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