Category Archives: BICE

Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #1

What is the Best Interest Standard of Care?

I am writing two series of articles that together are called “The Bests.” One is about Best Practices for plan sponsors, while the other is about the Best Interest Standard of Care for advisors. Each series is numbered separately to make it easier to identify the subject that is most relevant to you.

This is the first of the series about the Best Interest Standard of Care.

For this inaugural article, let’s talk about the meaning of “Best Interest.”

There are at least four Best Interest standards. (While “best interest” can also refer to management of conflicts of interest, this article is about the best interest standard of care.)

  • ERISA’s best interest standard of care for plan sponsors and fiduciary advisors for private sector retirement plans. (While ERISA doesn’t literally have a best interest standard—because the Best Interest Contract Exemption was vacated by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, that best interest standard was a combination of ERISA’s prudent man rule and duty of loyalty which, of course, are still in the law. As a result, I will use the term to refer to the combination of ERISA’s prudent man rule and duty of loyalty.)
  • The SEC’s proposed best interest standard for broker-dealers in its Regulation Best Interest.
  • The best interest standard in the SEC’s proposed “Interpretation” for investment advisers.
  • The New York State Best Interest standard for recommendations of life insurance policies and annuity contracts.

Let’s look at how each of those are defined.

  • The ERISA Best Interest Standard for Retirement Plans (copied from the Best Interest Contract Exemption):

Investment advice is in the ‘‘Best Interest’’ of the Retirement Investor when the Adviser and Financial Institution providing the advice act with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims, based on the investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial circumstances, and needs of the Retirement Investor, without regard to the financial or other interests of the Adviser, Financial Institution or any Affiliate, Related Entity, or other party.

  • The SEC’s Proposed Best Interest Standard for Broker-Dealers:

The best interest obligation . . . shall be satisfied if: The broker, dealer, or natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, in making the recommendation exercises reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence to:… Have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of a particular retail customer based on that retail customer’s investment profile and the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation; . . .

A broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, when making a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities to a retail customer, shall act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made, without placing the financial or other interest of the broker, dealer, or natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer making the recommendation ahead of the interest of the retail customer.

  • The SEC’s Proposed Best Interest Standard for Investment Advisers:

The SEC proposal did not include a definition of best interest. However, the SEC proposal reaffirms that investment advisers are fiduciaries for their clients and includes the best interest standard as a part of the RIA fiduciary duty. It seems inconceivable that the best interest standard for investment advisers would be lower than that same standard for broker-dealers. And, since the SEC uses the same label—“best interest”—for both investment advisers and broker-dealers, the likelihood is that the standard is the same. (In some ways, though, those best interest rules are different, for example, the RIA best interest standard applies to a much wider range of advice and includes monitoring.)

  • The New York State Best Interest Standard:

The producer, or insurer where no producer is involved, acts in the best interest of the consumer when . . .

the producer’s or insurer’s recommendation to the consumer reflects the care, skill, prudence, and diligence that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use under the circumstances then prevailing. Only the interests of the consumer shall be considered in making the recommendation. The producer’s receipt of compensation or other incentives permitted by the Insurance Law and the Insurance Regulations is permitted by this requirement provided that the amount of the compensation or the receipt of an incentive does not influence the recommendation; and . . .

I have highlighted language in each of the definitions. My purpose is to emphasize how similar the standards are. All of the Best Interest standards seem to require a process. That is, how can an advisor be careful, skillful, prudent and diligent without engaging in a process? In my view, there are several steps to that process. The first is determining the needs and circumstances of the investor; the second is evaluating the investment or insurance strategies in light of those needs; and the third is a consideration of the costs and quality of the investment and insurance products that are being considered. The gathering and analysis of that relevant information must be done carefully and skillfully based on a hypothetical knowledgeable and experienced advisor. In other words, the standard is not the ability of a particular advisor, but instead the industry expectations of professional advisors. The evaluation and performance of the advisor is based on that objective standard.

In addition, each of the definitions requires that an advisor place the interests of the investor ahead of the interests of the advisor. The Best Interest standard imposes a duty of loyalty on the advisor.

“Best Interest” does not mean that an advisor must pick the best investment or insurance product. However, it does impose a higher duty than suitability in the development of recommendations, and it may prove to be more demanding than many people expect. It does mean that quality and costs are more significant considerations than they are under the suitability standard.

To automatically receive these articles in your in box, you can sign up on my blog at http://fredreish.com/insight/. Just enter your name and email address under the “sign up for our e-newsletter” option, and click on the button to subscribe.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #100

Investment Advisers and the SEC’s Interpretation of Their Duties: Part II

This is my 100th article about interesting observations—or “angles”—concerning the Department of Labor’s Fiduciary Rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

Part I of this post discussed the application of the SEC’s best interest standard to recommendations to participants to take distributions and rollover to IRAs. It also discussed the apparent requirement for a thoughtful and professional process to develop the recommendation. However, it reserved for this post, Part II, the factors to be considered in that process.

The RIA Interpretation lists a number of factors to consider in the best interest process. However, most of them apply to investment recommendations, rather than advice about distributions. But a few are helpful. For example, the costs of investments and services and consideration of the investor profile are relevant factors.

Under Reg BI, though, the SEC is a little more helpful. For example, Reg BI says that an advisor should engage in a careful, skillful, diligent and prudent process. Reg BI also refers to FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45 in several places. That Regulatory Notice requires that the information about the important factors (see below) be gathered and considered in light of the investor profile. While the Regulatory Notice says that the rollover recommendation must be suitable in light of these factors, the RIA Interpretation and Reg BI add that the recommendation must be in the “best interest” of the participant and that the interests of advisors and their firms cannot supersede those of the participant.

Although vacated by the 5th Circuit, the DOL’s Best interest Contract Exemption (BICE) described a prudent process, using language similar to the SEC’s proposed Reg BI . . . care, skill, prudence and diligence. In addition, the DOL’s BICE also said that information needed to be gathered about the relevant factors and those factors should be evaluated in light of the needs and circumstances of the participant. In other words, the SEC’s proposals and the DOL’s vacated rule are remarkably similar on rollover recommendations.

In sum, I think that it’s fair to say that, in order for the SEC’s best interest standard to be satisfied, an advisor (of a broker-dealer or an RIA) must engage in a process where the advisor gathers, and carefully and professionally considers, the relevant information. That process would need to satisfy the best interest and loyalty standards.

But, what are the relevant factors? The leading guidance on that question is found in FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45 and the DOL’s vacated BICE (including a FAQ issued by the DOL). Boiled down to the essence, those materials say that advisors must consider, at the least, the investments, services and expenses in the plan; the investments, services and expenses for the proposed rollover IRA; and information about the participant (for example, financial objectives, needs, and risk tolerance). It would also be permissible to consider other factors, such as participant preferences, outside assets, other family investments, and so on.

While BICE has been vacated, it likely reflects the DOL’s current thinking about a prudent process and, as a result, could be applied by the DOL to situations where fiduciary advisors make recommendations of distributions and rollovers. (See DOL Advisory Opinion 2005-23A.) Also, since the DOL has the most experience with plan distributions, FINRA and the SEC may defer to the DOL’s thinking in this area. And, while the FINRA Regulatory Notice only covers recommendations by broker-dealers and their advisors, I doubt that the standard for RIAs would be lower than the standard for broker-dealers.

As a result, investment advisers should develop processes for gathering and considering information about the investments (and fees, costs and services) available to the participant in the plan, and compare them to similar information for a proposed IRA, in light of the investment profile of the participant.

And, keep in mind, as I mentioned in Part I of this article, the SEC’s Interpretation RIA reflects current SEC thinking. This is not something to be put off for the future.

NOTE: This article discusses rollover recommendations to participants in participant directed plans. The issues for “pooled” plans are different. In particular, the analysis for defined benefit plans can be more complex.

NOTE: While the DOL’s vacated Fiduciary Rule would have applied to private sector, ERISA-governed retirement plans, the SEC’s guidance applies to participants in all plans, including government plans.

To automatically receive these articles in your in box, you can sign up on my blog at http://fredreish.com/insight/. Just enter your name and email address under the “sign up for our e-newsletter” option, and click on the button to subscribe.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #96

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 2

This is my 96th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

In my last post, I compared the proposed best interest standard of care for broker-dealers—the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”), and the SEC’s proposed Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (“RIA Interpretation”). In that article, I focused on the types of recommendations that implicated the best interest standard of care. For broker-dealers, the best interest standard only applied to recommendations of securities transactions and securities strategies. However, for RIAs the best interest standard applies to all advice and recommendations.

This article focuses on the advice recipients, that is, which investors will be protected by the best interest standard of care if the advice is given by a broker-dealer or, alternatively, if the advice is given by an RIA. Part 3 of this series gives examples of how the proposals apply to investors.

Focusing on the recipients of the advice, Reg BI’s standard of care would only protect “retail customers”:

“A broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, when making recommendations of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities to a retail customer, shall act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made, . . . .” [Emphasis added.]

Reg BI defines “retail customer” as:

“A person or the legal representative of such person, who . . .[u]ses the recommendation primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.”

Based on my reading of the SEC proposal, and on my conversations with securities lawyers, a “retail customer” includes individual investors, family and personal trusts, IRA owners, and plan participants. However, it does not include businesses, retirement plans, and tax-exempt organizations. Unfortunately, the SEC did not explain why they excluded some of those investors, who may be relatively unsophisticated. For example, if a small business owner has a 401(k) plan, advice about the business owner’s personal account would be protected by the best interest standard of care; advice about the investments in the plan would not be; advice to the owner about investing his participant account would be; and advice about investing the corporate account would not be.

It seems difficult to imagine that the small business owner—who has the same level of sophistication regardless of which account he or she is investing—would understand that the protections under the securities laws varied depending on which “hat” the business owner was wearing. This will, undoubtedly, lead to confusion.

On the other hand, in its RIA Interpretation, the SEC explains: “An investment adviser has a fiduciary duty to all of its clients, whether or not the client is a retail investor,” and “This obligation to provide advice that is suitable and in the best interest applies not just to potential investments, but to all the investment advice provides to clients . . . .”

In other words, the best interest duties of investment advisers are much broader than the proposed rule for broker-dealers. Looking at the example above, an investment adviser has a best interest duty to the small business owner when recommending investments for the business; investments for a retirement plan; personal investments; and investments in a participant account in the retirement plan. In addition to the material differences in the range of recommendations and recipients, an investment adviser also has a duty to monitor the investment recommendations (unless there is a contractual agreement that the adviser will not). However, a broker-dealer’s best interest obligation ends when a recommendation is made; that is, there isn’t an obligation to monitor.

This article is not intended to favor either RIAs or broker-dealers, but instead is to explain the SEC’s proposals. Each reader of this column can decide whether the benefits and burdens of the proposals favor one business model or the other. Also, I should point out that Reg BI is just a proposal. On the other hand, while the RIA Interpretation is labeled as a proposal, it is a compilation, or interpretation, of the SEC’s position on the rules regulating investment advisers.

In my next post, Part 3, I will expand on the examples in this article.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

 

 

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #93

SEC Proposed Reg BI and Recommendations of Rollovers (Part 2)

This is my 93rd article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

In my last post, I described the similarities between the SEC proposed Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) and the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule (and especially the Best Interest Contract Exemption [BICE]) regarding recommendations to participants to take distributions and roll over into IRAs. The similarities include a best interest standard of care and the treatment of conflicts of interest. This article discusses the requirement of the best interest standard of care in Reg BI and compares it to the standard of care in BICE (and the requirements of FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45). My next article—Part 3—will cover the conflict of interest issues.

In its discussion of recommendations about distributions and rollovers in proposed Reg BI, the SEC says that, where the recommendation involves a securities transaction, the best interest standard of care will apply to broker-dealers. The SEC goes on to describe the best interest standard of care as requiring care, skill, prudence and diligence and making a recommendation that is in the best interest of, loyal to, the participant.

With regard to the question of whether a recommendation to take a distribution and roll over is a securities transaction, the SEC refers to FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45. The SEC guidance and that Regulatory Notice, in combination, point out that, in the typical recommendation to a 401(k) participant, there are two securities transactions. The first transaction is the liquidation of the investments in a participant’s account, since a distribution cannot ordinarily be made without first selling the investments in the account. (In other words, a recommendation to take a distribution usually inherently includes a recommendation to sell the investments in the participant’s account.) The second transaction is in the rollover IRA, where a new investment recommendation will be made. As a result, distribution and rollover recommendations to 401(k) and 403(b) participants will ordinarily involve two securities transactions and both will be subject to the proposed best interest standard of care.

However, the SEC does not discuss the process and analysis required to make a best interest recommendation of a distribution. As discussed above, though, the SEC makes a number of references to Regulatory Notice 13-45. That notice goes into some detail that the information needed to evaluate whether a rollover recommendation would be suitable. It seems safe to assume that, at the least, the same information would be required for a best interest recommendation.

In its Regulatory Notice, FINRA points to a number of factors to be considered, including the investments, services, and fees and expenses in the plan. A broker-dealer will need to gather information in order to evaluate those factors . . . and then compare them to the services, expenses, and investments in the proposed rollover IRA. That analysis must be done in light of the financial needs, circumstances and preferences of the participant.

While it is easy to say that plan information is needed, it is hard to find that information.

How do I know that? It is because those are the same factors that the DOL said were primary considerations for making a best interest recommendation under BICE.

The DOL, SEC and FINRA have converged to agree on the important factors that need to be considered to make a rollover recommendation. However, it’s proven to be difficult to gather information about plan investments, expenses and services. Fortunately, though, the DOL did offer guidance for situations where it was not possible to find the information. I assume that the SEC and FINRA will share the alternative approach provided by the DOL, which was described in a set of FAQs. Broadly stated, the DOL permits use of “alternative data” where a participant cannot find, or does not want to use, the primary plan data.

Also, I should point out that there continues to be an education alternative, which is that a broker-dealer can provide distribution and rollover education, rather than making recommendations. However, it’s important that the education be unbiased and relatively complete. Otherwise, it could be viewed as a disguised recommendation.

In my next post, I will discuss the conflict of interest issues where distribution and rollover recommendations are made.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #91

Parallels Between the SEC Regulation Best Interest and the DOL Best Interest Contract Exemption (Part 2)

This is my 91st article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws—including the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

This article continues my discussion of the similarities between the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) for broker-dealers and the DOL’s Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE).

In addition to the standard of care (best interest and loyalty), Reg BI also has enhanced protections for conflicts of interest. Interestingly, they closely parallel the DOL’s conditions in BICE. For example, Reg BI proposes to require that material conflicts of interest involving financial incentives be eliminated or, alternatively, be disclosed and mitigated. The key word is “mitigated.” While the SEC guidance refers to “financial incentives” and the DOL refers to “compensation,” the outcome is much the same. ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code prohibit compensation that results from fiduciary recommendations, where the compensation is paid by a third party (for example, insurance commissions or 12b-1 fees) or where the compensation is variable, based on the recommendations (for example, commissions on securities transactions). Those types of payments are, in the view of the SEC, “material conflicts of interest involving financial incentives.”

In BICE, the DOL said that fiduciary advisors (which could include broker-dealers and their representatives) needed to have policies, procedures and practices in place to ensure that the compensation did not incent advisors to make recommendations that were not in the best interest of retirement investors. Similarly, the SEC says that broker-dealers must eliminate, or disclose and mitigate, conflicts of interest that involve financial incentives. As examples of “mitigation,” the SEC and DOL both gave the following:

  • Within a particular investment category, compensation could be levelized. For example, the initial compensation and trailing compensation for all mutual fund sales could be set at the same level. As a hypothetical, that might be a 3% initial commission (or load) on all mutual funds, with a uniform 25 basis point trailing 12b-1 fee.
  • Among investment categories, a broker-dealer might base differences in compensation on “neutral” factors. For example, if it took twice as much work to explain and sell a variable annuity contract, that would be a neutral factor that would justify twice as much compensation for the sale of an individual variable annuity. Hypothetically, if reasonable and level compensation for mutual fund sales was 3%, then in my hypothetical, first-year compensation of 6% could be justified for the sale of a variable annuity.

Keep in mind, though, that those are just examples about how the mitigation requirement could be satisfied. If the SEC’s Reg BI is finalized in its current form, broker-dealers will need to implement those policies or adopt other practices that are reasonably designed to mitigate the impact of material conflicts of interest arising from financial incentives associated with investment recommendations. (More technically, the SEC proposes that Reg BI would apply to recommendations of securities transactions and investment strategies that involve investment transactions.) Based on the examples used by the SEC, it appears that the Commission is serious about mitigation of the incentive effect of those payments.

As this article suggests, in order to fully appreciate the SEC’s Reg BI, broker-dealers need to understand the development and history of the DOL’s BICE. There are remarkable parallels. In fact, it would be difficult to understand some concepts, such as neutral factors, without having worked on BICE compliance issues.

However, it also means that broker-dealers who are in substantial compliance with the final BICE requirements–as opposed to the transition rules–have already substantially satisfied the SEC’s proposed rules. That’s good news. It means that the hard work put in by those firms, and the costs involved, will have been worth it. It also means that, for broker-dealers who were not close to being in compliance with full BICE, practices and compensation arrangements developed by others can be used to develop compliant practices for the SEC guidance.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #90

Parallels Between the SEC Regulation Best Interest and the DOL Best Interest Contract Exemption (Part 1)

This is my 90th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

The SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”) is remarkable in its similarities to the DOL’s vacated Best Interest Contract Exemption (“BICE”). This article describes some of those similarities. Keep in mind as you read this that Reg BI applies to securities recommendations, while BICE would have covered any investment or insurance recommendation by a fiduciary advisor.

Reg BI, if finalized, will require that broker-dealers and their representatives act in the “best interest” of “retail customers,” which includes IRA owners and participants. The DOL’s BICE also would have required that fiduciary advisors (including broker-dealers and their representatives) act in the “best interest” of participants and IRA owners. A major difference is that the SEC proposal covers all retail customers, while the DOL’s BICE would have covered “qualified accounts”—which includes only plans, participants and IRA owners. (I should note that Reg BI says that it covers recommendations to “legal representatives” of retail customers. That reference could include the trustees and plan committees for retirement plans. However, it’s not clear.)

Also, Reg BI is similar to BICE in that it covers recommendations to participants to take distributions from retirement plans and roll over to IRAs. Reg BI only applies where securities recommendations are made. But it appears to be the position of both the SEC and FINRA that a recommendation to take a distribution from a 401(k) plan implicitly includes a recommendation to liquidate the investments in the participant’s account, which would be a securities transaction. (I will get into more detail about recommendations to participants to take distributions and roll over to IRAs in a future article.)

In addition, both Reg BI and BICE include a duty of loyalty for recommended securities transactions. While the wording in the two pieces of guidance is slightly different, the outcome is the same . . . broker-dealers and their representatives cannot prioritize their own interests ahead of the interests of investors.

While some people refer to the new standard of care as being “suitability plus” or “enhanced suitability,” I see it differently. Based on my reading of the guidance and on comments by SEC commissioners, the suitability standard is incorporated into the new Best Interest Standard of Care, rather than the other way around. As a result, it might be better referred to as “transactional best interest.”

Unfortunately, the SEC proposal does not fully define the Best Interest Standard of Care. However, it does say that broker-dealers and their representatives have to act with “diligence, care, skill, and prudence,” which was also in the DOL’s Best Interest Standard of Care. (As an aside, the requirement to act diligently, carefully, skillfully, and prudently suggests the need for a process—similar to ERISA’s prudent man rule.) The proposed Reg BI goes on to say that its duty of care is based on the principles in the DOL’s Best Interest Standard of Care. To me, that means that a starting point for understanding the Reg BI requirements is to look at the DOL’s Best Interest Standard of Care which says that:

Investment advice is in the ‘‘Best Interest’’ of the Retirement Investor when the Adviser and Financial Institution providing the advice act with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims, based on the investment objectives, risk tolerance, financial circumstances, and needs of the Retirement Investor, without regard to the financial or other interests of the Adviser, Financial Institution or any Affiliate, Related Entity, or other party.

If you read that closely, it easily divides into three categories: a prudent person rule; a know-your-customer requirement; and a duty of loyalty. The preamble to the proposed Reg BI discusses those three principles as being key elements of its standards.

However, while the proposal would require best interest for recommendations of securities transactions, it would not mandate a duty to monitor. That is significantly different from the role of an investment adviser (RIA), where best interest monitoring is generally expected.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #89

The 5th Circuit Decision, Prohibited Transactions, and New Non-Enforcement Policies

This is my 89th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

On Monday, May 7th, the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service issued non-enforcement policies for prohibited transactions that resulted from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacating the Fiduciary Rule. While it is well-understood that the 5th Circuit threw out the expanded definition of fiduciary advice, it is not as well known that the 5th Circuit also vacated the exemptions that were associated with the fiduciary regulation. As a result of the loss of the exemptions, including the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE), many advisors (including their broker-dealers and RIAs) have inadvertently engaged in prohibited transactions during the time since the Fiduciary Rule first applied on June 9, 2017. As a result, relief was needed. This article discusses the guidance from the DOL and IRS, as well as some of the implications.

As background, when the expanded definition of fiduciary advice became applicable on June 9th, that meant that almost any person providing investment, insurance, or rollover advice to ERISA retirement plans, participants or IRA owners was a fiduciary. As a result, two fiduciary prohibited transaction rules come into play. Two types of compensation are prohibited by both the Code and ERISA. Generally stated, the first prohibited transaction is the receipt of compensation by a fiduciary advisor (and/or the supervisory entity) from third parties. Broadly stated, “third parties” includes anyone other than the plan, plan sponsor, participant, participant’s account, IRA or IRA owner. As a result, it would include common payments such as 12b-1 fees, insurance commissions, payments from custodians and recordkeepers, and so on. The second fiduciary prohibited transaction is commonly referred to as “variable” compensation. More specifically, it is compensation received directly as a result of an investment recommendation. The most obvious example is a commission on a securities transaction, where each recommendation can generate compensation for the advisor. It would also include situations where, for example, a level fee advisor recommended mutual funds that pay 12b-1 fees in addition to the advisory fee.

The compensation resulting received by a fiduciary advisor because of those recommended transactions is prohibited. That compensation can only be retained by a fiduciary advisor (and his or her supervisory entity) if there is an exemption and if the conditions of the exemption are satisfied.

BICE fulfilled that role for most types of transactions. However, when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the Fiduciary Rule, it also vacated the exemptions, including BICE.

As a result, there have been an unimaginable number of prohibited transactions committed during the period from June 9th to date. In addition, there would be absolute prohibitions on those types of compensation in the future. Obviously, that doesn’t work.

As a side note, these prohibitions apply only to fiduciary advisors. When the Fiduciary Rule was vacated, some advice that would have been fiduciary advice will not result in fiduciary status. For example, the recommendation of a fixed rate annuity as an individual retirement annuity (or IRA) could be one-time advice. In that case, the commission would not be prohibited compensation, either retroactively or prospectively.

However, in many other cases, the advice would, either under the vacated new rule or the old fiduciary definition, be fiduciary advice. For example, common practices of many investment advisors and RIAs would satisfy the 5-part test. In addition, where advisors with broker-dealers have ongoing relationships of trust and confidence with continuing customers, they could satisfy the 5-part test, depending on the facts and circumstances.

With that background, let’s turn to the non-enforcement policies. The DOL non-enforcement policy applies to fiduciary advice to ERISA-governed retirement plans and to participants in those plans. The policy is that the DOL will not enforce inadvertent prohibited transactions that occurred because fiduciary advisors complied with the transition rules in BICE (and other exemptions associated with the Fiduciary Rule by satisfying the Impartial Conduct Standards). However, that is only partial relief. That is because ERISA also provides for private rights of action by plan fiduciaries. As a result, fiduciary advisors need the additional protection of a prohibited transaction exemption. While that exemption does not exist now, the DOL is likely to remedy that. See the discussion below.

The IRS non-enforcement policy applies to both IRAs (and similar vehicles) and tax-qualified plans. In this case, the relief for IRAs is virtually complete, since only the IRS can enforce violations of the Code.

The non-enforcement policy requires that a fiduciary advisor (and the supervisory entity) comply with the Impartial Conduct Standards (which are, in effect, the conditions in the transition rules for BICE). The ICS includes the best interest standard of care.

The DOL also suggested that it is working on a proposed and temporary exemption that will be retroactive to June 9th of last year and that will be prospective—until there is a final exemption. However, it will likely take a few months before the DOL can draft and propose the exemption. Then, there will be a comment period and the final exemption would be issued later . . . perhaps much later. The delay in the final exemption is because, in all likelihood, the DOL will want to incorporate the provisions of the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest. However, it is highly unlikely that the DOL would incorporate those conditions without seeing the final SEC Regulation.

That’s why the Department will issue the new exemption both as proposed and temporary relief. A “temporary” exemption is effective while the proposed regulation is being reviewed and finalized. This relief is needed. It will, for the time being, allow business to go forward while the SEC and the DOL work on their new rules.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #88

The Fiduciary Rule: What’s Next (Part 4)?

This is my 88th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

This is the fourth of my four-part series on the critical questions raised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to “vacate,” or throw out, the Fiduciary Rule. The first article (Angles #85) discussed the general legal issues created by the 5th Circuit decision to vacate the Fiduciary Rule. Then, Angles #86 and Angles #87 described fiduciary status for advisors under the “old” 5-part test and the standard of care for fiduciary advisors. This post discusses conflicts of interest for fiduciary advisors under ERISA and the Code—and what the future may hold.

The most difficult of the three issues is how the regulators will deal with conflicts of interest. That is true for two reasons. (This article does not discuss the SEC’s new proposed Regulation Best Interest. That will be covered in future articles.)

The first is that the approach taken by the SEC and DOL in the past have been very different and are foundational to their thinking and, most likely, in how they may go forward. For example, the Department of Labor must comply with ERISA and Internal Revenue Code provisions on prohibited transactions for financial conflicts of interest. Generally speaking, fiduciary conflicts of interest are strictly prohibited under both ERISA and the Code. As a result, to permit financial conflicts of interest that result from fiduciary advice, the DOL must issue exceptions (called “exemptions”) from the prohibited transaction rules. In order to do that, the DOL must determine that the conditions of the exemption are adequate to protect the interests of retirement investors. On the other hand, the SEC has, by and large, relied on disclosures to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of conflicts of interest. The SEC’s expectation appears to be that, if conflicts are disclosed, investors will review those disclosures and make reasoned investment decisions.

The second reason is that, because of the prevalence of 401(k) and 403(b) plans, some relatively unsophisticated retirement investors are accumulating significant amounts of money. That raises the issue of whether disclosures of conflicts of interest, without more, will adequately protect those investors. Unfortunately, disclosure documents can be lengthy and complex, which may make it difficult for less sophisticated investors to appreciate the full significance of the disclosed conflicts.

The DOL may require more than just disclosures in their new prohibited transaction exemptions—which could be released, in proposed form, in the third quarter of this year.

Also, with regard to the SEC, Chairman Clayton has suggested that there should be a shorter (perhaps four pages), more transparent, disclosure document for the conflicts of interest of RIAs and broker-dealers. It remains to be seen whether something that short could adequately cover the material conflicts of interest with sufficient detail to fully inform an investor.

On April 18, 2018, the SEC proposed a new Regulation Best Interest and short disclosure documents. The proposed regulation would impose a best interest standard of care on broker-dealers.

It is likely—at least in my view—that the DOL will follow suit and issue a proposed regulation re-defining fiduciary advice—perhaps more broadly than the new 5-part test, but less expansive than the Fiduciary Rule.

The DOL will also need to issue prohibited transaction exemptions. (Note: The BIC exemption provided relief for a number of common fiduciary prohibited transactions. However, the 5th Circuit also vacated the BIC exemption.) I suspect that the DOL exemptions will, for the most part, follow the SEC’s disclosure requirements, but perhaps adding additional protections for retirement investors.

For both the SEC and DOL proposals, there will be comment periods following the issuance of the proposals. After receiving comments, the SEC and the DOL will develop their final guidance. Then, I suspect that both agencies will delay the applicability of the final rules—perhaps to January 1, 2020—to allow broker-dealers, RIAs and other service providers to make necessary changes.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

 

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #87

The Fiduciary Rule: What’s Next (Part 3)?

This is my 87th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

This is the third of my four-part series on the critical questions raised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to “vacate,” or throw out, the Fiduciary Rule. The first article, Angles #85, discusses the three critical questions for the SEC and DOL to answer. The second article, Angles #86, discussed the first critical question, “Who is a fiduciary?”

This post covers the second critical question, “What is the fiduciary standard of care?”

For purposes of advice to retirement plans and participants, that’s an easy answer. It’s ERISA’s prudent man rule and duty of loyalty. That standard is statutory and, as a result, it cannot be modified by rule or regulation—by the DOL or SEC.

There is a large amount of guidance, both from the DOL and the courts, on how to comply with the standard. For example, a fiduciary advisor must engage in a prudent process—at the level of a hypothetical, knowledgeable person—taking into account that the purpose of the investments is to provide retirement benefits. That means that an advisor must consider the “relevant” factors for making a prudent recommendation. You might call that a “duty to investigate,” and then to evaluate. Courts have also said that fiduciaries must use generally accepted investment theories and prevailing investment industry standards (e.g., for asset allocation and selection of investments).

But, of course, those standards only apply if an advisor is a fiduciary. Fiduciary status was discussed in Angles #86.

The issue is more complex for fiduciary advice to IRAs. Where an advisor to an IRA owner does not engage in prohibited transactions—for example, charges a reasonable level fee (and the advisor, supervisory entity and all affiliated and relates parties do not receive anything in addition to that fee), there is not a prohibited transaction. As a result, neither the IRS nor the DOL have a basis for further regulating the advisor. On the other hand, where an advisor (or the supervisory entity, or any affiliated or related party) receives conflicted compensation, that would be a prohibited transaction and an exemption would be needed. Generally speaking, there are two forms of conflicted compensation. The first, and most common, is any payment from a third party (for example, a 12b-1 fee from a mutual fund or a commission from an insurance company). The second form of conflicted compensation is sometimes referred to as “variable” compensation (for example, a commission on each recommended transaction in a brokerage account).

Before the 5th Circuit decision, the primary exemption for those conflicts was BICE (the Best Interest Contract Exemption). That exemption permitted conflicted compensation if the advisor and the supervisory entity (e.g., a broker-dealer) adhered to the best interest standard of care (and other Impartial Conduct Standards). However, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out BICE, as well as the fiduciary regulation. After that decision, there are only a few exemptions for conflicted advice—and they are very limited.

However, the DOL will likely issue a new exemption to replace BICE, and will impose conditions. It remains to be seen what those will be. But, it’s possible that some standard of care would be imposed, perhaps the new standard that the SEC is working on—and it’s almost certain that disclosures will be required.

One thing that is certain is that the limitation for reasonable compensation will be a requirement of the exemption. It’s a statutory provision in both the Code and ERISA.

At this point, it’s impossible to know what the SEC’s new standard of care will be. There are important questions to be answered. For example, will the standard be the same for RIAs and broker-dealers when investment advice is given to retail investors, such as IRA owners? While uncertain, it is possible that a duty of loyalty will be applied to both types of advisors. And, since RIAs are already fiduciaries under the securities laws, it’s hard to imagine that a lower standard of care would be required for RIAs.

On the other hand, there is some discussion that the SEC might develop an “enhanced” suitability standard for broker-dealers. While that sounds interesting on paper, it’s more difficult to imagine what it would be. For example, the DOL has said that, if a recommendation is not suitable, it would not be prudent. However, the DOL went on to say that, if a recommendation is suitable, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s prudent. So, the question is, will the SEC draw a line between those two standards and, if so, where will that line be?

On a related point, and as a guess, I don’t believe the DOL or the SEC will say that the new standards can be enforced by retail investors. In other words, it is likely that the standards will only be enforceable by regulators. While that may be the outcome for the case for IRAs and other retail accounts, ERISA allows for private claims for violations of its provisions, and those statutory rights cannot be taken away by rules or regulations. As a result, advice to plans and participants will be enforceable as private claims.

Since the SEC’s proposed guidance will be issued in the near future, we will know the answers soon enough.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #85

The Fiduciary Rule: What’s Next (Part 1)?

This is my 85th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

By now, it’s common knowledge that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out the fiduciary rule. That includes the regulation expanding the definition of fiduciary advice and the related prohibited transaction exemptions, for example, the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE). At the same time, the SEC is working on a new “best interest” standard of care, and the DOL is working on amending the fiduciary regulation and related exemptions.

That raises the critical questions . . . where are we now and where are we going?

Let’s start by looking at the issues that the DOL and SEC need to address. Subsequent posts will cover each of these points in more detail.

1. Who is a fiduciary?

This is the threshold question. The 5th Circuit’s opinion said that a fiduciary relationship is one of “trust and confidence” which, in the Court’s opinion, was not typical of arrangements with brokers. Instead, the Court focused on the “mutuality” and “regular basis” parts of the old fiduciary definition (which is discussed in the next Angles, #86).

While not certain, it is possible that the Department of Labor will propose a new regulation, which expands on the old definition and which focuses on the elements of trust and confidence, as well as other criteria.

Meanwhile, the SEC has an entirely different approach. The DOL approach is “functional,” that is, it is based on conduct—if you act in a way that satisfies the fiduciary definition, you are a fiduciary regardless of your registration as a representative of a broker-dealer or RIA. By contrast, the SEC has, at least in the past, regarded representatives of RIAs and broker-dealers as providing different levels of advisory services (e.g., primary versus incidental) and, as a result, as being subject to different standards of care. A critical question for the SEC is whether RIAs and broker-dealers will have the same standard of care.

2. What is the fiduciary standard of care?

The fiduciary standard of care for advice to plans and participants is the prudent man rule and the duty of loyalty. That is based on the ERISA statute and cannot be changed by regulation. (But, of course, this assumes that an advisor is a fiduciary.)

The FINRA “standard of care” for broker-dealers is suitability.

RIAs are fiduciaries under a Supreme Court decision. However, there isn’t any formal definition of that standard of care. The SEC staff has taken the position that the suitability standard applies and that investment advisors must disclose all material information to their clients to permit them to make informed decisions about transactions and their advisory relationship. In addition, from time to time, the SEC applies a “reasonable basis” standard to RIAs.

 (Out of fairness to both broker-dealers and RIAs, the requirements are greater than those described. However, this is a short article, so I am using general descriptions.)

3. How will conflicts of interest be treated under the new rules?

This is the area of greatest differences among the regulators.

 Tax-qualified, ERISA-governed retirement plans are subject to the prohibited transaction rules in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. (Those rules are virtually identical in both statutes.) However, only the Code applies to IRAs.

Under both ERISA and the Code, financial conflicts of interest are prohibited. Generally speaking, the conflicts relate to compensation paid to financial institutions, individual advisors or any affiliates. In other words, it’s prohibited for fiduciary advisors and their firms to receive conflicted compensation. However, the DOL has the authority to issue exceptions (called “exemptions”) to the prohibited transaction rules. The most helpful exemption—the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE)—was thrown out by the 5th Circuit. As a result, in many cases conflicted compensation for fiduciary advice will be prohibited—if the 5th Circuit decision is the final word. However, it’s likely that the DOL will issue new exemptions—with conditions.

Both the SEC and FINRA generally rely on disclosures to mitigate conflicts. In other words, if adequately disclosed, it is permissible to have financial conflicts of interest for SEC and FINRA regulated advisors.

That describes the general lay of the land. My next few posts will deal with each of those three points.

We live in interesting times.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.

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