Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #98
Regulation Best Interest: Consideration of Cost and Compensation
This is my 98th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.
The SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) proposes a number of major changes to the governance of broker-dealers. For example, it imposes a best interest standard of care on recommendations of securities transactions and it requires that material conflicts of interest involving financial incentives be eliminated or, alternatively, disclosed and mitigated. Based on the SEC’s examples of mitigation, it appears “real” mitigation is expected and not just existing practices with more disclosure.
There are other significant changes. For example, there is an increased focus on the costs and compensation related to recommended securities transactions and investment strategies. The SEC’s discussion explains that:
“[O]ur proposed interpretation of the Care Obligation would make the cost of the security or strategy, and any associated financial incentives, more important factors (of the many factors that should be considered) in understanding and analyzing whether to recommend a security or an investment strategy.” [Emphasis added.]
The SEC’s position is that both the costs of recommended securities or strategies and the associated compensation (that is, the financial incentives) will be more important factors than they have been in the past.
The SEC goes on to explain its position on costs:
“We preliminarily believe that, in order to meet its Care Obligation, when a broker-dealer recommends a more expensive security or investment strategy over another reasonably available alternative offered by the broker-dealer, the broker-dealer would need to have a reasonable basis to believe that the higher cost of the security or strategy is justified (and thus nevertheless in the retail customer’s best interest) based on other factors (e.g., the product’s or strategy’s investment objectives, characteristics (including any special or unusual features), liquidity, risks and potential benefits, volatility and likely performance in a variety of market and economic conditions), in light of the retail customer’s investment profile.” [Emphasis added.]
In addition, the SEC explained its position on compensation:
“When a broker-dealer recommends a more remunerative security or investment strategy over another reasonably available alternative offered by the broker-dealer, the broker-dealer would need to have a reasonable basis to believe that—putting aside the broker- dealer’s financial incentives—the recommendation was in the best interest of the retail customer based on the factors noted above, in light of the retail customer’s investment profile.”
The two quotes (which are together in a single paragraph in Reg BI) may appear to conflict with each other. However, they are consistent and coherent if they are interpreted as follows: a broker-dealer will need to justify recommending a higher-cost investment (over another reasonably available, but lower-cost alternative). However, if there are two similar investments (including costs), but one pays the broker-dealer (and the financial advisor), more than the other, and it is better for the investor, then it could be recommended under the best interest standard. The inverse of that, though, is that the higher cost (and higher compensating) alternative cannot be recommended unless there are different characteristics and features that justify the cost.
The SEC’s best interest will require that a broker-dealer be diligent, careful, skillful, and prudent—which suggests a process—and that the process result in an investment that is in the best interest of the investor, with a greater emphasis on cost and compensation.
For those of you who work with retirement plans, you will recognize that the process, and the factors to be considered, are similar to ERISA’s prudent process requirement.
The proposals under Reg BI are significant and will, if finalized, require changes in the operations, including supervision, of broker-dealers.
The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.