Category Archives: Plan Sponsors

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 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 #3

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

This is my second article about the case of Sacerdote v. New York University. As I discussed in my last post, the Court’s opinion pointed out the deficiencies in the understandings and conduct of some committee members. However, the Court ultimately ruled in favor of the plan fiduciaries and against the plaintiffs. Why was that?

Despite the deficiencies (or “bad practices”) of some committee members, others on the committee were engaged and knowledgeable. Obviously, that was an important factor. However, there was more than that. The Court noted that “Between [the adviser’s] advice and the guidance of the more well-equipped Committee members . . . , the Court is persuaded that the Committee performed its role adequately.

In other words, while the involvement of the more informed and better engaged committee members was critical, the committee’s use of a knowledgeable adviser was also important. I can tell you that it was a well-regarded advisory firm with considerable expertise with retirement plans. It’s not clear that, absent the work of the adviser, NYU would have won the case.

One of the claims in the lawsuit was that NYU did not use RFPs as often as it should have. As explained by the Court, “Plaintiffs assert that more frequent RFP processes for both Plans would have exerted competitive pressure on recordkeeping vendors, resulting in either a reduction in fees by an existing vendor or a better deal altogether.” While there were a number of factors reviewed by the Court, one of the important ones was that the committee had successfully negotiated for reductions in recordkeeping fees. As explained by the Court, “In addition, plaintiffs ignore that over the course of several years, NYU’s recordkeeping fees consistently decreased as NYU obtained repeated rate reductions.

Plan committees should benchmark their service providers or issue RFPs on their service providers at appropriate intervals. But that begs the meaning of “appropriate intervals.” A common benchmark is for the costs of service providers to be reviewed every three years. However, the legal requirement is that the plan expenses for service providers be monitored at appropriate intervals. More precisely, that means that they should be monitored when a change in circumstances suggests that monitoring could result in lower costs for comparable services. That could occur as a plan grows or as the competitive marketplace reduces the expenses of service providers.

While the law does not require that committees select the lowest cost providers, committees should use RFPs, benchmarking, and negotiations to ensure that their plans are reasonably priced as compared to comparable plans (for example, plans of a similar size and with similar average account balances).

Another claim was that the committee failed, in its monitoring process, to remove two underperforming funds that allegedly had high fees and poor performance. The Court disagreed, noting that the plan’s adviser provided regular reports on the funds, that the committee discussed the funds at multiple meetings, and that the process was consistent with the plan’s investment policy statement. With regard to one fund – a real estate fund, the Court found that the structure of the fund was designed to be more conservative than a common REIT benchmark. In a sense, the Court concluded that a committee could prudently select a more conservative investment alternative, which might have a lower overall return, if the committee felt that it was appropriate for the plan and the participants.

The second fund was a widely-diversified equity fund including both domestic and international securities. The Court noted that it was “challenging to find an appropriate benchmark.” The Court then went on to say “The Committee focused on the difficulties with benchmarking that the [investment] presented due to its composition. It determined that, as a result of these benchmarking difficulties, the [investment] was one that warranted ‘specialized discussions.’ Such discussions occurred.

While the Court looked at a number of benchmarks, and considered other factors, it appears that the committee’s attention to the unique nature of the fund, the on-going discussions in that regard, and the assistance of the adviser were critical factors. The moral to this part of the story is that a given benchmark may not tell the whole story, and that committee discussions, with help from an investment adviser, can provide better insights than the use of a benchmark (and particularly of a benchmark that does not directly apply to the investment under consideration).

In reflecting on this decision, I have several thoughts. My next post will discuss those. For the moment, though, an important point is that committee processes really matter. Prudence is about the process. This decision confirms that. Committees should have robust discussions about plan investments, service providers, and expenses. The discussion should be documented in committee minutes.

All in all, this decision is a “laboratory” about fiduciary responsibility. There was good and bad, and both provide important information to advisers and committee members.

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 #1

Best Practices for Plan Sponsors: Projection of Retirement Income

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 first of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

“Best Practice” is above and beyond the legal requirements. Best Practices are not mandated; they are elected.

While the most obvious Best Practices are automatic enrollment and automatic deferral increases, I want to start with the projection of retirement income for participants. That’s partially because it is in a current legislative proposal—in the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA), and also because, in my opinion, it doesn’t receive the attention that it deserves.

Under current rules, participants in 401(k) plans receive quarterly reports of the balances and the investments in their accounts. While that is important information, it is only part of the story. Let me explain what I mean.

An account balance is a statement of wealth. It is a snapshot of how much money is in the participant’s account at a given point in time. However, it does not provide the most important information, which is whether the participant is on course to have a financially secure retirement. To provide that information, participants need projections of retirement income and “gap analysis.” A projection of retirement income would tell a participant how much their current behavior—including account balance and deferral rate—will provide as retirement income. Then, gap analysis could be automatically provided to participants. Gap analysis provides a benchmark for retirement adequacy (for example, a 70% income replacement ratio); whether the projected income is at that level or not; and, if the projection is lower than the benchmark, the analysis suggests a deferral increase to close the “gap.”

Some people object to retirement income projections because they might be inaccurate. We need to get beyond that. Let’s just accept that the projections will be inaccurate, since they are based on actuarial assumptions, which are educated guesses about the future. But, let’s also agree that the projections will be directionally correct. In other words, the projections will provide valuable information to participants about whether they are saving enough to reach their goals. And, since the projections will be updated every year, participants can make adjustments along the way based on updated information.

On the subject of actuarial assumptions, let’s also agree that the typical participant doesn’t know how to do actuarial calculations and may not even know what assumptions to use. For example, retirement income projections involve assumptions about retirement age, investment earning rates, inflation, and so on. Providers and plan sponsors are, generally speaking, in a much better position to be able to determine which assumptions are reasonable for those purposes. (Incidentally, RESA proposes to create a fiduciary safe harbor for retirement income projections—and the Department of Labor is directed to provide the assumptions to be used.)

Others may argue that calculators are available on websites to enable participants to generate retirement income projections. While that is true, the reality is that participants haven’t, by and large, used those calculators. While some might argue that participants have that responsibility, I am not of that school of thought. I agree that people should be responsible for themselves. But, I don’t agree that we should continue to rely on services that aren’t working. Let’s do things that work, rather than taking dogmatic approaches.

So, my view of the future is that, if retirement income projections and gap analysis are offered to participants, with annual updates, we will have better outcomes . . . because participants will be empowered to make smarter decisions about deferral rates, investing, retirement ages, and so on.

While retirement income projections are not mandated at this time, most providers offer that service. In fact, some have offered them for years and have done so successfully . . . particularly in the 403(b) area. As a result, sponsors have the opportunity to voluntarily provide that service to participants, and advisors have the opportunity to educate plan sponsors about the availability and importance of that service. Those are Best Practices.

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 #84

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

This is my 84th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

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

It means a lot . . . in some cases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #73

Recordkeeper Investment Support for Plan Sponsors

This is my 73rd 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.

In Angles article #70, I discussed three areas where the fiduciary rule is impacting recordkeepers. Those are: acceptance of fiduciary status; non-fiduciary investment services for advisors; and non-fiduciary investment services for plan sponsors. Angles articles #71 and #72 discussed the first two points. This article discusses the third.

In the past, recordkeepers often provided sample line-ups to start-up plans and to existing plans that were transferring to their recordkeeping platform. However, under the new fiduciary definition, a selective list of investments is considered to be fiduciary investment advice, which means that the recordkeeper would need to make prudent recommendations and would be subject to ERISA’s prohibited transaction rules (e.g., for any proprietary investments and revenue sharing). Fortunately, there is an exception in the fiduciary regulation; unfortunately, though, the scope of the exception is limited. Let me explain.

The DOL’s fiduciary regulation—which applied on June 9, 2017—expands the definition of fiduciary advice. However, it also includes “carve-outs,” or exceptions, from the fiduciary definition. One of those exceptions is that fiduciary advice does not include a line-up of investments that is provided:

“ . . . In response to a request for information, request for proposal, or similar solicitation by or on behalf of the plan, identifying a limited or sample set of investment alternatives based on only the size of the employer or plan, the current investment alternatives designated under the plan, or both, provided that the response is in writing and discloses whether the person identifying the limited or sample set of investment alternatives has a financial interest in any of the alternatives, and if so the precise nature of such interest; . . .”

As a result, a recordkeeper can provide a plan sponsor with a sample list of investments (for example, for a 401(k) plan) without becoming an investment advisor fiduciary. However, the investment line-up can only be based on the size of the employer or the size of the plan, the plan’s current investment alternatives (if it is an existing plan), or both. In other words, the line-up cannot be customized for the particular plan (by, e.g., taking into account other factions). If it is customized, that would be fiduciary investment advice.

In addition, the sample line-up must be:

  • In response to a request for information, request for proposal, or similar solicitation by or on behalf of the plan.
  • In a written form which discloses whether the recordkeeper has a financial interest in any of the investments in the line-up and, if so, the precise nature of the interests must be described. That would include any proprietary investments and any investments that pay revenue sharing to the recordkeeper.

The sample list is limited to line-ups that would generally be proposed for plans or employers of a particular size (or be based on the line-up of an existing plan) and, therefore, would be of limited value to many plans, this RFP/RFI exception will likely provide some value to small, start-up plans which are serviced by advisors with little or no 401(k) experience and to plans that do not have advisors.

However, where plans do have advisors (even if they have limited experience with plans), the better approach would probably be the wholesalers exception, which was discussed in a prior post, Angles article #72.

Interestingly, if a recordkeeper goes beyond the limits of the RFP/RFI exception (for example, customizes the investment line-up), the recordkeeper will be a fiduciary to the plan, which implicates both the fiduciary standard of care and the prohibited transaction rules. Since recordkeepers commonly receive revenue sharing from a plan’s investments and, therefore, engage in prohibited transactions, they would need to comply with the transition rules for the Best Interest Contract Exemption. Those rules are: adherence to the best interest standard of care; receipt of no more than reasonable compensation; and not making materially misleading statements. For the duration of the transition period (until July 1, 2019), those requirements do not appear to be insurmountable. As a result, some recordkeepers may decide to provide fiduciary investment advice to plan sponsors, rather than use the RFP/RFI carve-out. To this point in time, though, I haven’t seen a movement in that direction.

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 #72

Advice to Advisors: The “Wholesaler” Exception

This is my 72nd 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.

In my Angles post #70, I discussed three issues for recordkeepers related to the fiduciary rule and exemptions. Angles #71 discussed the financial wellness programs developed by some recordkeepers. This article covers investment advice to advisors.

It is common knowledge that the recommendation of investments to a plan sponsor (that is, to a plan fiduciary such as a 401(k) committee) is fiduciary advice. However, it is less known that, under the new rules, investment recommendations made to fiduciary advisors is also considered fiduciary advice. And, since virtually every advisor to a plan, participant or IRA is now a fiduciary, that means that the presentation of sample investment line-ups to advisors can be fiduciary investment advice, resulting in a recordkeeper becoming a fiduciary. That is obviously problematic for the recordkeepers, but is also a problem for advisors and particularly for advisors who are not experienced in working with retirement plans.

Fortunately, though, there is at least a partial solution.

The fiduciary rules include an exception for fiduciary advice to “independent fiduciaries with financial expertise.” Simply stated, an independent fiduciary with financial expertise (or IFFE) is a broker-dealer, RIA, bank or trust company, or insurance company that is willing to serve as a fiduciary and who will, in that capacity, oversee the advisor who is providing fiduciary advice to a plan. This is sometimes refer to as the “wholesaler’s exception,” and it covers recommendations made by both recordkeepers’ wholesalers, and home office personnel.

Note that there is also an IFFE exception for advice to primary plan fiduciaries (e.g., plan committees) who oversee at least $50,000,000 in assets. However, that is a subject of another article.

The wholesaler’s exception permits recordkeepers to provide investment line-ups to fiduciary advisors, but not to plan sponsors. However, in a set of FAQs, the DOL noted that wholesaler recommendations could be made in the presence of a plan sponsor, so long as the fiduciary advisor was also at the meeting. So, the recordkeeper (and the wholesaler) can avoid fiduciary status by, for example, initially meeting with the advisor to discuss the investment line-up, and then making a presentation to the plan sponsor in the presence of the advisor (or, alternatively, having the advisor make the presentation, but with the wholesaler being able to provide comments and answer questions). It’s important to know, though, that it must be clear that the recommendations are being vetted by the fiduciary advisor so that, in a sense, the recommendations are technically fiduciary advice by the advisor and not by the recordkeeper/wholesaler. As a result, advisors should make sure that they approve of the recommendations either before they are presented or at the meeting.

In my experience, broker-dealers, RIAs, and banks and trust companies will ordinarily serve as fiduciaries for the advice given by their representatives and employees. As a result, recordkeepers and wholesalers will be able to provide investment advice to these representatives without becoming fiduciaries. However, insurance companies are generally not willing to serve as co-fiduciaries with their insurance agents, and that is particularly true of independent insurance agents and brokers. However, if the insurance agents are also registered representatives of a broker-dealer, that does not present a problem, since the broker-dealer can, from a fiduciary perspective, oversee advice about insurance products; as a result, the agents will have a financial institution to qualify as the IFFE.

As described above, where an insurance agent is only licensed to sell insurance, there will not usually be a financial institution that will serve as the IFFE. That presents a significant problem for the distribution of insurance products to plans, participants, and IRAs through independent insurance agents and brokers. While group annuity contracts can be recommended under Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24, and the agent or broker can receive a commission, a wholesaler cannot provide the independent agent or broker with a recommended line-up — without the wholesaler and the recordkeeper becoming fiduciaries.

If properly done, a possible solution would be for the independent insurance agent or broker to not make any recommendations about investments, but instead for the plan sponsor to utilize the services of a fiduciary on the platform, for example, a 3(21) or 3(38) platform fiduciary.

The IFFE exception will likely be embraced by the recordkeeper community. As a result, the common approach will be to provide investment line-ups to fiduciary advisors who are supervised by IFFEs. That does present an issue, though, for recordkeepers who sell directly to plan sponsors without the use of an advisor. My next article will discuss the RFP/RFI approach that can be used for that purpose.

POSTSCRIPT: This article does not discuss some of the requirements for satisfying the IFFE exception to the fiduciary definition. If an advisor or a firm intends to use that exception, it should only do so with legal 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 #70

The Fiduciary Rule and Recordkeeper Services

This is my 70th 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.

Almost all of my Angles articles have been about the impact of the fiduciary rule on advisors—representatives of broker-dealers and RIAs. However, the fiduciary rule also affects recordkeepers and the services that they offer to plans and advisors. In that regard, most of the work that we are doing for recordkeepers falls into three categories:

  • Acceptance of fiduciary responsibility by recordkeepers for “financial wellness” of participants.
  • Providing investment services and support for advisors, without becoming a fiduciary.
  • Providing investment services and support for plan sponsors, without becoming a fiduciary.

The next few Angles articles will discuss these issues in detail. This article is just to introduce the topics.

Financial Wellness

Financial wellness combines a focus on benefit adequacy with basic budgeting and financial management. Typically, it covers advice on plan participation, amounts to defer, repayment of indebtedness, budgeting and management of regular expenses, basic savings, investment advice and management of participants’ accounts, roll-ins to plans, and rollovers from plans. The objective is to help employees with financial decision-making for the short, intermediate and long terms. Where the recommendations constitute fiduciary advice under ERISA and the Best Interest Contract Exemption, the recordkeepers are accepting fiduciary status.

Investment Assistance to Advisors

The fiduciary rule includes an exception for investment services provided to “independent fiduciaries with financial expertise,” or “IFFEs.” Those fiduciaries include broker-dealers, RIAs, banks and trust companies, and insurance companies. In turn, where those financial institutions are willing to serve as fiduciaries with their advisors, recordkeepers can provide investment recommendations to the advisors without becoming fiduciaries. That is because the financial institution and the advisors are considered to be independent and knowledgeable fiduciaries who can evaluate the recordkeeper recommendations on behalf of their plan, participant and IRA clients.

Investment Assistance to Plan Sponsors

While recordkeepers have great flexibility to provide investment advice to advisors (who qualify as IFFEs) without becoming fiduciaries, the same is not true for advice to plan sponsors. (The IFFE provision also applies to some larger plans.)

However, there are some exceptions of general application for providing investment information to plan sponsors. The most useable exception is for responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) and requests for information (RFIs). But, even that exception is limited. The investment list provided by the recordkeeper can only be based on the size of the employer or the size of the plan, or both. For existing plans, it could be based on the current investment line-up.

A Prediction About Future Directions

As a prediction, recordkeepers will increasingly take advantage of the IFFE carve-out. That means that they will be providing suggested investment line-ups to qualifying IFFE advisors. The advisor will then need to evaluate the line-up and decide whether to present it to the plan sponsor. If an advisor then gives that investment line-up to the plan sponsor, the law will treat it as the advisor’s fiduciary recommendation (and, therefore, not as a recommendation by the recordkeeper).

That is the only meaningful exception for individualized non-fiduciary investment recommendations by recordkeepers. The RFP/RFI exception will also help, but it provides, by definition, a generic list of investments.

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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