The U.S. Department of Labor has sounded a warning regarding 401(k) plan investments in cryptocurrencies. In Compliance Assistance Release No. 2022-01 (issued March 10, 2022), 401(k) plan fiduciaries are urged to “exercise extreme care before they consider adding a cryptocurrency option to a 401(k) plan’s investment menu for plan participants.” Because of the risks and uncertainties associated with cryptocurrencies, the guidance document raises “serious concerns about the prudence of a fiduciary’s decision to expose a 401(k) plan’s participants to direct invest in cryptocurrencies or other products whose value is tied cryptocurrencies.”
Under federal laws governing retirement plans (commonly known as ERISA), the investment manager of a 401(k) plan is considered a fiduciary, who must act solely in the financial interests of the plan participants. Courts hold fiduciaries to very high standards of professional care and prudence. When these standards are breached, the asset manager can be held personally liable for the losses resulting from the breach. For 401(k) plans, the fiduciary is obligated to evaluate independently which investments are suitable to include in the investment options from which plan participants may choose. Offering imprudent investment options to participants is considered a breach of duty.
The Department of Labor identified several areas of concern that make cryptocurrencies and cryptocurrency-tied products exceptionally risky investments for 401(k) participants.