Fiduciary Advice and 12b-1 Fees
The DOL recently settled a case for $1,265,608.70 with a firm that provided investment advice to retirement plans. Based on the DOL’s press release, the firm served as a fiduciary investment adviser to ERISA plans and recommended investments in mutual funds. In addition to the firm’s advisory fee, it also received 12b-1 fees.
Based on the press release, it appears that the DOL asserted two claims. The first is that the receipt of additional fees (which could include both 12b-1 fees and some forms of revenue sharing) is a violation of the prohibited transaction rules in section 406(b) of ERISA.
The second theory appears to be that, where a fiduciary adviser receives undisclosed compensation, the adviser has, in effect, set its own compensation (to the extent of the undisclosed payments). In the past, the DOL has successfully taken the position that, by receiving undisclosed compensation, a service provider has become the fiduciary for the purpose of setting its own compensation and has used its fiduciary status for its own benefit.
In any event, RIAs and broker-dealers need to be particularly conscious of undisclosed payments and/or payments in addition to an advisory fee. In recent years, the DOL has gained a greater understanding of RIA and broker-dealer compensation and is actively investigating both.
I have reviewed the 408(b)(2) disclosures of a number of broker-dealers. In a few cases, the broker-dealers specifically state that, where they were serving as fiduciary advisers, they were also receiving additional compensation (e.g., revenue sharing). Those disclosures raise issues about prohibited transactions.