Category Archives: DOL Activity

Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #98

Regulation Best Interest: Consideration of Cost and Compensation

This is my 98th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

The SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) proposes a number of major changes to the governance of broker-dealers. For example, it imposes a best interest standard of care on recommendations of securities transactions and it requires that material conflicts of interest involving financial incentives be eliminated or, alternatively, disclosed and mitigated. Based on the SEC’s examples of mitigation, it appears “real” mitigation is expected and not just existing practices with more disclosure.

There are other significant changes. For example, there is an increased focus on the costs and compensation related to recommended securities transactions and investment strategies. The SEC’s discussion explains that:

“[O]ur proposed interpretation of the Care Obligation would make the cost of the security or strategy, and any associated financial incentives, more important factors (of the many factors that should be considered) in understanding and analyzing whether to recommend a security or an investment strategy.” [Emphasis added.]

The SEC’s position is that both the costs of recommended securities or strategies and the associated compensation (that is, the financial incentives) will be more important factors than they have been in the past.

The SEC goes on to explain its position on costs:

“We preliminarily believe that, in order to meet its Care Obligation, when a broker-dealer recommends a more expensive security or investment strategy over another reasonably available alternative offered by the broker-dealer, the broker-dealer would need to have a reasonable basis to believe that the higher cost of the security or strategy is justified (and thus nevertheless in the retail customer’s best interest) based on other factors (e.g., the product’s or strategy’s investment objectives, characteristics (including any special or unusual features), liquidity, risks and potential benefits, volatility and likely performance in a variety of market and economic conditions), in light of the retail customer’s investment profile.” [Emphasis added.]

In addition, the SEC explained its position on compensation:

“When a broker-dealer recommends a more remunerative security or investment strategy over another reasonably available alternative offered by the broker-dealer, the broker-dealer would need to have a reasonable basis to believe that—putting aside the broker- dealer’s financial incentives—the recommendation was in the best interest of the retail customer based on the factors noted above, in light of the retail customer’s investment profile.”

The two quotes (which are together in a single paragraph in Reg BI) may appear to conflict with each other. However, they are consistent and coherent if they are interpreted as follows: a broker-dealer will need to justify recommending a higher-cost investment (over another reasonably available, but lower-cost alternative). However, if there are two similar investments (including costs), but one pays the broker-dealer (and the financial advisor), more than the other, and it is better for the investor, then it could be recommended under the best interest standard. The inverse of that, though, is that the higher cost (and higher compensating) alternative cannot be recommended unless there are different characteristics and features that justify the cost.

The SEC’s best interest will require that a broker-dealer be diligent, careful, skillful, and prudent—which suggests a process—and that the process result in an investment that is in the best interest of the investor, with a greater emphasis on cost and compensation.

For those of you who work with retirement plans, you will recognize that the process, and the factors to be considered, are similar to ERISA’s prudent process requirement.

The proposals under Reg BI are significant and will, if finalized, require changes in the operations, including supervision, of broker-dealers.

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 #97

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 3

This is my 97th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

In my last two articles—Part 1 and Part 2 on this topic, I discussed the fact that proposed Reg BI and its best interest standard of care for broker-dealers did not apply to all of the recommendations made by broker-dealers. The proposed best interest standard for broker-dealers will apply only to securities transactions recommended to “retail customers.” (Reg BI defines a “retail customer” as “a person, or the legal representative of such person, who . . . uses the recommendation primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.”) I compared that to the SEC’s Interpretation for RIAs, which applies to all advice to all clients. This article gives examples of how the proposals will differ when applied to common scenarios.

Based on the discussions in the Reg BI package, and on my conversations with securities lawyers, the definition of “retail customers” appears to refer to individuals, participants’ accounts in retirement plans, IRAs, custodianships, guardianships, and personal trusts. That’s not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it is meant to point out that it doesn’t appear to apply to business accounts or retirement plans. Frankly, I’m surprised that it doesn’t apply, at the very least, to small businesses and small plans.

Let me explain. Assume that Jim and Joan Smith, a married couple, have been working for a large company, Acme Corporation. However, they decide to leave Acme and to start up “Jim and Joan’s Bakery.” Fortunately, the bakery is successful and their cash flow is strong enough to start a retirement plan for the two of them, who are the only workers at the bakery. Knowing that the company will grow, their advisor (who works for a broker-dealer) recommends that they set up a 401(k) plan and recommends the investments. Those recommendations would not be covered by the Reg BI best interest standard of care.

At the same time, though, the advisor recommends that Jim and Joan take distributions from the Acme 401(k) plan and roll that money into IRAs. Both the rollover recommendation and the recommended IRA investments would be covered by the best interest standard.

Jim and Joan were also participants in the Acme pension plan. The advisor recommends that the pension benefits be withdrawn and rolled to IRAs. It appears that the withdrawal recommendation would not be subject to the best interest standard (because it does not require that Jim and Joan buy, sell or hold any securities), but the recommendations about investing in the rollover IRA would be.

The advisor helps Jim and Joan invest their accounts inside their new 401(k) plan. That would be covered by the best interest standard of care.

As the business becomes more successful, Jim and Joan set up personal accounts with the broker-dealer. Recommendations on those personal accounts would be subject to the best interest standard. But, if they had an account for their business, those recommendations would not be.

The business continues to grow and the advisor recommends that Jim and Joan set up a cash balance plan and assists them in the asset allocation and selection of investments for the plan. That would not be subject to the best interest standard of care.

With the continued success of the business, Joan and Jim decide to have children and the advisor helps them set up 529 accounts for the children’s education. The 529 investments would be subject to the best interest standard.

Confused? You should be. All of the advice in this article was to Jim and Joan. And, Jim and Joan have the same sophistication for evaluating each of the recommendations. Yet, because of the definition of “retail customer,” the duties owed by the advisor and the broker-dealer under the proposed Reg BI bounce around. Ask yourself . . . will the average investor understand which rules apply to which situation? I don’t think so. The burden shouldn’t be on the investor to understand these technical rules. Instead, the rules should be consistent and understandable.

Needless to say, this is my opinion. It doesn’t mean it is right; but it does mean that I’ve thought about it.

POSTSCRIPT: All of the recommendations in this article, when made by an investment adviser (RIA), are covered by the best interest standard. That’s straightforward, consistent and understandable.

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

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #96

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Reg BI defines “retail customer” as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #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 #89

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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