Category Archives: DOL Activity

Open Questions on Open MEPs

One of the shiny new coins of the 401(k) realm is “Open MEPs.” It’s anticipated that Congress will pass legislation this year that permits Open MEPs. Legislation is needed because of DOL guidance that, in essence, prohibits MEPs that are “open” to all employers. But, what is an Open Multiple Employer Plan? What other kinds of MEPs are there? How do the people that set up MEPs get paid? Here is an article that I, and my partners, Bruce Ashton and Josh Waldbeser, wrote on that subject for ASPPA.
Continue reading Open Questions on Open MEPs

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Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #6

Best Practices: Why Wait Until After You are Sued?

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 sixth of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

I am surprised that, after all of the fiduciary litigation against 401(k) plan sponsors, many plan sponsors and their committees have not taken the basic steps to minimize the risk of being sued, or if sued, of being liable. In most of the settled cases, the plaintiffs’ class action attorneys require that certain conditions—or “best practices”—be adopted by the plan fiduciaries. And, in settlement after settlement, those conditions are, by and large, the same. That raises the obvious question, why haven’t plan committees reviewed these cases and instituted the practices required by the settlement agreements?

Continue reading Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #6

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Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #4

What Does “Best Interest” Mean? (Part 1)

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 fourth of the series about the Best Interest Standard of Care.

“Best Interest” has become part of the American lexicon . . . as an aspirational goal or a demanding standard—depending on the point of view. But, what does best interest mean? It may mean different things to different people . . . and perhaps even to different regulators. However, I believe that most people would agree on the definition in this article.

As I read the guidance issued by the Department of Labor (DOL), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and New York State, there are actually two different best interests. The first is a standard of care and the second is a duty of loyalty. Of the two, the duty of loyalty is the easiest to define because, in all of the guidance it boils down to a requirement that an advisor cannot put his interest ahead of the investor’s.

The best interest duty of care is more complicated. The only agency that has offered a full definition is the DOL in its vacated Best Interest Contract Exemption. That definition was:

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. [Emphasis added.]

 The SEC provided a partial definition in its proposed Regulation Best Interest, but the definition is, to a degree, circular:

 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; . . . [Emphasis added.]

 New York State has adopted a best interest regulation for insurance and annuity products:

 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.

If you look closely at the DOL’s best interest standard, you can see that it has three parts. The first is the requirement for a prudent process, that is, that the advisor act carefully, skillfully, diligently and prudently as a knowledgeable professional to develop the recommendation. The second is that the recommendation be based on the needs and circumstances of the investor, which in the case of ERISA, is the plan or participant. The third is a requirement that the advisor be loyal to the investor and not place his interest ahead of the investor’s.

The duty of care in the SEC’s proposed Reg BI and the New York standard also requires that an advisor exercise care, skill, diligence and prudence in developing a recommendation for an investor or, in the case of New York, an insured.

Because of the identical language in all three rules—the requirement to act with care, skill, diligence and prudence, it is likely that the three standards of care will be interpreted similarly. Since ERISA has a developed history through litigation and regulatory guidance, it would likely be the primary source for interpreting and applying that standard. Looking at the ERISA history, a careful, skillful, diligent and prudent advisor would engage in a thoughtful process to gather the information relevant to making a decision (that is, information that would be material to a knowledgeable person) and would then evaluate that information in light of the needs and circumstances of the investor. That process would be measured by the objective standard of a knowledgeable professional.

Stated differently, it appears that these best interest standards require that advisors engage in a thoughtful, professional process to obtain and evaluate the information needed to make a recommendation that is in the best interest of the investor. ERISA calls that a prudent process.

In a nutshell, the best interest standards are more demanding than the current suitability standards. That is particularly true of the weight to be given to costs and compensation. The SEC made that point in its discussion in Regulation Best Interest. However, I believe that it also increases the responsibility of advisors to consider the quality of the products and services being recommended, for example, the quality of the mutual fund managers and the financial stability of insurance companies.

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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Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #5

Fiduciary Training: The Need for Basics

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 fifth of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

In three earlier posts—Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #2, #3, and #4—about the Sacerdote v. New York University decision, I discussed the good and the bad of the NYU plan committee and made several suggestions about best practices for improving committee performance. This article focuses on one of those suggestions—fiduciary education for committee members.

As a starting point, there is not a legal requirement that committee members receive fiduciary training. Instead, it’s a best practice and good risk management.

But, what should the fiduciary education cover? Based on my analysis of court decisions on fiduciary responsibility, I am worried that fiduciaries may not be adequately educated about their basic responsibilities and particularly their administrative oversight duties. If you look at decisions, such as the NYU case, the issues are basic. For example, one of the defendants did not know if he was still a member of the committee. Another committee member didn’t believe that she was a fiduciary or that she had legal responsibility for the decisions made by the committee. Instead, she thought her role was ministerial, in terms of setting up the meetings and distributing information.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts about fiduciary education:

  • Review the summary plan description.

One of the techniques used by plaintiffs’ attorneys is to ask committee members about the provisions in the plan. What does the plan say about the responsibilities of the plan committee? Who appoints the plan committee? Who monitors the plan committee? What are the areas of responsibility for the committee members for oversight of the investments, the service providers, and the plan expenses?

Those questions and answers are basic to understanding the duties of a committee member. For example, committees are typically responsible for making sure that eligible employees are properly included in the plan, that compensation is calculated properly for determining contributions and benefits, that participant loans and hardship withdrawals are properly approved, and so on. While committee members are not responsible for doing the ministerial work related to those activities, they are responsible for overseeing that the work is done competently.

One approach—an easy one—is to review the summary plan description. I suggest that be done each year.

Also, it is helpful if the employees who are responsible for those activities, as well as representatives of the service providers, attend the meeting. They could explain how the responsibilities for plan administration are being fulfilled.

  • Investment Policy Statement.

Plaintiff’s attorneys will allege that the failure to follow the terms of an investment policy statement is a fiduciary breach. As a result, a plan’s adviser should review the investment policy statement with the committee members at least once a year. The committee members should ask questions about the concepts and terminology, so that they fully understand their responsibilities.

Here, again, plaintiff’s attorneys like to ask committee members about the investment line-up and about the type and purpose of the investments in the plan. Their goal is to show that the committee members didn’t understand what they were doing.

  • Hot topics for DOL investigations.

Obviously, committee members should know the areas of greatest concern for the Department of Labor. For many years now, the #1 issue for DOL investigations has been the late deposit of deferrals. Committee members should understand those rules, so that they can ensure that the company is properly forwarding deferrals.

A new DOL “hot topic” is whether plan fiduciaries are keeping track of missing participants. In some cases, DOL investigators are asserting fiduciary breaches due to the failure to make earnest and ongoing efforts to locate missing participants. That problem becomes particularly acute when missing participants reach age 70½ and must be paid their required minimum distributions. (Note that relief from disqualification and penalties is provided where committee members, as fiduciaries, have made diligent and good faith efforts to fund missing participants and to pay the required minimum distributions. That will be the subject of a future post.)

  • Plan expenses.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that most fiduciary litigation is based on overly expensive investments and on excessive compensation to recordkeepers.

In other words, almost all ERISA fiduciary breach litigation—once you take out company stock and proprietary investments—is quantitative, rather than qualitative. By “quantitative,” I am referring to the amount of money that is paid as expense ratios for mutual funds, and the amount of money that is paid, directly or indirectly, to plan recordkeepers.

Regarding expense ratios of plan investments, one type of claim is that the plan should have chosen a less expense share class. Essentially, that was the issue in Tibble v. Edison. In that case, even though the prospectuses had minimums for certain share classes, the expert witnesses testified that, if requested, retirement plans would be allowed to invest in a less expensive, institutional share class. In effect, the court created a “duty to ask.”

In some cases, though, the issue is more simple . . . the allegation is that the committee selected investments that were too expensive, even if the right share class was picked.

In both cases, the solution is to work with an adviser that is knowledgeable about share classes available to plans of different sizes and that has information about what expense ratios are too high. It’s possible that committee members could investigate on their own, but that’s a risky proposition, since most committee members lack the fundamental knowledge to properly apply general information to their specific circumstances.

With regard to excessive costs and compensation for recordkeepers, plan committees should consider using benchmarking services. Recordkeeping expenses can vary dramatically depending on the assets in a plan and the number of participants. Benchmarking services provide a cost-efficient way to obtain the necessary data. On the other hand, requests for proposals and requests for information are also good ways to get information about costs, particularly if the requests are sent to recordkeepers who focus on plans that are similar to the plan sponsors. However, RFPs and RFIs are expensive and time consuming. As a result, most plan committees and advisers opt to use benchmarking services.

How often should a plan be benchmarked? A general rule of thumb is every three years, unless there’s been a significant change in the interim, for example, a plan merger. However, it is a good practice to do it every year or two to keep the issue in front of the plan committee and to make sure that there is an ongoing discussion about the importance of monitoring fees and expenses.

Those are some of the key issues that should be covered in fiduciary education. I suspect that some of my suggestions are different than what is commonly done. However, based on my review of ERISA litigation and DOL investigations, the topics in this article should be at or near the top of the list.

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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Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #3

SEC Best Interests . . . When? And What About the DOL

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 third of the series about the Best Interest Standard of Care.

The Regulatory Agendas for the SEC and DOL were recently issued. Both have plans for guidance by September of 2019, but the anticipated timing of the guidance has, by and large, been misinterpreted. To understand what I mean, read on.

The SEC’s Agenda said that Final Action on the Regulation Best Interest proposal for broker-dealers and the Interpretation of Standard of Conduct for investment advisers would be “09/00/2019.”

Similarly, the Department of Labor Agenda said that there would be a final rule on the “Fiduciary Rule and Prohibited Transaction Exemptions” with the date of “09/00/2019.”

Let’s start with the dates. For those inclined towards conspiracy theories, it was interpreted to mean that the DOL and SEC were conspiring to issue combined and comprehensive new fiduciary/best interest rules. But, that doesn’t make any sense. While the two regulators are certainly communicating with each other, that doesn’t mean that there is behind-the-scenes plotting and planning.

Another interpretation was that the SEC and DOL were both going to issue guidance in September 2019. But that’s not right either. This is the short term agenda for the government fiscal year that ends in September, 2019. The September dates just mean that both regulators are planning on getting out their guidance during the upcoming government fiscal year.

Here’s my bet on what the dates will really be. Based on meetings with the SEC, it appears that Reg BI and the RIA Interpretation are moving along towards completion. That probably means that the final rules will be completed near the end of the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2019. There will then be a delayed implementation date. That could be January 1, 2020, or even later, e.g., one year after the final rule is published.

As a word of warning, though, the SEC takes the position that most of the guidance in the RIA Interpretation reflects the Commission’s view of the current requirements for RIAs. There are only three true proposals in the Interpretation and none of those deal with the standard of care.

What about the DOL? I believe that the DOL’s guidance will be sequential rather than concurrent. By that I mean that the DOL’s guidance will probably be, to a large degree, based on the SEC’s final rules. As a result, their guidance will follow the SEC’s, rather than being released at the same time.

I think the DOL guidance will, at the least, include a new class exemption to cover prohibited transactions resulting from nondiscretionary fiduciary investment advice. It would replace the joint DOL/IRS non-enforcement policy (Field Assistance Bulletin 2018-02). My best guess is that it would include, as some of its conditions, compliance with parts of Reg BI and perhaps even the RIA Interpretation. But, I think that it will also include the Impartial Conduct Standards, that is, adhering to the DOL’s best interest standard, receiving no more than reasonable compensation, and making no materially misleading statements.

It’s less clear what the DOL plans to do about the fiduciary rule. There may be nothing. On the other hand, there may be some tinkering, for example, saying that a fiduciary under the securities law is also a fiduciary under ERISA. That would obviously cover RIAs. However, I don’t see any possibility that the Department would re-propose the vacated Fiduciary Rule or anything close to it.

Caveat: The future in unknowable. The educated guesses in this article are just that . . . “guesses.” But they are educated by experience and information. Don’t take them to the bank, but don’t toss them out either.

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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Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #2

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 second of the series about the Best Interest Standard of Care.

In my last post, I discuss the remarkable similarities among the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest, the SEC’s proposed Interpretation for investment advisors, the DOL’s Best Interest standard of care (which is a combination of ERISA’s prudent man rule and duty of loyalty), and the New York State Best Interest standard for sales of annuities and insurance products. All of those rules require that advisors act with care, skill, prudence and diligence, and that they place the interests of the investor ahead of their own.

In the first post, I conclude that the Best Interest standard requires the following:

  • A careful and skillful professional process measured by the objective standard of a knowledgeable and experienced advisor; and
  • A duty of loyalty to the investor.

This post discusses the type of process that would satisfy the Best Interest standard for all of those rules. However, since the process is not well defined (other than in guidance under ERISA), some of the suggestions in the post may, in fact, be Best Practices. Let me define that term. “Best Practices” means that the advisor is doing more than is required by the law. While Best Interest may be required, Best Practices is not; it is voluntary. As a result, Best Practices are for advisors who desire to excel, while Best Interest is for advisors who want to be compliant.

In my view, a combination of Best Interests and Best Practices suggests that advisors should use the following process:

  • Gather the information that is relevant to providing Best Interest advice. (“Relevant” means the information that is necessary to develop a recommendation that is appropriate for the investor. A synonym in this circumstance would be “material” information. If information about the needs and circumstances of the investor could affect the recommendation, then it is material and relevant).
  • Consider the types of investments (and insurance products) and strategies that are appropriate for the investor based on the analysis of the investor’s profile (that is, based on analysis of the relevant information). In effect, this step is the formulation of a strategy for the investor based on the products and services available to the advisor. While there may be some flexibility if the advisor only has access to limited types of products, that flexibility is limited, in the sense that any recommendation will still be measured by the Best Interest standard of care.
  • Select the particular investments, insurance products and services that will be recommended to the investor, that is, that will populate and implement the investment strategy. As the SEC said in its proposed guidance, while cost and compensation are not the only factors to be considered, their significance is enhanced under the SEC proposals. In other words, they are major considerations. Another obvious important consideration is the quality of the product. That includes the “management” of the product, for example, the investment advisor for a mutual fund, the investment manager for an investment service, and the insurance company issuing an annuity contract or life insurance policy.

I suspect that, if an advisor gets into trouble because of his or her recommendations, it will be the result of an inappropriate (and perhaps unsuitable) strategy, excessive costs and compensation, or inferior quality of the “manager” of the product.

That begs the question of, how does an advisor demonstrate a Best Interest process? Other than for the DOL and ERISA plans, there is not a requirement to maintain documentation of the process. However, it probably goes without saying that a well-documented process is good risk management (and, for that matter, that a well-documented process is likely to be a prudent process).

In the next year or two, the SEC may enhance its guidance to further define the processes that are needed to satisfy its Best Interest standard. More certainly, though, the SEC, FINRA, DOL and New York State regulators will, in due course—perhaps over the next three years or so—begin their enforcement activities. Unfortunately, it’s possible that we may see “regulation by enforcement,” meaning that the holes in the guidance are filled in by the enforcers, rather than the regulators.

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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Hearing on Retirement Income by the ERISA Advisory Council

I recently testified before the Department of Labor’s ERISA Advisory Council on the subject of lifetime income. More specifically, it was about lifetime income products and services for retirees provided through defined contribution plans. Here are my opening comments:

Thank you for this opportunity to testify.

I am Fred Reish, a partner in the law firm of Drinker, Biddle and Reath. However, this testimony is not on behalf of the firm, but instead represents the views of my partner, Bruce Ashton, and myself.

As a starting point, it is helpful to have a foundation for development of recommendations. For example, I suggest:

  • The conversation about defined contribution plans needs to increasingly and emphatically include retirement income.
  • Plan sponsors and participants need good quality, reasonably priced retirement income products and services.
  • Plan sponsors need clear, objective and implementable guidance on how to do that.
  • Participants need information, education and advice on how to best use those products and services.
  • Both plan sponsors and participants will benefit from the use of knowledgeable fiduciary retirement income consultants.
  • Any guidance should be agnostic as to retirement income products and services. Participants may need a combination of products and services to properly address their needs.

Here are more detailed thoughts that could inform decisions for going forward:

1.       The safe harbor regulation for annuities in defined contribution plans does not work and will not work. Plan sponsors, by and large, are not in a position to determine if those criteria are satisfied.

2.       If a new safe harbor regulation is developed, it needs to be objective and obvious, in the nature of a checklist of items to obtain, but not to be reviewed at the level of an insurance expert.

3.       Insurance consultants are expensive and they are few-and-far-between. But, if used as independent fiduciaries at a platform level, similar to 3(21) and 3(38) fiduciary investment advisers on 401(k) recordkeeping platforms, the cost can be borne by insurance companies or spread over thousands of plans and millions of participants.

4.       Plan sponsors are more likely to provide services to participants if they can do so in a context of providing information and education, and plan sponsors are more likely to use products and services approved by fiduciary advisors and consultants.

5.       In that vein, plan sponsors are more likely to embrace concepts if the service providers are legally responsible. As a result, plan sponsors should be able to rely on their providers (for example, recordkeepers) for that purpose, so long as they do not have a reason to doubt the competency of the providers. In the real world–and especially for small- and mid-sized plans, that is what is already happening–and the rules should parallel the real world in this case.

6.       Participants need help making decisions about retirement income products and services. They are not, by and large, educated or experienced in the analytical processes for determining which products or services to select for 20 or 30 years into the future or the amounts to be allocated among such products and services. This is analogous to the fiduciary services that participants receive for investing their accounts, for example, target date funds and managed accounts.

7.       It may not be realistic to expect participants to make lifelong decisions in the period of days immediately before they take retirement distributions. If retirement income products or services are accumulated during participation in a plan, they are more likely to be used in retirement. That is true of insured products and securities products and services.

8.       Target date funds are popular with both plan sponsors and participants. They are likely to be a popular way to provide non-guaranteed retirement investment income or to accumulate guaranteed retirement income products. As a result, guidance should be issued to make clear that is permissible. Defaults work and should be considered, particularly where a participant’s account has been invested in a manner that incorporates retirement income services and products during the accumulation phase. The Department should recognize the power of its guidance–even soft guidance, for example, look at the favorable impact Interpretive Bulletin 96-1 had on investment education.

9.       It is not possible to develop perfect answers to these complex problems. However, we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Good answers will do the job.

10.     Products and services will be developed in the future that are not even imagined today. Any guidance should be flexible to allow future developments.

With those thoughts in mind, I recommend the following:

1.       The Department of Labor should discuss 401(k) and other defined contribution plan vehicles for retirement income. Words matter. Retirement income projections are not just projections—they are perspective. I cannot think of a better way to change the perspective and, thereby, change the conversation.

2.       The Department should affirmatively state that insurance and annuity products are, in concept, prudent for defined contribution plans and should simplify its annuity safe harbor regulation. We support the legislative proposals on this matter, but suggest that additional objective safeguards be added. In addition, clarify the QDIA safe harbor to include annuities in each of the three QDIA options, that is, target date funds, balanced funds and managed accounts.

3.       The Department should issue guidance that the concepts in the SunAmerica Advisory Opinion and the Pension Protection Act advice exemptions apply to retirement income products and services–at both the plan sponsor level and the participant level, so that plan sponsors can receive advice on the prudence of retirement income insurance companies and guarantees, and so that participants can receive advice on how to use those guaranteed products and investment products and services. It should be clear that the independent fiduciary is the responsible fiduciary, and not the plan sponsor. For example, DOL Field Assistance Bulletin 2007-01 applies a similar approach to participant investment advice.

4.       The Department should issue guidance that platforms of retirement income products and services are analogous to brokerage windows, and therefore the platform, but not the products and services, needs to be vetted by plan sponsors as fiduciaries.

5.       The Department should issue new guidance focusing on retirement income similar to Interpretive Bulletin 96-1 to the effect that education can be provided about retirement income products and services in the plan, and it would not be considered fiduciary advice.

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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Moving from Angles to Bests

Now that I have completed 100 articles about interesting Angles on birth –and death–of the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule, and the birth of an SEC best interest standard for broker-dealers and RIAs, I am going to start on a new series. The new series, rather than being titled “Angles,” will be called “The Bests.”

So, from now on, my articles—maybe the next 100—will focus on two “bests”—the SEC’s best interest standard and best practices for advisors and plan sponsors.

I figure that the SEC’s best interest rules will be developed and implemented over the next year or two, giving me a wealth of materials for new articles. But, I don’t want to be limited to that. I think that it’s important to talk about best practices for retirement plans and retiree investing and withdrawing, with a focus on helping participants to and through retirement—accumulation and decumulation.

With this introduction of the new series, the articles will begin after the Labor Day break.

Enjoy the dog days of summer . . . family vacations, baseball games and barbeques!

Fred Reish

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.

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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 #99

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

This is my 99th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Fiduciary Rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

The SEC labeled its interpretation of the standard of care for RIAs (the “RIA Interpretation”) as a proposal. However, in that proposal, the SEC explained that the RIA Interpretation was based on the SEC’s current understanding of the duties of investment advisers. More specifically, the SEC described the RIA Interpretation as reaffirming and clarifying the RIA fiduciary rule: “. . . we believe it would be appropriate and beneficial to address in one release and reaffirm—and in some cases clarify—certain aspects of the fiduciary duty that an investment adviser owes to its clients under section 206 of the Advisers Act.”

As a result, investment advisers should treat the RIA Interpretation as governing guidance and should make sure that they are complying with the duties explained in the RIA Interpretation.

This article discusses some of those duties and compares them to the DOL’s vacated fiduciary rule and the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”) for broker-dealers.

The RIA Interpretation says that all advice to all clients is fiduciary advice and, therefore, subject to the RIA duty of care and duty of loyalty. (There are several duties of care, but this article focuses on the best interest standard of care. There is also a duty of loyalty, which, for example, covers the disclosure requirements for RIAs.) To juxtapose the RIA duties with Reg BI, broker-dealers also have a best interest standard of care, but only for recommendations to “retail customers” about securities or strategies involving securities. Other recommendations by broker-dealers are not covered by the best interest standard.

With regard to the DOL, when the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the Fiduciary Rule, the old fiduciary regulation was revived. That regulation imposes a 5-part test for fiduciary status. (Note that the 5-part test only applies to non-discretionary investment advice. Whenever an advisor has discretion over assets in a plan, a participant’s accounts or an IRA, the advisor is automatically a fiduciary under a separate part of the regulation. And the DOL’s definition of discretion is very broad.) One of the 5 “parts” is that the advice must be given on a “regular basis,” meaning that a one-time recommendation would not cause a person to be a fiduciary. As a practical matter, the 5-part test is usually satisfied by the services typically offered by investment advisers to plans, participants’ accounts and IRAs. In addition, it is a functional test. As a result, where representatives of broker-dealers regularly make recommendations to those qualified accounts (and satisfy the other 4 parts), representatives and broker-dealers will be fiduciaries, even if they do not think they are.

To understand how those rules operate, let’s look at several scenarios involving recommendations of plan distributions and rollovers.

Under the DOL’s 5-part test, an advisor who recommends a distribution and rollover would not ordinarily be a fiduciary. However, there is an exception. Where the advisor is a fiduciary to a plan, and makes a recommendation to a participant in that plan to take a distribution and roll over to an IRA with the advisor, the DOL will consider the advisor (either a broker-dealer or RIA) to be a fiduciary for that purpose. See DOL Advisory Opinion 2005-23A.

The DOL’s position applies to all types of ERISA-governed plans, including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, cash balance plans, profit sharing plans and pension plans. (While most private sector plans are covered by ERISA, government plans are not. In addition, some private sector plans are not, for example, one-person plans and most church plans.)

With regard to RIAs, the SEC said, in its RIA Interpretation, that recommendations of plan distributions and rollovers would be fiduciary advice, subject to the best interest standard of care. Since the SEC RIA Interpretation applies to all recommendations to all clients, an investment adviser would be held to the best interest standard of care for distribution and rollover recommendations to all plans (even if not ERISA covered), including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, cash balance plans, pension plans and profit sharing plans.

Under the proposed Reg BI, a broker-dealer’s rollover recommendation to a participant in a participant-directed plan would also be subject to the best interest standard of care. That is because the recommendation to take a distribution necessarily includes a recommendation to liquidate the investments inside the participant’s account. In other words, it is a securities recommendation. However, it appears to me that a recommendation to take a distribution from a cash balance or pension plan would not involve a securities recommendation and, therefore, would not be subject to the best interest standard. Similarly, a recommendation to take a distribution from a “pooled” defined contribution plan, such as a profit sharing plan, may not involve a securities recommendation, since the participant does not have any authority to determine which investments are sold to finance the distribution.

In both cases—RIAs and broker-dealers, the recommendation about how to invest the money in the rollover IRA would be covered by the SEC’s best interest standard. (However, while RIAs would have an ongoing duty to monitor the account, broker-dealers do not. The duty to monitor could be modified by the agreement. For example, RIAs can contract to not monitor, while broker-dealers can agree to monitor.)

Now that we know which rollover recommendations are subject to the best interest standard, there are two remaining questions. The first is, what is the best interest standard? The second is, what does the best interest standard require for distribution recommendations?

Those two questions will be answered in Part II of this Angles.

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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