Category Archives: General

Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #68

Recommendations of Distributions: The SEC Joins the Fray

This is my 68th 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.

In 2013, FINRA put its stake in the ground on recommendations of distributions and rollovers when it issued Regulatory Notice 13-45. The DOL has, with the development of its fiduciary regulation over the past few years—which became applicable on June 9 of this year—taken a similar, but more demanding position. However, the DOL’s guidance has more teeth than FINRA’s, because it is backed by a standard of care—the prudent man rule and duty of loyalty—and by the prohibited transaction rules in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. Recently, the SEC has joined the fray with the issuance of its ReTIRE initiative and its examination priorities over the past few years.

The SEC has completed the first phase of its ReTIRE initiative. This Angles article reports on the observations from the first phase and the current examination priorities.

Needless to say, recommendations and rollovers are issues of concern to the SEC and are, in fact, being examined. RIAs and broker-dealers who do not have well-developed practices and documentation for recommending rollovers and distributions may be surprised when the SEC raises those issues and faults their practices. However, my belief is that compliance with the DOL’s best interest standard of care (that is, the prudent man rule and the duty of loyalty) will satisfy the standard of care and conflicts of interest concerns of both the DOL and the SEC. As a result, broker-dealers and RIAs should focus on compliance with the DOL rules (especially in light of the SEC’s examination positions). Additionally, broker-dealers and RIAs should seriously consider affirmatively disclosing the conflicts of interest inherent in recommending distributions and rollovers.

Here is some additional information about the SEC examinations and their observations:

  • The SEC has conducted over 250 examinations under the ReTIRE initiative.
  • Specific areas of concern have been uncovered during the examinations. Those include:
  • Recommendations to investors/retirees of inappropriate share classes.
  • Misleading marketing materials regarding offerings and rollovers.
  • Lack of documentation to support the reasonableness of recommendations (including rollovers).
  • Vague or omitted disclosures related to fees, conflicts and services of affiliates.
  • Misleading touting of credentials.
  • Supervision and compliance breakdowns.

We expect that the SEC’s examinations will continue to focus on issues related to retirees and older investors, including distribution and rollover issues.

As an observation, in a recent SEC examination of a broker-dealer, the report specifically referenced practices which could violate FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45. As a result, now is a good time for broker-dealers to review their practices, including advisor education, under 13-45, as well as the related policies, procedures and supervision.

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 #64

What Does the Best Interest Standard of Care Require?

This is my 64th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

The best interest standard of care is found, among other places, in the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE). The standard is a combination of ERISA’s prudent man rule and duty of loyalty. In fact, in the prudence portion of the definition, the only change is that the words “prudent man” are changed to “prudent person.” But, that begs the question, what does the prudent person rule require?

Generally speaking, it requires the following:

  • A prudent process by a hypothetical knowledgeable person who obtains and evaluates the information needed to make a careful and skillful decision.
  • With regard to investments, it requires that fiduciary advisors adhere to generally accepted investment theories. DOL guidance is clear that, in interpreting the best interest standard of care, fiduciaries are to look to ERISA’s history. And, ERISA’s history confirms that generally accepted investment theories are to be used. Again, though, what does that mean? Among other things, it means that IRA owners and plan participants should be advised to invest in a portfolio with asset allocation based on their needs, objectives and circumstances. The DOL explained in the preamble to its participant investment advice regulation (§2550.408g-1) that:

“After careful consideration of all the comments on the issue, the Department does not believe it has a sufficient basis for determining appropriate changes to the generally accepted investment theory standard. While several commenters described theories and practices they believe to be generally accepted, there did not appear to be any consensus among them, with the exception of modern portfolio theory,22 which the Department believes is already reflected in the rule’s reference to investment theories that take into account the historic returns of different asset classes over defined periods of time.

22This is consistent with a survey of literature on generally accepted investment theories prepared for the Department. See Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP, Generally Accepted Investment Theories (July 11, 2007) (unpublished, on file with the Department of Labor).”

  • It is hard to imagine that broader concepts of diversification would not also be considered to be generally accepted investment theories. For example, even though portfolios may be diversified among asset classes, there is an argument that the investments in each asset class should also be diversified. While this is an issue for investment experts, and not for lawyers, it seems fairly obvious that diversification by asset class and within asset classes would be, at the least, good risk management. Keep in mind that IRAs are retirement vehicles. As a result, IRAs should be invested in a manner consistent with retirement investing, which suggests, among other things, the avoidance of large losses. That is particularly true for older IRA investors.

However, in the final analysis, the retirement investor gets to decide how his money will be invested. While advisors may be obligated to recommend investment strategies that are consistent with generally accepted investment theories, a retirement investor can override those recommendations and direct that the account be invested differently. In that case, a fiduciary advisor is well-advised to obtain written directions from the retirement investor about how the investor wants the account to be invested. Armed with that direction the fiduciary advisor’s duty is to provide advice within the limits imposed by the retirement investor.

The application of fiduciary, or best interest, concepts to individual retirement investors will be new for many advisors. As a result, advisors, and their supervisory entities, should focus on the fiduciary requirements for a prudent process and for the application of general accepted investment theories.

Forewarned is forearmed.

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 #58

Recommendations to Contribute to a Plan or IRA

This is my 58th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

In Angles article #56, I discussed the DOL’s position that recommendations of contributions to plans and IRAs were fiduciary advice. However, a week after that article was posted on my blog, the DOL reversed its position. The new guidance is found in the DOL’s “Conflict of Interest FAQs (408b-2 Disclosure Transition Period, Recommendations to Increase Contributions and Plan Participation).”

In the newly issued FAQs, the DOL posed the following question:

Q2. Plans and their service providers often encourage plan participants to make contributions to the plan at levels that maximize the value of employer matching contributions or to otherwise increase participants’ contributions or savings to meet objective financial retirement milestones, goals, or parameters based upon the participant’s age, time to retirement or other similar measures, without recommending any particular investment or investment strategy. Would it be fiduciary investment advice under the Fiduciary Rule to encourage additional savings or contributions to a plan or IRA in this manner?

The DOL then reversed its prior position by responding that those recommendations would not be fiduciary advice.

So, recordkeepers and advisers can unconditionally recommend contributions to plans and IRAs, right? Not so fast. A close reading of the guidance suggests otherwise. In other words, there may be traps for the unwary.

First, the recommended increase must be “objective.” For example, a non-fiduciary recommendation could be made to increase contributions to obtain the full benefit of an employer’s matching contributions. Also, a non-fiduciary recommendation for increased contributions could be “to meet objective financial retirement milestones, goals, or parameters based upon the participant’s age, time to retirement or other similar measures.” For example, a recommendation to increase contributions could be made based on calculations of the amounts needed for adequate retirement (for example, a 75% income replacement ratio in retirement). Another example is that, as a general rule of thumb, the combined employee-employer contributions should be 15% of pay in order to reasonably accumulate enough for a secure retirement.

Second, a recommendation to increase contributions is non-fiduciary advice where it is made “without recommending any particular investment or investment strategy.” So, for example, if the recommendation to increase contributions to a plan or IRA is made during a conversation that also includes a discussion of the investments, that could cause the recommendation to be fiduciary advice.

As a result, the “rules of the road” for recommending increased contributions to plans or IRAs, while avoiding fiduciary status, is to (1) make the recommendation based on an objective measurement, and (2) avoid a concurrent discussion of investments or investment strategies for the plan or IRA.

Even though there are traps in this guidance, the DOL’s position is a significant improvement.

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 #57

DOL FAQs on 408(b)(2) Fiduciary Disclosures

This is my 57th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

The Department of Labor has issued a new set of “Conflict of Interest FAQs (408(b)(2) Disclosure Transition Period, Recommendations to Increase Contributions and Plan Participation).”

This article discusses the DOL’s relief from the 408(b)(2) requirement that a “change” notice be given for advisers who became fiduciaries to ERISA-governed retirement plans because of the June 9th expansion of the definition of fiduciary advice.

Before getting into the details of the relief, let’s look at what the DOL’s FAQs did not do. If an adviser (or his or her supervisory entity) was a fiduciary, functional or acknowledged, before June 9th, but did not give a 408(b)(2) notice of fiduciary status, that is not covered. In other words, it is a violation that is not remedied by the Department of Labor’s guidance. If the adviser’s prior 408(b)(2) disclosures, or agreement, stated that the adviser (and his or her supervisory entity) is not a fiduciary, then relief is not provided and a disclosure must be given.

So, what does that leave?

The DOL’s relief applies where an adviser became a fiduciary solely because of the change of definition. But, the relief from disclosing the new fiduciary status only applies if “the covered service provider furnishes an accurate and complete description of the services that will be performed under the contract or arrangement with the plan, including the services that would make the covered service provider an investment fiduciary under the currently applicable Fiduciary Rule.”

In other words, the covered service provider (for example, a broker-dealer) must provide an accurate and complete description of its fiduciary services. For example, those services could be recommendations about the selection and monitoring of the investments in a 401(k) plan. My experience is that, few—if any—broker-dealers made that representation in their previous 408(b)(2) disclosures (since it would have resulted in fiduciary status under the old rules). As a result, it is likely that advisers, and their supervisory entities, will need, at the least, to give more detailed descriptions of their services in order to take advantage of the 408(b)(2) relief. Needless to say, that should be done as soon as possible. (Technically, the DOL FAQs say that these disclosures should be made “as soon as practicable after June 9, 2017, even if more than 60 days after June 9, 2017.”)

Even if those conditions are satisfied and, therefore, the relief is available, the requirement for the 408(b)(2) fiduciary notice is only delayed until the applicability date of the final exemptions (that is, the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) and the Principal Transactions Exemption). If the fiduciary definition remains the same, or substantially similar, the pre-June 9th 408(b)(2) disclosures will need to be updated at that time to declare fiduciary status. However, there is at least an outside chance that the regulation will be modified to define some sales practices as non-fiduciary. Obviously, if that change is made, there would not be a need to disclose fiduciary status for those non-fiduciary sales practices.

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 #42

Rollovers under the DOL’s Final Rule

This is my 42nd article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s 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 April 7, 2017 the DOL issued its final regulation on the extension of the applicability date for the fiduciary definition and the related exemptions. This article discusses the impact of those changes on fiduciary status for recommendations to plan participants to take distributions and roll over to IRAs.

In its guidance, the DOL extended the applicability date of the new fiduciary definition from April 10 to June 9, but did not otherwise modify the definition. Since the fiduciary rule defined a recommendation to take a plan distribution as fiduciary advice, any recommendation to take a distribution and rollover to an IRA on or after June 9 will be a fiduciary act. As a result, an adviser will need to engage in a prudent process to develop and make such a recommendation. (For purposes of this rule, an “adviser” includes a representative of an RIA or a broker-dealer, an insurance agent or broker, or any other person who makes such a recommendation and receives compensation, directly or indirectly, as a result. An advisory fee from the IRA or a commission from an annuity or mutual fund are examples of compensation.)

However, more is involved that just the fiduciary rule. A recommendation to rollover is also a prohibited transaction, since the adviser will typically make more money if the participant rolls over than if the participant leaves the money in that plan. Because of the prohibited transaction, the adviser will need an exemption. Under the latest changes to the rules, advisers will probably use a process called “transition BIC,” which is a reference to a transition rule under the Best Interest Contract Exemption. (This process applies only from June 9 to December 31, unless it is extended. But it is likely that, at the least, these requirements will be part of any future exemption.). Transition BIC requires only that the adviser comply with the “Impartial Conduct Standards” (ICS).

The ICS requires that advisers adhere to the best interest standard of care, receive no more than reasonable compensation, and make no materially misleading statements. For this article, let’s focus on the best interest standard. Generally stated it is a combination of the ERISA prudent man rule and duty of loyalty.

So, an adviser must satisfy both ERISA’s prudent man rule (for the recommendation) and the BIC best interest rule (for the exemption). Since the two standards of care are virtually identical, I have combined them for this discussion.

But, that begs the question of, what is a prudent and best interest process?

Specifically, it is that the adviser must act “with the care, skill, prudence, and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent man acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character and with like aims; . . .”

So, what would a prudent, knowledgeable and loyal person, who is making a recommendation about retirement investing (the “aims” of the “enterprise”), do? The first step is to gather the information needed to make an informed decision. Then that information needs to be evaluated in light of the participant’s needs and circumstances of the participant . . .with a duty of loyalty to the participant.

The only clear guidance from the DOL about what information needs to be gathered and evaluated is found in Q14 in the DOL’s Conflict of Interest FAQs (Part I-Exemptions).

The first part of the FAQ discusses the information needed if the adviser is a “Level Fee Fiduciary.” Basically, the information includes the investments, expenses and services in the plan and the proposed IRA.

But at the end of the FAQ, the DOL explains that those considerations must be evaluated even if the adviser is using regular BIC (as opposed to the Level Fee Fiduciary provision).

Accordingly, any fiduciary seeking to meet the best interest standard (in order to satisfy transition BIC) would engage in a prudent analysis of this information before recommending that an investor roll over plan assets to an IRA, regardless of whether the fiduciary was a “level fee” fiduciary or a fiduciary complying with BIC.

In other words, any adviser making a distribution and rollover recommendation on or after June 9, 2017 must have a process for gathering and evaluating information about the investments, expenses and services in the participant’s plan and in the proposed IRA, and about the participant’s needs and circumstances.

This subject is more complicated than can be covered adequately in a short article, but this is a start for understanding the new rules for distributions and rollovers.

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 #40

New Rule, Old Rule: What Should Advisers Do Now?

This is my 40th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

Now that it seems clear that the applicability date of the new fiduciary regulation will be delayed, many advisers (including broker-dealers and RIA firms) may heave a sigh of relief. However, while some relief is justified, that does not mean that their services are not governed, in many cases, by the “old” fiduciary regulation. (By “old” rule, I refer to the DOL regulation that defines fiduciary advice and that has been in effect for decades.) With all the attention that has been devoted to fiduciary status and prohibited transactions, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that the old rule will be applied more vigorously. As a result, advisers need to understand its provisions and need to review their practices to determine whether they are currently acting as fiduciaries under the old rule. To properly discuss that issue, advisory services need to be divided into four categories: advice to plans; advice to participants; advice to IRAs; and recommendations of plan distributions and rollovers. This article will discuss the first of those categories . . . advice to retirement plans.

Briefly stated, the old—and current–fiduciary rule has a five-part test:

  • A recommendation of an investment, insurance product, investment manager, and/or investment strategy or policy.
  • The advice must be given on a regular basis, that is, on an ongoing basis.
  • There must be a mutual understanding between the adviser and the plan fiduciaries.
  • The understanding is that the advice will be a primary basis for decision-making.
  • The advice is individualized and based on the particular needs of the plan.

With regard to qualified retirement plans (for example, 401(k) plans), those conditions will likely be satisfied in many cases. For example, it is common, perhaps even typical, for an adviser to meet with plan fiduciaries quarterly or annually. As a result, the advice is given on a regular basis. Similarly, when an adviser provides a list of investments, it is difficult to say that they are not individualized to the plan, because of the suitability requirements that apply to broker-dealers, RIAs, and insurance agents. In any event, there is a significant risk that an adviser who provides a list of investments to plan fiduciaries will be considered to have made fiduciary recommendations.

As a result, and with likely heightened scrutiny of advisers’ recommendations and fiduciary status, broker-dealers and insurance agents should consider whether they are willing to run the risk of being a fiduciary. (As this suggests, RIA’s probably are fiduciaries for ERISA plans.) And, if they are willing to be fiduciaries, there should be a formal program in place for that purpose. For example, a broker-dealer might establish a fiduciary advisory program under its corporate RIA and allow its most experienced retirement plan advisers to participate in that program. For those advisers who won’t be allowed to be fiduciaries under the RIA program, those broker-dealers should consider requiring that the advisers only recommend 401(k) providers who have platform fiduciaries. For example, a recordkeeping platform might offer a 3(21) non-discretionary fiduciary investment adviser and/or a 3(38) discretionary fiduciary investment manager. In that case, the platform fiduciary would recommend or select the investments, while the adviser would provide other services to the plan, for example, assistance with plan design, coordination with the recordkeeper, participant education meetings, and so on.

My point is that, now that we are more aware of the fiduciary definitions and the impact of fiduciary status, advisers need to be more attentive to their services and to whether those services result in fiduciary status. Correspondingly, their supervisory entities (for example, broker-dealers) need to make decisions about how those services will be offered, including whether some of the registered representatives can be 401(k) fiduciaries under the corporate RIA.

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 #39

FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45: Guidance on Distributions and Rollovers

This is my 39th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

Even though the DOL fiduciary rule is being delayed, other regulators have indicated their interests in protecting participants from inappropriate recommendations to take plan distributions and roll over to IRAs.

FINRA, which oversees broker-dealers, addressed rollover recommendations to participants in Regulatory Notice 13-45. In describing the purpose of the notice, FINRA said:

“FINRA is issuing this Notice to remind firms of their responsibilities when (1) recommending a rollover or transfer of assets in an employer-sponsored retirement plan to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or (2) marketing IRAs and associated services.”

FINRA noted that:

A broker-dealer’s recommendation that an investor roll over retirement plan assets to an IRA typically involves securities recommendations subject to FINRA rules. . . . Any recommendation to sell, purchase or hold securities must be suitable for the customer and the information that investors receive must be fair, balanced and not misleading.”

FINRA went on to say that:

“A recommendation concerning the type of retirement account in which a customer should hold his retirement investments typically involves a recommended securities transaction, and thus is subject to Rule 2111. For example, a firm may recommend that an investor sell his plan assets and roll over the cash proceeds into an IRA. Recommendations to sell securities in the plan or to purchase securities for a newly opened IRA are subject to Rule 2111.”

In essence, FINRA concludes that a recommendation to take a rollover includes a recommendation to liquidate* the investments in a participant’s 401(k) account. . . and that the liquidation recommendation is a “recommended securities transaction” and “thus is subject to Rule 2111.” The guidance then goes on to say:

“If Rule 2111 is triggered, a registered representative must have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is suitable for the customer, based on information about the options obtained through reasonable diligence, and taking into account factors such as tax implications, legal ramifications, and differences in services, fees and expenses between the retirement savings alternatives.” (Emphasis added.)

Earlier in the Notice FINRA also describes the need for an adviser to compare investments, services and expenses in the plan and the recommended IRA before making a recommendation.

That is strikingly similar to the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) requirement that fiduciary advisers must do a comparative analysis of the investments, services and expenses in the Plan and the proposed IRA before recommending a rollover.

The regulators appear to be harmonizing around the type of analysis and investigation required to make a suitable or prudent recommendation.

*In a footnote, FINRA observes that it is possible that a plan could permit distributions in kind, rather than requiring liquidation of the plan’s designated investment alternatives. As a practical matter, I have not worked with any 401(k) plans that distribute in kind. I assume that my experience is typical and that few, if any, 401(k) plans permit distributions of their mutual fund shares.

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 #19

This is my nineteenth article about interesting observations about the fiduciary regulation and the exemptions.

In an earlier post (Angles #16), I described how advisers could use the “hire me” approach to explain their services and fees without becoming a fiduciary for that purpose. Generally stated, under that approach, an adviser could explain his services and fees, but could not discuss specific products or platforms. In other words, if the adviser “suggested” specific products or platforms, the adviser would become a fiduciary even under “hire me.” The DOL explained that result in the preamble to the fiduciary regulation:

“An adviser can recommend that a retirement investor enter into an advisory relationship with the adviser without acting as a fiduciary. But when the adviser recommends, for example, that the investor pull money out of a plan or invest in a particular fund, that advice is given in a fiduciary capacity even if part of a presentation in which the adviser is also recommending that the person enter into an advisory relationship. The adviser also could not recommend that a plan participant roll money out of a plan into investments that generate a fee for the adviser, but leave the participant in a worse position than if he had left the money in the plan. Thus, when a recommendation to ‘‘hire me’’ effectively includes a recommendation on how to invest or manage plan or IRA assets (e.g., whether to roll assets into an IRA or plan or how to invest assets if rolled over), that recommendation would need to be evaluated separately under the provisions in the final rule”

I mention this because I have recently seen some confusion about the extent and scope of “hire me.” As you might expect, it is because people want to extend “hire me” to all kinds of scenarios, and thereby limit their fiduciary status and legal exposure. For example, I was recently asked if an adviser could tell an IRA owner that the adviser would charge 1% per year to help select, manage, and monitor individual variable annuities. That might work if the IRA owner initially told the adviser that he wanted to hire someone to search for individual variable annuities. However, if the “suggestion” that an individual variable annuity would be appropriate comes from the adviser, that would likely result in fiduciary status for identifying the particular type of investment to be made (and, therefore, cause the loss of the non-fiduciary “hire me” approach).

So, as a word of warning, if you intend to use “hire me” to market your services, keep in mind that it is to describe your services and fees, but without a suggestion that any particular product, investment or platform, be used by the IRA owner.

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 #13

This is my thirteenth article about interesting observations “hidden” in the fiduciary regulation and the exemptions.

It is not clear under current rules whether “suggesting” investment policies is a fiduciary act. In that vein, it’s also not clear if providing a sample investment policy statement (IPS) is a fiduciary act. However, that is about to change.

When the new fiduciary regulation applies—on April 10, 2017, the recommendation of investment policies, strategies or portfolio composition will be fiduciary activities. As the DOL says in the preamble to the fiduciary regulation:

Specifically, the final rule includes text that describes management of securities or other investment property, as including, among other things, recommendations on investment policies or strategies, portfolio composition, or recommendations on distributions, including rollovers, from a plan or IRA.

And, a mere suggestion to use certain investment policies can result in fiduciary status. The DOL defines a fiduciary recommendation as:

For purposes of this section, ‘‘recommendation’’ means a communication that, based on its content, context, and presentation, would reasonably be viewed as a suggestion that the advice recipient engage in or refrain from taking a particular course of action.

So, what does this mean? First, if you don’t want to be a fiduciary for that purpose, the safest bet is to avoid suggestions of investment policies or providing a sample IPS. A reasonable question is . . . if you didn’t mean for your comments or the sample document to suggest the use of the policies or IPS, why did you bring it up?

On the other hand, if you are willing to be a fiduciary for this purpose, make sure that you are a fiduciary (that is, that the recommendations/IPS are prudent under the circumstances). Keep in mind that ERISA’s prudent process rule is based on generally accepted investment theories and prevailing investment industry standards. Your policy recommendations should be based on those concepts (absent an explicit instruction from the investor to the contrary).

If you have read to this point, you are probably thinking about these issues in the context of retirement plans. That’s valid, but only partially so. Beginning April 10, these rules also apply to IRAs. Do you suggest investment policies to IRA owners or supply an IPS? If so, the same concepts will apply.

Forewarned is forearmed.

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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #11

This is my eleventh article about interesting observations “hidden” in the fiduciary regulation and the exemptions.

ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code limit compensation for services to plans and IRAs to “reasonable” amounts. Prohibited Transaction Exemption (PTE) 84-24 and the Best Interest Contact Exemption (BICE) also limit compensation to reasonable amounts.

While the concept of reasonable compensation is old-hat for advisers and service providers to ERISA qualified retirement plans, it has not, by and large, been used in the IRA world. As a result, some people are asking . . . what is reasonable compensation? The DOL explained the concept in a preamble:

“The obligation to pay no more than reasonable compensation to service providers is long recognized under ERISA and the Code. ERISA section 408(b)(2) and Code section 4975(d)(2) require that services arrangements involving plans and IRAs result in no more than reasonable compensation to the service provider. Accordingly, Advisers and Financial Institutions – as service providers – have long been subject to this requirement, regardless of their fiduciary status. At bottom, the standard simple requires that compensation not be excessive, as measured by the market value of the particular services, rights, and benefits the Adviser and Financial Institution are delivering to the Retirement Investor.

The reasonableness of the fees depends on the particular facts and circumstances at the time of the recommendation. Several factors inform whether compensation is reasonable including, inter alia, the market pricing of service(s) provided and the underlying asset(s), the scope of monitoring, and the complexity of the product. No single factor is dispositive in determining whether compensation is reasonable; the essential question is whether the charges are reasonable in relation to what the investor receives.”

In other words, “reasonableness” is defined by free market practices . . . in a market where the costs and compensation are transparent and, therefore, where the market is truly competitive. As a result, broker-dealers, RIAs, insurance companies and banks will need to use market data to evaluate the compensation they receive for the distribution of their products and services to plans and IRAs.

Benchmarking is on its way to IRAs. Expect compensation to drop – for the more “expensive” advisers.

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