Category Archives: FINRA

Alert: FINRA’s 529 Plan Share Class Initiative to Self-Report

FINRA is taking the position that broker-dealers need to evaluate the long-term costs of different share classes in 529 plans. In effect, FINRA is imposing a “best interest” standard on 529 recommendations. For a description of FINRA’s expectations and its new self-disclosure program, here is an article by several of our Drinker Biddle attorneys, including me: FINRA’s 529 Plan Share Class Initiative to Self-Report

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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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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #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 #90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #85

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

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

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

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

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

1. Who is a fiduciary?

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

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

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

2. What is the fiduciary standard of care?

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

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

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

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

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

This is the area of greatest differences among the regulators.

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

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

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

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

We live in interesting times.

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

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #82

Undisclosed (and Disclosed) 12b-1 Fees: The Different Views of the SEC and DOL

This is my 82nd 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 February 12, 2018, the SEC announced a remedial program called the “Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative” (“SCSDI”). Simply stated, the temporary program says that investment advisers who have received undisclosed 12b-1 fees can correct and self-report. In that case, the SEC staff will not recommend financial penalties. However, if an investment adviser does not correct and self-report and the SEC later examines the adviser and discovers those undisclosed payments, the staff will likely be more aggressive about recommending penalties (because the advisers were given the opportunity to self-correct, but failed to do so).

If you would like to know more about that program, here is a link to an article written by two of my firm’s securities lawyers, Jim Lundy and Mary Hansen.

The purpose of this post is not to describe the SEC program, but instead to discuss the same issue from the perspective of the Fiduciary Rule and the prohibited transaction exemptions (and, in particular, the Best Interest Contract Exemption, BICE). This article focuses on investment advice and management for IRAs, rather than retirement plans. However, the principles are the same.

So . . . what are the consequences under the Fiduciary Rule (which became applicable on June 9, 2017) for advisory services to IRAs, where an investment adviser receives undisclosed 12b-1 fees? (By the way, the Fiduciary Rule also applies to advice by financial advisors and insurance agents and brokers. In that regard, it is of broader application than the SEC rules.)

To analyze the issues, the advice needs to be considered in two scenarios. The first is where a fiduciary adviser is providing non-discretionary investment advice; the second is where the fiduciary adviser is managing the account with discretion.

Where a fiduciary adviser has discretion, that is, where the adviser is actually managing the account, the adviser can only receive his stated fee. Stated slightly differently, the adviser cannot receive anything in addition to the advisory fee that results from the adviser’s investment decisions. BICE does not provide an exemption, or exception, for discretionary investment management; BICE only applies to non-discretionary investment advice.

And, to further complicate matters, the Fiduciary Rule prohibits the receipt of additional 12b-1 fees for discretionary investment management regardless of whether those fees are disclosed or not.

How can an adviser remedy the situation? The answer is that, to the extent that a discretionary fiduciary adviser receives additional payments (e.g., 12b-1 fees), the adviser must either offset those payments against the advisory fee—on a dollar-for-dollar basis—or must pay the 12b-1 fees over into the IRA.

As a result, the Fiduciary Rule is more demanding for discretionary investment management than the SEC rules are.

What about non-discretionary investment advice to IRAs?

Prior to June 9, 2017, the receipt of any additional payments for non-discretionary investment advice would have been treated the same as the receipt of additional payments for discretionary investment management (that is, the retention of those payments would have been prohibited). However, on June 9 the “transition” version of BICE became applicable. Under transition BICE, a fiduciary adviser can receive compensation in addition to the advisory fee so long as the adviser’s total compensation is reasonable (and so long as the firm, that is, the RIA or broker-dealer has policies, procedures and practices that ensure that the additional compensation does not incent the fiduciary adviser to make recommendations that are not in the best interest of the retirement investor).

Unfortunately, that second requirement—the policies, procedures and practices—is not well defined. Almost any additional compensation could be viewed as a potential incentive for a fiduciary adviser to increase his or her compensation. However, I believe that, if attention is paid to the subject, and if the people designing the policies, procedures and practices understand the rules, compliant programs can be developed.

But that assumes that the additional compensation was disclosed, which is different than the SEC’s SCSD Initiative. The SEC’s remedial program was designed to provide correction and reporting of the failure to disclose the receipt of additional 12b-1 fees. In that case, I believe that the DOL would take the same position as the SEC. That is, I believe that the DOL would take the position that, if the retirement investor (that is, the IRA owner) had not authorized the payment of the additional 12b-1 fees, the fiduciary adviser was setting his own compensation without the approval of the IRA owner and, therefore, the receipt of those payments was a prohibited transaction for which BICE did not provide relief.

Viewed in that way, the DOL Fiduciary Rule for non-discretionary advice is similar to the SEC’s, but still more demanding. For example, even if the additional 12b-1 fees were disclosed, the Fiduciary Rule and BICE require that the total compensation be reasonable. And, if not disclosed, there is a good chance that the Fiduciary Rule and BICE would be interpreted in a way that results in the 12b-1 fees being prohibited transactions.

Where do we end up? First, fully disclosed compensation, if reasonable, is permissible under the Fiduciary Rule and the exemptions for non-discretionary investment advice. Second, the receipt of additional amounts, such as 12b-1 fees, is prohibited where the adviser has discretion to manage the account, even if the total compensation is reasonable.

In this brave new world of the Fiduciary Rule, it’s important to understand the differences between the rules of the SEC, FINRA and the DOL. That is particularly true for advisory services to IRAs, since my experience is that many advisers to IRAs have little, if any, understanding of the new Fiduciary Rule and exemptions.

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 #79

The Fiduciary Rule: Mistaken Beliefs (#4)

This is my 79th 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 post continues my series on myths about the fiduciary rule and prohibited transaction exemptions. This article focuses on the issue of “reasonable compensation” for RIAs, broker-dealers and their advisors for their services to retirement plans and IRAs (“qualified accounts”), and what, if any, changes will be made to that requirement. The myth is that the SEC will draft rules that eliminate the reasonable compensation rule. That is incorrect. The reasonable compensation limitation on advisors and their supervisory entities is here to stay.

This article explains why the reasonable compensation limits are here to stay and what advisors and their supervisory entities need to do to comply with those rules.

The fiduciary regulation is currently in effect. It first applied on June 9, 2017. And, it applied in full force. That is, while there are transition versions of the prohibited transaction exemptions, the fiduciary regulation was not modified to be a transition version.

The effect of the fiduciary regulation is to broadly expand the definition of who is a fiduciary. Because of the regulation, virtually anyone who makes an investment or insurance recommendation to a plan, a participant, or an IRA owner, is a fiduciary.

The conflict of interest exceptions (called “exemptions”), on the other hand, only partially applied on June 9th. The most important exemption—the Best Interest Contract Exemption, or BICE—requires only that advisors and their supervisory entities adhere to the Impartial Conduct Standards. Those standards are:

  • The best interest standard of care, which is, in its essence, the prudent person rule and the duty of loyalty.
  • No materially misleading statements.
  • No more than reasonable compensation for the individual advisor and the entity.

However, even if the reasonable compensation condition in BICE is removed from the exemption, that will not mean that advisers and their supervisory entities can ignore that limit. And, even if the SEC or FINRA do not impose a reasonable compensation limitation, that will not change the rule. Why is that?

The reasonable compensation limit is found in both the Internal Revenue Code and ERISA. In other words, it is a statutory requirement. Neither the DOL, the SEC nor FINRA can issue a rule that overrides a statute.

But, what if the definition of fiduciary is changed and an advisor is no longer a fiduciary? That doesn’t matter either. The reasonable compensation limitation in the Code and ERISA applies to all service providers, regardless of whether they are fiduciaries.

With that background, the essential question is, how do advisors and their financial institutions determine the reasonableness of their fees? Before I answer that question, though, I want to explain two threshold issues. The first is the definition of compensation and the second is the definition of reasonableness.

ERISA and the Code use “compensation” to cover all payments, monetary and non-monetary, that are compensatory. A compensatory payment is one which is partially or entirely, directly or indirectly, attributable to an investment or insurance recommendation. The DOL uses a “but for” test to determine if a payment is compensation, that is, would the broker-dealer or RIA firm have received the payment “but for” the investment recommendations. If the payment is partially or entirely, directly or indirectly, attributable to investment recommendations, it is compensatory.

With regard to “reasonableness,” the DOL explains that the reasonableness of compensation is determined by the services provided by the advisor. In effect, the marketplace defines “reasonable” because, in most cases, the ordinary and customary compensation for the services associated with particular transactions is reasonable.

More specifically, the DOL explained in its preamble to BICE:

The reasonableness of the fees depends on the particular facts and circumstances at the time of the recommendation. Several factors inform whether compensation is reasonable including, inter alia, the market pricing of service(s) provided and the underlying asset(s), the scope of monitoring, and the complexity of the product. No single factor is dispositive in determining whether compensation is reasonable; the essential question is whether the charges are reasonable in relation to what the investor receives.

Now, let’s turn to the steps that advisors and their supervisory entities should take to determine whether the compensation for a particular type of investment transaction is reasonable. Financial institutions and advisors need to obtain information about the marketplace pricing for various types of transactions. For example, what is the range of customary compensation for individual variable annuities? What is customary for referrals to third party asset managers? What is customary for mutual funds? And so on.

While it may be possible for financial institutions to collect that information on their own (and to update it periodically . . . perhaps annually), the more practical and cost-effective answer is to work with a benchmarking service that obtains and updates that information. Of course, advisors and financial institutions should investigate the experience and quality of the benchmarking service, and the integrity and timeliness of its data.

Keep in mind that the reasonable compensation limits are in the prohibited transaction rules. As a result, the burden of proof is on the financial institution, and not on the retirement investor. In other words, it’s important to have market data and to develop compensation policies that are consistent with the data. Since it is likely that the levels of reasonable compensation will change over time, that information should be updated at reasonable intervals.

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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