Category Archives: Broker-Dealers

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 #95

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 1

This is my 95th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

By now, you probably know that both the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”) for broker-dealers and the Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (“RIA Interpretation”) have a best interest standard of care. The Reg BI best interest standard is for broker-dealers, while the RIA Interpretation best interest standard is for investment advisers.

At first blush, that suggests that broker-dealers and RIAs will be governed in the same way. That’s not the case.

While the RIA best interest standard applies to all advice to all clients, Reg BI only applies to securities recommendations made by broker-dealers to retail customers. Those are significant differences.

Let’s take a look at that.

Using the SEC’s language, the Reg BI standard applies to a broker-dealer “when making a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities.” It doesn’t apply to recommendations about which account type to use, unless the recommendation involves securities transactions. On the other hand, RIAs are governed by the best interest standard of care when recommending account types.

There are similarities in how the standard applies to recommendations of distributions from retirement plans or to the recommendation of transfers of IRAs. (As this suggests, plan participants and IRA owners are “retail customers” covered by Reg BI.) Once again, though, a recommendation of a transfer of an IRA or a distribution from a plan would only be covered by Reg BI if the recommendation involved a “securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities.”

If the recommendation to take a distribution is made to a participant in a 401(k) plan, that implicitly includes a recommendation to liquidate the investments in the participant’s account in order to take a cash distribution. (See FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45.) The recommendation to liquidate the investments in the participant’s account would be covered by the best interest standard of care. The recommendation about how to invest the rollover IRA in securities is a second recommendation that would also be subject to Reg BI and the best interest standard.

However, it does not appear that the best interest standard would apply to recommendations to plans that are not participant directed. For example, a recommendation to take a distribution from a defined benefit pension plan or a cash balance pension plan does not seem to be a securities recommendation, because the participant does not have the ability to liquidate plan investments.

On the other hand, a recommendation by an RIA to take a distribution from any type of plan would be covered by the best interest standard. Similarly, for RIAs a recommendation about the investments in the rollover IRA would also be covered by the best interest standard.

With regard to transfers of IRAs, the same “securities transaction” limitation applies to recommendations by broker-dealers. So, where a representative of a broker-dealer recommends that an IRA be transferred to the broker-dealer, but there is not a recommendation to buy, sell or hold securities (and, instead, the IRA is transferred without the liquidation of securities), there would not be a recommended securities transaction. As a result, the best interest standard of care would not apply. However, if the broker-dealer’s representative recommended that the investments be sold and then the cash transferred to an IRA with the broker-dealer, that would be subject to the best interest standard.

Any recommendation by an RIA to transfer an IRA or to sell the investments in the IRA would be subject to the best interest standard.

This article illustrates two points. The first is that the best interest standard of care for broker-dealers is much more limited than the one for RIAs. The second is that the SEC’s proposals are not clear on several major points. For example, wherever I use the words “appear” and “seem” in this article, it means that the SEC’s proposed Reg BI did not discuss the application of the proposed standard in enough detail to be certain about how it applies.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: Reg BI is a proposal by the SEC to impose a higher standard of care on broker-dealers. It will not apply until it is finalized—perhaps a year and a half or two years from now. On the other hand, the RIA Interpretation is, for the most part, an interpretation of the current rules. As a result, RIAs should pay close attention to the RIA Interpretation.

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 #94

SEC Proposed Reg BI and Recommendations of Rollovers (Part 3)

This is my 94th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

Part 1 of this series discussed the provisions in the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest that would impose a best interest standard of care for rollover recommendations by broker-dealers and their registered representatives. (More specifically, the standard applies if the rollover recommendation involves securities transactions—which would ordinarily be the case for participant-directed plans.) Part 2 described some of the considerations for developing a best interest recommendation process.

This article—Part 3—describes the proposed requirement to “mitigate” the conflict of interest inherent in a rollover recommendation.

Since a broker-dealer and its representative would not, in most cases, receive any compensation if a participant does not roll over, there is, to use the SEC’s language, a material conflict of interest involving financial incentives. In that regard, Reg BI says that a broker-dealer must disclose and mitigate or, alternatively, eliminate the financial incentive conflict of interest. (This article refers to broker-dealers, but that includes the registered representative, or advisor.)

Of course, it’s impossible to eliminate the conflict, since—if the money stays in the plan—the broker-dealer will not earn anything. But if the money is rolled over, the broker-dealer will receive compensation from the rollover IRA. As a result, the only practical choice would be to disclose and mitigate. While the SEC does not give an example of mitigation of the conflict in the context of a rollover recommendation, the SEC does cite FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45 on several occasions. RN 13-45, in turn, requires that a broker-dealer and its representatives make a reasonable inquiry about the participant’s plan account. After all, how can a recommendation be made in a manner that is careful, skillful, diligent and prudent (the Reg BI requirements) if the broker-dealer does not have any information about the investments that it is recommending be sold? (Since participant-directed plans such as 401(k) plans typically only distribute cash, a rollover recommendation inherently incudes a recommendation to sell the investments in the participant’s account.)

RN 13-45 requires an analysis of, among other things, the investments, services and expenses in the plan. For those of you who have studied the DOL’s Best Interest Contract Exemption, you will recognize those as the three primary factors listed by the DOL for consideration in making a fiduciary rollover recommendation. In other words, proposed Reg BI (including the references to RN 13-45) and the Best Interest Contract Exemption are remarkably similar.

Where does that leave us?

Bottom line, the best “mitigation” appears to be a process that ensures that the recommendation is in the best interest of, and loyal to, the participant.

That means that broker-dealers are in essentially the same position as they were under BICE. They need to gather and evaluate appropriate information about the investments, services and expenses (among other things) in the plan; the investments, services and expenses (among other things) in the proposed IRA arrangement; and the needs, circumstances, risk tolerance, and preferences of the participant.

Broker-dealers need to develop a process for doing that, together with policies and procedures, training and supervision. That process should produce a reasonable and informed recommendation in the best interest of the investor.

Similar requirements are imposed on RIAs. That will be the subject of a future post.

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 #92

SEC Proposed Reg BI and Recommendations of Rollovers (Part 1)

This is my 92nd article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

On April 18, 2018, the SEC released three proposals for comment—Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”) for broker-dealers, an Interpretation about the Standard of Conduct for RIAs (“RIA Interpretation”), and a CRS—Customer/Client Relationship Summary for both broker-dealers and RIAs. That was the beginning of a lengthy process, and the outcome is uncertain. However, if these rules are finalized, the impact on the securities industry and investors will be significant.

My first reaction is that Reg BI, which imposes a best interest standard of care on broker-dealers, is strikingly similar to the DOL’s Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE). There are major differences—for example, the SEC proposal does not create a private right of action for investors, and some of the disclosure requirements are eliminated. However, once you get beyond the differences, the similarities are striking.

Let’s discuss the SEC’s Best Interest standard for broker-dealers in the context of recommendations of plan distributions and rollovers.

First, the SEC acknowledges that a rollover recommendation involves an inherent conflict of interest. In footnote 204 the SEC states: “For example, firms and their registered representatives that recommend an investor roll over plan assets to an IRA may earn commissions or other fees as a result, while a recommendation that a retail investor leave his plan assets with his old employer or roll the assets to a plan sponsored by a new employer likely results in little or no compensation for a firm or a registered representative.”

On pages 82 and 83 of the Reg BI package, the SEC explains that “Securities transactions may also include recommendations to rollover or transfer assets from one type of account to another, such as recommendations to roll over or transfer assets in an ERISA account to an IRA.”

The significance of rollovers being classified as “securities transactions” is that the proposed best interest standard of care applies to recommendations of securities transactions. That is, a recommendation to a participant to take a distribution from his or her 401(k) plan and roll over to an IRA is, in effect, a recommendation that the participant sell the mutual funds in his or her account and rollover the cash proceeds.

In fact, the rollover process involves two securities transactions. In footnote 155, the SEC explains: “A recommendation concerning the type of retirement account in which a customer should hold his retirement investments typically involves a recommended securities transaction, and thus is subject to FINRA suitability obligations. For example, a firm may recommend that an investor sell his plan assets and roll over their cash proceeds into an IRA. Recommendations to sell securities in the plan or to purchase securities for a newly-opened IRA are subject to FINRA’s suitability obligations. See FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45.”

In addition to the existing suitability obligation, Reg BI would impose a best interest standard of care, including a duty of loyalty, such that the recommendation to sell the investments in the plan (for example, a 401(k) plan) would be subject to both suitability and best interest. The suitability and best interest standards would also apply to recommendations about the re-investment of distributed money in an IRA.

That raises a question about how a best interest recommendation of a distribution and rollover should be made. What steps should be followed? That will be the subject of my next 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 #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 #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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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #84

What Does the 5th Circuit Decision Mean for Rollover Recommendations?

This is my 84th 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 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has “vacated” the DOL’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. What does that mean for recommendations to participants that they take plan distributions and rollover to IRAs?

It means a lot . . . in some cases.

But before discussing that, it’s important to note that the decision isn’t applicable yet. At the earliest, it will take effect on May 7. However, if the DOL contests that decision and the courts “stay”–or block—it as the hearings and appeals take place, it may not apply for a year or more . . . or it may be overturned. So, the only thing we know is that we don’t know whether advisors are governed by the new fiduciary rule–the one the court vacated–or if the “old” pre-June 9, 2017 rules apply. Unfortunately, when it comes to recommendations of plan distributions and rollovers, those two sets of rules are different in significant ways.

Let’s look at the post-June 8, or “new,” rules–the ones that the 5th Circuit considered. Under those rules, a recommendation to take a plan distribution and rollover is a fiduciary act and must be based on a prudent analysis of the participant’s needs and a comparison of the plan and the IRA. Also, it’s a prohibited transaction if the advisor makes more money if the recommendation is accepted by the participant, that is, if the money is rolled to an IRA with the advisor. Fortunately, there is an exemption–the transition Best Interest Contract Exemption, BICE. Unfortunately, it’s hard to comply with BICE.

But, what if the new rules (including BICE) are thrown out? Under the old rules, a recommendation to a participant to take a distribution and rollover was not, in most cases, a fiduciary recommendation. As a result, it was not subject to the prudent man and loyalty requirements, and it was not a prohibited transaction. (Note, though, both FINRA and the SEC view that advice as a securities recommendation subject to their jurisdiction. See, e.g., Regulatory Notice 13-45.)

However, it the advisor was a fiduciary to the plan, a recommendation to rollover would be a fiduciary act. See DOL Advisory Opinion 2005-23A. Of course, that implicates the fiduciary standard of care–prudence and loyalty. It also is a prohibited transaction if the fiduciary recommendation causes the advisor (or the advisor’s firm) to earn more from the IRA than it did from the plan. For example, if the advisor is a fiduciary to the plan and the compensation from the plan is 25 basis points a year, but the compensation from the IRA will be 100 basis points per year, that’s a prohibited transaction. Unfortunately, there isn’t an old rule exemption . . . meaning there’s no way around the prohibition.

To make matters worse, many broker-dealers have allowed their advisors to be fiduciaries to the plans they work with . . . so the number of fiduciary advisors to plans is much greater than it was before June 9 of last year. And some of those advisors had counted on rollovers as part of the bargain for their services to the plans.

To further compound matters, I suspect that the attention given to fiduciary services in recent years means that more advisors are fiduciaries whether they declare that status or not. That’s because the old rule had a functional definition that will be satisfied in many cases. Two provisions in the old rule are that the advice must be given regularly and there has to be a mutual understanding that the advice will be a primary basis for the plan sponsor to make investment decisions. Since most advisors now meet with plan sponsors at least once a year, the “regularly” requirement appears to be satisfied. And, it’s possible that a disinterested reasonable third party would view the materials and statements by the advisor are a primary basis for investment decisions. In that case, the second prong may also be satisfied. (Some people think that the mutuality is about an explicit understanding between an advisor and a plan sponsor. The DOL, though, would probably take the position that the test should be what a reasonable third party would think of the interactions.)

What does this mean? What should advisors and their firms do?

Until this plays out, advisors and their firms need to satisfy two conflicting rules. Of course, that’s impossible.

If the new rules are followed, rollover recommendations must be prudent and loyal. The benefit of that burden, though, is that BICE would be available. That’s not a bad result under the transition rules for BICE.

But, if the old rules are followed, many advisors will not be fiduciaries . . . and therefore won’t need an exemption. However, for those advisors who are fiduciaries to plans, recommendations to rollover will be fiduciary acts and likely prohibited transactions–without relief. Perhaps they could use education, rather than make recommendations.

Unfortunately, though, until the legal “dust” settles, in the sense of a resolution of the litigation, we won’t know which rules apply.

More practically, I suspect that many advisors and their firms will continue under the new rules until the situation clears up. That could be as early as late April, or it could be delayed until the Supreme Court rules–if the case gets that far, perhaps more than a year from now.

If that wasn’t complicated enough, it’s likely that the DOL will come out with a new proposed rule and exemptions in the second half of this year. If I had to guess, I would say that these revised rules will still say that a recommendation to take a distribution and roll over was still a fiduciary act. The interesting part would be what the new exemption will require.

Bottom line . . . get legal advice; this is risky.

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 #81

The Fiduciary Rule Prohibits Commissions . . . or Not (Myth #6)

This is my 81st 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 another in my series of articles about myths concerning the Fiduciary Rule. The myth for this post is the oft-repeated statement that the Fiduciary Rule prohibits the payment of commissions.

Before getting into the explanation, though, I should give you some background information. Under the prohibited transaction rules in ERISA, a fiduciary advisor cannot make a recommendation that causes a payment from a third party (for example, a 12b-1 fee or an insurance commission) or that directly increases the advisor’s compensation (for example, a commission on a securities transaction). While those ERISA prohibited transactions only apply to retirement plans, there are virtually identical rules under the Internal Revenue Code–which apply to both qualified retirement plans and IRAs.

However, those prohibited transactions apply to advisors who are fiduciaries. As a result, the prohibitions were not a problem for non-fiduciary advisors prior to the June 9, 2017 expansion of the definition of fiduciary. With that new Fiduciary Rule, almost every advisor to retirement plans or IRAs is now a fiduciary. That includes financial advisors of broker-dealers, investment advisors with RIAs, and insurance agents and brokers.

Now that advisors are usually fiduciaries, ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code prohibit the receipt (i) of payments from third parties and (ii) of compensation that varies with the recommended investments or insurance products. If that were the end of the story, then it would not be a myth to say that commissions are prohibited by the Fiduciary Rule. But, it’s not the end of the story. On June 9, 2017, the “transition” version of the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) also came into effect. Under transition BICE, there is only one explicit restriction on compensation. That is that advisors and their financial institutions can receive no more than reasonable compensation for their services. In other words, and as a general rule, the BIC exemption permits the payment of reasonable compensation in virtually all forms. As the DOL said in its preamble to the BIC exemption: “[T]he Department confirms that this exemption provides relief for commissions paid directly by the plan or IRA, as well as commissions, trailing commissions, sales loads, 12b-1 fees, revenue sharing payments, and other payments by investment product manufacturers or other third parties to Advisers and Financial Institutions.”

But . . . there is still more to this story.

The Department of Labor has also said, on several occasions, that it expects financial institutions (such as broker-dealers and RIAs) to have policies, procedures and practices that ensure that the form of compensation does not cause advisors to recommend investments that are not in the best interest of the retirement investors. As a result, financial institutions should develop policies, procedures and practices for those purposes. That could include reducing the differences between levels of commissions, close supervision of certain types of transactions, and/or specifying the process by which recommendations are to be developed. In other words, the development of those policies, procedures and practices needs to be done thoughtfully. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution that will satisfy the requirements for all types of transactions. For example, it is difficult to imagine a single policy that would cover issues as diverse as recruitment bonuses, recommendations to participants to roll over, and sales contests.

I am concerned that some broker-dealers, banks and RIAs may be underestimating the importance of well-developed policies for each of the types of potential conflicts of interest that could impact advice to plans, participants and IRA owners.

Note: The BIC exemption only provides relief for nondiscretionary investment advice. This article does not apply to arrangements for discretionary investment management.

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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