Securities lending is the practice of lending plan assets to others in exchange for cash as collateral. The investment fund managers get to charge for lending the assets, and they also get to keep any earnings on the cash they invest.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on securities lending Wednesday to look at reports that problems with securities lenders’ efforts to invest the collateral had, in turn, interfered with the ability 401(k) plan participants to get cash out of their accounts during the recent financial crisis.

Lawmakers and others cited reports that plan participants sometimes had trouble getting to cash even when they had invested in what were regarded as highly conservative investments, such as money market funds and stable value funds.

Financial services industry witnesses at the hearing acknowledge that the financial crisis uncovered problems, but they suggested that the problems could be addressed with tweaking rather than major surgery.

Ed Blount, executive director of the Center for the Study of Financial Market Evolution, Washington, a longtime player in the securities lending community, said the “cash collateral lockups that froze the assets of 401(k) defined contribution accountholders” during the financial crisis is a problem for the entire investment community.

Managers of many different widely used investment vehicles, such as index funds, options and futures, often use borrowed securities to handle matters such as settling short positions.

Those activities increase the liquidity and efficiency of the U.S. capital markets, and restricting those transactions would increase the “risks of settlement failures and increasing the capital charges for brokers with customer segregation deficits,” Blount said, according to a written version of his testimony provided by the committee. “All this would erode the global competitiveness of U.S. domestic

capital markets and, ultimately, American business.”

In cases, 401(k) plan managers seem to simply be rejecting investment funds that use securities lending rather than to evaluate each fund’s securities lending practices, Blount said.

Because of those decisions, the professionals who manage definded benefit plans – who understand securities lending – are outperforming defined contribution plans, Blount said.

“In effect, we’re creating a yield deviation between [defined contribution] and [defined benefit] plans where there isn’t a good reason for it,” Blount said.

Funds should do a better job of disclosing securities lending information, but those improvements should not be imposed by regulatory fiat, Blount said.

“Furthermore, I believe that an expert council should be established to define the limits of prudence for collateral cash managers, one that is based on close monitoring of changing market conditionsm,” Blount said.

Steven Meier, chief investment officer for global cash management at State Street Global Advisors, Boston, said his company, which uses securities lending at some funds, would like to see improvements in the disclosures made to 401(k) plan participants but has no direct relationship with the participants.

“We welcome discussion and collaboration with the committee and other stakeholders about how else the industry can improve its disclosures to retirement investors given the limited ability of asset managers and lending agents like State Street to convey information directly to individual participants in retirement plans,” Meier said.

Anthony Nazzaro, a securities lending manager, said he thinks pension funds could be protected by executing investment manager agreements along with securities lending agency agreements; setting strict guidelines for reinvestment of cash collateral; valuing the cash collateral that corresponds to the securities loan balances daily; and putting limits on the amount or value of securities in a portfolio that can be lent.

Other retirement plan coverage from National Underwriter Life & Health: