Category Archives: fiduciary

Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #9

Best Practices: Lessons Learned from Litigation (#2)—the Vanderbilt Case

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 articles that are most relevant to you.

This is the ninth of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

Plan sponsors should be aware of the latest trends in fiduciary litigation in order to manage the risk of being sued and, if sued, of being liable. In my post, Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #8, I discussed the lessons from the settlement of the Anthem case. The Vanderbilt settlement is another example of the importance of using appropriate share classes and of a good process for selecting investments and monitoring service providers. This article discusses the Vanderbilt lawsuit and the conditions in the settlement agreement.

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Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #8

Best Practices: Lessons Learned from Litigation #1—the Anthem Case

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 articles that are most relevant to you.

This is the eighth of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

Plan sponsors should be aware of the latest trends in fiduciary litigation in order to develop practices to manage the risk of being sued and, if sued, of being liable. The recent settlement of the Anthem case is a good example of the importance of using appropriate share classes and of other practices in selecting investments and monitoring service providers. This article discusses the complaint, the settlement and risk management for plan sponsors and their fiduciary committees.

To start at the beginning, Anthem and its fiduciary plan committee were sued based on allegations that they selected overly expensive share classes (considering what was available to a multi-billion dollar plan); that they overpaid the recordkeeper; and that they offered a money market fund rather than a stable value fund.

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Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #7

Best Practices: Plan Success by the Numbers (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 seventh of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

Most companies have budgets for their business operations . . . and then regularly compare budget-to-actual. In other words, they compare their actual expenses to the budgeted amounts to see if they are on track to accomplish their financial goals. That’s pretty standard, and there is nothing remarkable about it. But, why don’t plan sponsors and fiduciaries, for example, plan committees, use that same approach for their 401(k) plans? I have a theory about that. But, before I explain my theory, let me say that I believe that plan committees should have budgets, or goals, and should measure their success in reaching those goals.

My theory is that 401(k) plans don’t set goals for plan success because 401(k) plans were originally viewed as the “employees’ plan.” The idea was that employees could do what they wanted to do, since the plan was a supplemental savings plan. That approach made sense when pension plans were more popular. However, now that 401(k) plans have become the primary retirement plan for most employers and employees, it seems fairly obvious that the burden of success of 401(k) plans needs to fall primarily on employers and fiduciaries.

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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?

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Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #7

What Does Best Interest Mean . . . In the Real World? (Part 4)

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

In my last three posts (Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #4 and #5 and #6), I discuss the Best Interest standard of care and its practical application. This article discusses a novel approach for compliance with the fiduciary standard for the selection of investments for 401(k) plans. All the more interesting, the approach was part of an opinion of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.

In October 2018, the First Circuit considered an appeal of a 401(k) case where Putnam Investments, and its fiduciaries, were the defendants. At one point, the defendants argued that, if the court found fiduciary liability under the facts of the case, it would discourage employers from adopting 401(k) plans. The Court of Appeals responded by saying:

“While Putnam warns of putative ERISA plans foregone for fear of litigation risk, it points to no evidence that employers in, for example, the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits [which found that similar facts could result in liability], are less likely to adopt ERISA plans.”

The opinion went on to describe a “safe harbor” from fiduciary liability:

“Moreover, any fiduciary of a plan such as the Plan in this case can easily insulate itself by selecting well-established, low-fee and diversified market index funds. And any fiduciary that decides it can find funds that beat the market will be immune to liability unless a district court finds it imprudent in its method of selecting such funds, and finds that a loss occurred as a result. In short, these acts are not matters concerning which ERISA fiduciaries should cry ‘wolf.’”

I think it goes without saying that the court’s language was gratuitous . . . and it is a bit disturbing for judges to give investment advice.

Nonetheless, there is a point to be made. That is, at least from this Court’s perspective, the starting point is to consider index funds. Then, plan fiduciaries should seek to identify other funds, including actively managed funds, that can reasonably be expected to match or outperform the index funds. (Note that I say index funds, rather than indexes. That’s because an index fund, subject to its expense ratio, is the investable version of an index.)

In some ways, this is not different from what is commonly done. Based on my participation as a lawyer in plan committee meetings, the investment reports that advisors give to plan committees typically compare the plans’ mutual funds to appropriate indices. And, if there is sustained underperformance vis-a-vis the index, the advisors usually recommend that a fund be removed.

However, it is more complicated than that. For example, other factors can be considered, such as volatility. A less volatile investment may be more appropriate for a retirement plan and particularly for a plan covering employees who aren’t experienced investors. Also, a particular index may not be an appropriate benchmark for certain mutual funds.

In the final analysis, the issue is whether a plan committee engaged in a prudent process to select the investments; it is not whether the process predicted the best future outcome. Nonetheless, the process must have an intended outcome, and it is not unreasonable to conclude that one objective of the process is to select investments that are anticipated to outperform a comparable index fund.

Advisors and plan sponsors shouldn’t be fearful of selecting actively managed funds where there is a reasonable basis to believe that the performance of those funds will, over time, equal or exceed that of comparable index funds. So long as the process is prudent, the fiduciaries will have satisfied their legal responsibilities.

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 #6

What Does Best Interest Mean . . . In the Real World? (Part 3)

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 the Best Interest Standard of Care.

In my last two posts (Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #4 and #5), I discussed the definition of the Best Interest standard of care, with a particular focus on the duty to exercise care, skill, prudence and diligence in developing recommendations for investors. Those articles commented on the consistency in the Best Interest and fiduciary standards being developed by the SEC and several states (including New York), as well ERISA’s duty of care and duty of loyalty.

Bests #9 discussed the similarities of the standards of care and Bests #10 talked about the consideration of costs. This article focuses on considerations of the quality of the products and services and on portfolio investing.

Under ERISA’s fiduciary rules, advisors are required to use generally accepted investment theories and prevailing investment industry practices, based on factors such as the needs and circumstances of the investor and the purpose for the investment recommendation. While there is not an explicit definition of “generally accepted investment theories,” the most accepted investment theory is Modern Portfolio Theory. Generally stated, Modern Portfolio Theory contemplates a diversified portfolio of investments that are not highly correlated with each other. Thus, while there may be cases where non-diversified recommendations could be made, the starting point—and the general rule—is that a Best Interest advisor should recommend a balanced portfolio that is appropriate for the investor. It is fair to say that Best Interest advice mandates the use of a balanced portfolio, absent circumstances that would reasonably justify an exception.

The second subject of this article is greater emphasis on the quality of investments, products and services imposed by the Best Interest standard. For example, an advisor (and his or her supervisory entity) would need to consider the financial stability of an insurance company when recommending an annuity. Similarly, an advisor would need to consider the quality of the investment manager in recommending a mutual fund or collective trust.

Think about it. While many similar investments may be suitable for a particular investor, a critical distinguishing factor—in addition to cost—between different investments is the quality of the investment management. Where an advisor is required by a Best Interest standard to (1) act with care, skill, prudence and diligence in determining which investments to recommend, and (2) to act in the best interest of the investor, it seems fairly obvious that the result of that process would be a high-quality, reasonably-priced investment. For example, with mutual funds or collective trusts, it would mean that the investment managers had superior skills and research and that their track record supported that conclusion. In other words, it involves both a qualitative and a quantitative analysis. The qualitative analysis would look both backwards and forwards. By backwards, I mean that the investment managers would have demonstrated that they are able to produce superior results. By forward looking, I mean that the investment advisory organization would be likely to continue to produce those results into the future. That involves consideration of the investment managers, the support staff–including analysts, the stability of the organization, the experience in managing in that style, and so on. On the other hand, the quantitative analysis is primarily backward looking. It would be historical performance measured against appropriate benchmarks, diversification, volatility, and so on. In effect, it would be historical numbers that measure important attributes of past performance.

The considerations for annuities are similar, in the sense that the quality and strength of the organization—that is, the insurance company—are critical factors. Is the insurance company financially stable and likely to continue to be so in the future? For example, where an annuity is recommended, the payments may extend 20 or 30 years, or more, into the future. Based on today’s financial data and the quality of the management of the insurance company, is it likely that the company will be there to make the annuity payments when due?

It is critical that advisors and their firms understand and evaluate these issues. Compliance requires nothing less.

While much of the burden of compliance falls on individual advisors, the responsibility can be shared with their firms. For example, a broker-dealer can vet the financial stability of the insurance companies that can be recommended by its advisors. In turn, if the advisors understand that process, and reasonably conclude that it is adequate they can adopt it as their own and use it as a basis for recommending those products where they satisfy the Best Interest standard for the customer. In other words, the responsibilities discussed in this article can be satisfied collaboratively by the combined efforts of the firm and the individual.

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 Practices for Plan Sponsors #4

What is the Baseline for A Committee to Act in the Best Interest of its Participants? (Part 3)

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 Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

 In my last two posts (Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #2 and Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #3), I discuss the NYU case and the “bad” and “good” behavior of committee members. I concluded my last post with the point that process matters. Of course, it was unspoken that I was referring to a good process. This article discusses the fundamentals of a good process and the lessons learned from the NYU decision.

  • The NYU committee met quarterly.

There isn’t a prescribed timing for fiduciary meetings; the requirement is that plan fiduciaries, usually committee members, meet with the frequency necessary to properly do their job. Some aspects of the job, such as review of investments, may require more frequent meetings . . . at least annually, although quarterly would, under ordinary circumstances, clearly satisfy the requirement. An exception would be if a significant change occurred between meetings, for example, the sale of the mutual fund manager, the resignation of the mutual fund manager (where the fund was managed by a single manager), or other changes that could immediately impact an investment.

On the other hand, the monitoring of service providers may not require the same frequency. Absent extraordinary circumstances, annual reviews should ordinarily satisfy the fiduciary requirement (and, even there, it may not need to be that often). Of course, there are some exceptions for unusual events. One of those would be where an employer is receiving complaints from participants that, if valid, would raise concerns about the quality of the service provider, or the timely delivery of the services.

In any event, quarterly meetings are a reasonably good practice for risk management purposes.

  • The committee used an adviser with expertise with similar plans.

There is not a requirement that plan committees use advisers. Instead, it is a best practice. However, if committee members lack the expertise needed to prudently select and monitor a plan’s investments and to evaluate their expense ratios (including share classes), the committee members need to obtain that expertise from another source. Needless to say, good risk management dictates that the source be independent of the investments, in the sense that the source of information not be related to the mutual fund management company or to an organization that receives money from the mutual funds.

If an adviser has conflicts of interest, the committee has the added burden of identifying the conflicts and determining whether the participants will be adversely affected by those conflicts. It’s beyond the scope of this article to fully discuss the selection of advisers, but a starting point is that, when an adviser is paid directly by the plan or the employer, the potential of conflicts is reduced (and perhaps eliminated). On the other hand, where the adviser is paid from the investments, there is an obvious conflict, in the sense that the adviser is incentivized to recommend mutual funds or other investments that provide higher compensation. That’s not to say that all commissioned advisers (or other advisers who receive third party payments) will succumb to the conflicts. However, committee members need to know that they have a legal duty to understand and evaluate conflicts of interest.

  • The committee adopted and followed an investment policy statement.

There is not a legal requirement to have an investment policy statement (IPS). However, it is a best practice. A well-prepared IPS will describe the steps to be followed by a committee in evaluating the quality and costs of the investments. In effect, it will walk committee members through the process of investment selection and monitoring. As a part of that, the IPS should have specific criteria for different types of investments. However, at least in my view, an IPS should specifically state that the provisions are “guidelines” for the committee and that the expectation is that the committee will use its judgment and discretion, as opposed to strict adherence to the guidelines. That reflects my view that a qualitative analysis cannot always be defined by numbers and percentages. In fact, the court in the NYU case said the same, when it discussed the difficulty of benchmarking one of the investments.

These are important steps in a prudent process. However, the committee in the NYU case also made some mistakes. Based on the judge’s description, some of the committee members were not engaged and did not see themselves as being responsible for making fiduciary decisions. Instead, they viewed themselves as providing information and administrative services to the committee. Those people should not have been on the plan committee. Committee members should understand that they are fiduciaries and owe duties of prudence and loyalty to the participants. There is nothing wrong with having administrative personnel attend the meetings, but there is something wrong with a fiduciary that has a ministerial mindset.

The NYU case covered a number of issues, some of which are not discussed here. However, the discussions in this article, and the preceding two articles, are a primer for plan committee members. Advisers should help them understand the good and the bad of the NYU case.

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 #2

What is the Baseline for A Committee to Act in the Best Interest of Its Participants? (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 second of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

The recent decision in the case of Sacerdote v. New York University is a classic story of the good and bad of plan committees. Let’s start with the bad.

Five current and former committee members testified at the trial. But not all of the testimony was helpful.

In the opinion, the Court said that the testimony of one of the co-chairs “was concerning.” The court went on to say:

She made it clear that she viewed her role as primarily concerned with scheduling, paper movement, and logistics; she displayed a surprising lack of in-depth knowledge concerning the financial aspects of managing a multi-billion-dollar pension portfolio and a lack of true appreciation for the significance of her role as a fiduciary. In a number of instances, she appeared to believe it was sufficient for her to have relied rather blindly on [the investment advisor’s] expertise. As a matter of law, blind reliance is inappropriate.

The court further noted that:

She bluntly testified that “[i]t’s not my job to determine whether the fees are appropriate” for the Plans.

With regard to another committee member, the court said that she “was similarly unfamiliar with the basic concepts relating to the Plan, such as who fulfilled the role of administrator for the Faculty Plan. When asked about her inability to remember Plan details, [the committee member] responded that she has a ‘big job’ (referring to her human resources role, not her Committee membership) and her role on the Committee is one of many responsibilities she has. This suggested that [the committee member] does not view herself as having adequate time to serve effectively on the Committee.”

The court also said, about another committee member, “that he did not even know whether he was, at the time of the trial (in April 2018), still a member of the Committee—and thus whether he bore a fiduciary responsibility to thousands of NYU participants.”

And, finally, the court said “Several Committee members stated that they did not independently seek to verify the quality of ‘investment advisors’ advice; rather, they simply relied on it.”

If this were the end of the story, this article would be about bad practices, rather than best practices. However, there is more.

The court went on to say: “While the Court finds the level of involvement and seriousness with which several Committee members treated their fiduciary duty troubling, it does not find that this rose to a level of failure to fulfill fiduciary obligations.”

How is that possible?

Sadly, I will leave you hanging for a week, until I post Part 2 of this article. However, I don’t want you to be disappointed. So, let me give you a preview. There were other committee members, some of whom were fairly sophisticated and very engaged. However, there is even more than that. The court noted two or three other steps taken by the committee that saved NYU and the committee members from a litigation disaster. My next article will cover that.

POSTSCRIPT: One lesson from this case, independent of the committee actions that saved the day for NYU, is that committees should have formal programs for fiduciary education. The fiduciary education should cover, at the least: Who is a fiduciary and what are the fiduciary responsibilities? How do fiduciaries fulfill those duties in the real world? How do fiduciaries review and examine the advice that they receive? And, how do fiduciaries monitor the costs and compensation related to their service providers and plan investments? That education should be reinforced at least annually, together with updates on current developments. Finally, new committee members should be educated about their roles and responsibilities when they start serving.

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 #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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