the market values from the investment portfolio accounting system and enters the market values into the general ledger on a monthly basis. Once the journal entry is entered, the Accounting Manager provides the market value report and a copy of the journal entry to the Controller.

Although a savvy reader may be able to identify where the internal control points are within this process, it could easily be modified to explicitly include discussion of the actual internal controls. The text in bold below represents modifications to the original:

The Accounting Manager downloads the market values from the investment portfolio accounting system and enters the market values into the general ledger on a monthly basis. Once the journal entry is entered, the Accounting Manager provides the market value report and a copy of the journal entry to the Controller via email. This email serves as documentation of preparation of the journal entry by the Accounting Manager. The Controller then reviews the market value report against the journal entry for accuracy. Once approved, the Controller posts the journal entry and replies to the email to indicate their review and approval. The Accounting Manager saves the email chain as auditable evidence.

The text additions in bold font help provide a complete story. A new employee could easily read this description and understand what they need to do, and how to appropriately document it. Most importantly, the internal control is both in-office and remote environment friendly.

Transitioning back to the office has resulted in a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Routine office norms, such as shaking hands and having a spontaneous meeting over a cup of coffee need to be relearned. Likewise, policies and internal controls need to be revisited to address the changing landscape. The more proactive your company can be, the better positioned it will be to accommodate its employees’ demands, while also maximizing the effectiveness of its internal controls. Please contact David Stone or Dan Vogt if any questions arise.

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May the "blended workforce be with you": Policy and internal control considerations for a new era