Undisclosed (and Disclosed) 12b-1 Fees: The Different Views of the SEC and DOL
This is my 82nd 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.
On February 12, 2018, the SEC announced a remedial program called the “Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative” (“SCSDI”). Simply stated, the temporary program says that investment advisers who have received undisclosed 12b-1 fees can correct and self-report. In that case, the SEC staff will not recommend financial penalties. However, if an investment adviser does not correct and self-report and the SEC later examines the adviser and discovers those undisclosed payments, the staff will likely be more aggressive about recommending penalties (because the advisers were given the opportunity to self-correct, but failed to do so).
If you would like to know more about that program, here is a link to an article written by two of my firm’s securities lawyers, Jim Lundy and Mary Hansen.
The purpose of this post is not to describe the SEC program, but instead to discuss the same issue from the perspective of the Fiduciary Rule and the prohibited transaction exemptions (and, in particular, the Best Interest Contract Exemption, BICE). This article focuses on investment advice and management for IRAs, rather than retirement plans. However, the principles are the same.
So . . . what are the consequences under the Fiduciary Rule (which became applicable on June 9, 2017) for advisory services to IRAs, where an investment adviser receives undisclosed 12b-1 fees? (By the way, the Fiduciary Rule also applies to advice by financial advisors and insurance agents and brokers. In that regard, it is of broader application than the SEC rules.)
To analyze the issues, the advice needs to be considered in two scenarios. The first is where a fiduciary adviser is providing non-discretionary investment advice; the second is where the fiduciary adviser is managing the account with discretion.
Where a fiduciary adviser has discretion, that is, where the adviser is actually managing the account, the adviser can only receive his stated fee. Stated slightly differently, the adviser cannot receive anything in addition to the advisory fee that results from the adviser’s investment decisions. BICE does not provide an exemption, or exception, for discretionary investment management; BICE only applies to non-discretionary investment advice.
And, to further complicate matters, the Fiduciary Rule prohibits the receipt of additional 12b-1 fees for discretionary investment management regardless of whether those fees are disclosed or not.
How can an adviser remedy the situation? The answer is that, to the extent that a discretionary fiduciary adviser receives additional payments (e.g., 12b-1 fees), the adviser must either offset those payments against the advisory fee—on a dollar-for-dollar basis—or must pay the 12b-1 fees over into the IRA.
As a result, the Fiduciary Rule is more demanding for discretionary investment management than the SEC rules are.
What about non-discretionary investment advice to IRAs?
Prior to June 9, 2017, the receipt of any additional payments for non-discretionary investment advice would have been treated the same as the receipt of additional payments for discretionary investment management (that is, the retention of those payments would have been prohibited). However, on June 9 the “transition” version of BICE became applicable. Under transition BICE, a fiduciary adviser can receive compensation in addition to the advisory fee so long as the adviser’s total compensation is reasonable (and so long as the firm, that is, the RIA or broker-dealer has policies, procedures and practices that ensure that the additional compensation does not incent the fiduciary adviser to make recommendations that are not in the best interest of the retirement investor).
Unfortunately, that second requirement—the policies, procedures and practices—is not well defined. Almost any additional compensation could be viewed as a potential incentive for a fiduciary adviser to increase his or her compensation. However, I believe that, if attention is paid to the subject, and if the people designing the policies, procedures and practices understand the rules, compliant programs can be developed.
But that assumes that the additional compensation was disclosed, which is different than the SEC’s SCSD Initiative. The SEC’s remedial program was designed to provide correction and reporting of the failure to disclose the receipt of additional 12b-1 fees. In that case, I believe that the DOL would take the same position as the SEC. That is, I believe that the DOL would take the position that, if the retirement investor (that is, the IRA owner) had not authorized the payment of the additional 12b-1 fees, the fiduciary adviser was setting his own compensation without the approval of the IRA owner and, therefore, the receipt of those payments was a prohibited transaction for which BICE did not provide relief.
Viewed in that way, the DOL Fiduciary Rule for non-discretionary advice is similar to the SEC’s, but still more demanding. For example, even if the additional 12b-1 fees were disclosed, the Fiduciary Rule and BICE require that the total compensation be reasonable. And, if not disclosed, there is a good chance that the Fiduciary Rule and BICE would be interpreted in a way that results in the 12b-1 fees being prohibited transactions.
Where do we end up? First, fully disclosed compensation, if reasonable, is permissible under the Fiduciary Rule and the exemptions for non-discretionary investment advice. Second, the receipt of additional amounts, such as 12b-1 fees, is prohibited where the adviser has discretion to manage the account, even if the total compensation is reasonable.
In this brave new world of the Fiduciary Rule, it’s important to understand the differences between the rules of the SEC, FINRA and the DOL. That is particularly true for advisory services to IRAs, since my experience is that many advisers to IRAs have little, if any, understanding of the new Fiduciary Rule and exemptions.
The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.