Category Archives: Fiduciary

Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #6

Why Wait Until After You are Sued?

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.” Continue reading Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #7

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Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #6

What Does Best Interest Mean . . . In the Real World? (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 sixth of the series about the Best Interest Standard of Care.

In my last two posts (Best Interest Standard of Care for Advisors #4 and #5), I discussed the definition of the Best Interest standard of care, with a particular focus on the duty to exercise care, skill, prudence and diligence in developing recommendations for investors. Those articles commented on the consistency in the Best Interest and fiduciary standards being developed by the SEC and several states (including New York), as well ERISA’s duty of care and duty of loyalty.

Bests #9 discussed the similarities of the standards of care and Bests #10 talked about the consideration of costs. This article focuses on considerations of the quality of the products and services and on portfolio investing.

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Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #5

Fiduciary Training: The Need for Basics

This is the fifth of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

In three earlier posts—Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #2, #3, and #4—about the Sacerdote v. New York University decision, I discussed the good and the bad of the NYU plan committee and made several suggestions about best practices for improving committee performance. This article focuses on one of those suggestions—fiduciary education for committee members.

As a starting point, there is not a legal requirement that committee members receive fiduciary training. Instead, it’s a best practice and good risk management.

But, what should the fiduciary education cover? Based on my analysis of court decisions on fiduciary responsibility, I am worried that fiduciaries may not be adequately educated about their basic responsibilities and particularly their administrative oversight duties. If you look at decisions, such as the NYU case, the issues are basic. For example, one of the defendants did not know if he was still a member of the committee. Another committee member didn’t believe that she was a fiduciary or that she had legal responsibility for the decisions made by the committee. Instead, she thought her role was ministerial, in terms of setting up the meetings and distributing information.

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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)

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.

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Best Practices for Plan Sponsors #2

What is the Baseline for A Committee to Act in the Best Interest of Its Participants? (Part 1)

This is the second of the series about Best Practices for Plan Sponsors.

The recent decision in the case of Sacerdote v. New York University is a classic story of the good and bad of plan committees. Let’s start with the bad.

Five current and former committee members testified at the trial. But not all of the testimony was helpful.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #97

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 3

This is my 97th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

In my last two articles—Part 1 and Part 2 on this topic, I discussed the fact that proposed Reg BI and its best interest standard of care for broker-dealers did not apply to all of the recommendations made by broker-dealers. The proposed best interest standard for broker-dealers will apply only to securities transactions recommended to “retail customers.” (Reg BI defines a “retail customer” as “a person, or the legal representative of such person, who . . . uses the recommendation primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.”) I compared that to the SEC’s Interpretation for RIAs, which applies to all advice to all clients. This article gives examples of how the proposals will differ when applied to common scenarios.

Based on the discussions in the Reg BI package, and on my conversations with securities lawyers, the definition of “retail customers” appears to refer to individuals, participants’ accounts in retirement plans, IRAs, custodianships, guardianships, and personal trusts. That’s not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it is meant to point out that it doesn’t appear to apply to business accounts or retirement plans. Frankly, I’m surprised that it doesn’t apply, at the very least, to small businesses and small plans.

Let me explain. Assume that Jim and Joan Smith, a married couple, have been working for a large company, Acme Corporation. However, they decide to leave Acme and to start up “Jim and Joan’s Bakery.” Fortunately, the bakery is successful and their cash flow is strong enough to start a retirement plan for the two of them, who are the only workers at the bakery. Knowing that the company will grow, their advisor (who works for a broker-dealer) recommends that they set up a 401(k) plan and recommends the investments. Those recommendations would not be covered by the Reg BI best interest standard of care.

At the same time, though, the advisor recommends that Jim and Joan take distributions from the Acme 401(k) plan and roll that money into IRAs. Both the rollover recommendation and the recommended IRA investments would be covered by the best interest standard.

Jim and Joan were also participants in the Acme pension plan. The advisor recommends that the pension benefits be withdrawn and rolled to IRAs. It appears that the withdrawal recommendation would not be subject to the best interest standard (because it does not require that Jim and Joan buy, sell or hold any securities), but the recommendations about investing in the rollover IRA would be.

The advisor helps Jim and Joan invest their accounts inside their new 401(k) plan. That would be covered by the best interest standard of care.

As the business becomes more successful, Jim and Joan set up personal accounts with the broker-dealer. Recommendations on those personal accounts would be subject to the best interest standard. But, if they had an account for their business, those recommendations would not be.

The business continues to grow and the advisor recommends that Jim and Joan set up a cash balance plan and assists them in the asset allocation and selection of investments for the plan. That would not be subject to the best interest standard of care.

With the continued success of the business, Joan and Jim decide to have children and the advisor helps them set up 529 accounts for the children’s education. The 529 investments would be subject to the best interest standard.

Confused? You should be. All of the advice in this article was to Jim and Joan. And, Jim and Joan have the same sophistication for evaluating each of the recommendations. Yet, because of the definition of “retail customer,” the duties owed by the advisor and the broker-dealer under the proposed Reg BI bounce around. Ask yourself . . . will the average investor understand which rules apply to which situation? I don’t think so. The burden shouldn’t be on the investor to understand these technical rules. Instead, the rules should be consistent and understandable.

Needless to say, this is my opinion. It doesn’t mean it is right; but it does mean that I’ve thought about it.

POSTSCRIPT: All of the recommendations in this article, when made by an investment adviser (RIA), are covered by the best interest standard. That’s straightforward, consistent and understandable.

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 #96

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 2

This is my 96th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

In my last post, I compared the proposed best interest standard of care for broker-dealers—the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”), and the SEC’s proposed Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (“RIA Interpretation”). In that article, I focused on the types of recommendations that implicated the best interest standard of care. For broker-dealers, the best interest standard only applied to recommendations of securities transactions and securities strategies. However, for RIAs the best interest standard applies to all advice and recommendations.

This article focuses on the advice recipients, that is, which investors will be protected by the best interest standard of care if the advice is given by a broker-dealer or, alternatively, if the advice is given by an RIA. Part 3 of this series gives examples of how the proposals apply to investors.

Focusing on the recipients of the advice, Reg BI’s standard of care would only protect “retail customers”:

“A broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, when making recommendations of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities to a retail customer, shall act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made, . . . .” [Emphasis added.]

Reg BI defines “retail customer” as:

“A person or the legal representative of such person, who . . .[u]ses the recommendation primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.”

Based on my reading of the SEC proposal, and on my conversations with securities lawyers, a “retail customer” includes individual investors, family and personal trusts, IRA owners, and plan participants. However, it does not include businesses, retirement plans, and tax-exempt organizations. Unfortunately, the SEC did not explain why they excluded some of those investors, who may be relatively unsophisticated. For example, if a small business owner has a 401(k) plan, advice about the business owner’s personal account would be protected by the best interest standard of care; advice about the investments in the plan would not be; advice to the owner about investing his participant account would be; and advice about investing the corporate account would not be.

It seems difficult to imagine that the small business owner—who has the same level of sophistication regardless of which account he or she is investing—would understand that the protections under the securities laws varied depending on which “hat” the business owner was wearing. This will, undoubtedly, lead to confusion.

On the other hand, in its RIA Interpretation, the SEC explains: “An investment adviser has a fiduciary duty to all of its clients, whether or not the client is a retail investor,” and “This obligation to provide advice that is suitable and in the best interest applies not just to potential investments, but to all the investment advice provides to clients . . . .”

In other words, the best interest duties of investment advisers are much broader than the proposed rule for broker-dealers. Looking at the example above, an investment adviser has a best interest duty to the small business owner when recommending investments for the business; investments for a retirement plan; personal investments; and investments in a participant account in the retirement plan. In addition to the material differences in the range of recommendations and recipients, an investment adviser also has a duty to monitor the investment recommendations (unless there is a contractual agreement that the adviser will not). However, a broker-dealer’s best interest obligation ends when a recommendation is made; that is, there isn’t an obligation to monitor.

This article is not intended to favor either RIAs or broker-dealers, but instead is to explain the SEC’s proposals. Each reader of this column can decide whether the benefits and burdens of the proposals favor one business model or the other. Also, I should point out that Reg BI is just a proposal. On the other hand, while the RIA Interpretation is labeled as a proposal, it is a compilation, or interpretation, of the SEC’s position on the rules regulating investment advisers.

In my next post, Part 3, I will expand on the examples in this 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 #95

Regulation Best Interest Recommendations by Broker-Dealers: Part 1

This is my 95th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions and the SEC’s “best interest” proposals.

By now, you probably know that both the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest (“Reg BI”) for broker-dealers and the Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (“RIA Interpretation”) have a best interest standard of care. The Reg BI best interest standard is for broker-dealers, while the RIA Interpretation best interest standard is for investment advisers.

At first blush, that suggests that broker-dealers and RIAs will be governed in the same way. That’s not the case.

While the RIA best interest standard applies to all advice to all clients, Reg BI only applies to securities recommendations made by broker-dealers to retail customers. Those are significant differences.

Let’s take a look at that.

Using the SEC’s language, the Reg BI standard applies to a broker-dealer “when making a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities.” It doesn’t apply to recommendations about which account type to use, unless the recommendation involves securities transactions. On the other hand, RIAs are governed by the best interest standard of care when recommending account types.

There are similarities in how the standard applies to recommendations of distributions from retirement plans or to the recommendation of transfers of IRAs. (As this suggests, plan participants and IRA owners are “retail customers” covered by Reg BI.) Once again, though, a recommendation of a transfer of an IRA or a distribution from a plan would only be covered by Reg BI if the recommendation involved a “securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities.”

If the recommendation to take a distribution is made to a participant in a 401(k) plan, that implicitly includes a recommendation to liquidate the investments in the participant’s account in order to take a cash distribution. (See FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45.) The recommendation to liquidate the investments in the participant’s account would be covered by the best interest standard of care. The recommendation about how to invest the rollover IRA in securities is a second recommendation that would also be subject to Reg BI and the best interest standard.

However, it does not appear that the best interest standard would apply to recommendations to plans that are not participant directed. For example, a recommendation to take a distribution from a defined benefit pension plan or a cash balance pension plan does not seem to be a securities recommendation, because the participant does not have the ability to liquidate plan investments.

On the other hand, a recommendation by an RIA to take a distribution from any type of plan would be covered by the best interest standard. Similarly, for RIAs a recommendation about the investments in the rollover IRA would also be covered by the best interest standard.

With regard to transfers of IRAs, the same “securities transaction” limitation applies to recommendations by broker-dealers. So, where a representative of a broker-dealer recommends that an IRA be transferred to the broker-dealer, but there is not a recommendation to buy, sell or hold securities (and, instead, the IRA is transferred without the liquidation of securities), there would not be a recommended securities transaction. As a result, the best interest standard of care would not apply. However, if the broker-dealer’s representative recommended that the investments be sold and then the cash transferred to an IRA with the broker-dealer, that would be subject to the best interest standard.

Any recommendation by an RIA to transfer an IRA or to sell the investments in the IRA would be subject to the best interest standard.

This article illustrates two points. The first is that the best interest standard of care for broker-dealers is much more limited than the one for RIAs. The second is that the SEC’s proposals are not clear on several major points. For example, wherever I use the words “appear” and “seem” in this article, it means that the SEC’s proposed Reg BI did not discuss the application of the proposed standard in enough detail to be certain about how it applies.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS: Reg BI is a proposal by the SEC to impose a higher standard of care on broker-dealers. It will not apply until it is finalized—perhaps a year and a half or two years from now. On the other hand, the RIA Interpretation is, for the most part, an interpretation of the current rules. As a result, RIAs should pay close attention to the RIA Interpretation.

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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