Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #45

The DOL Fiduciary “Package”: Basics on the Prohibited Transaction Exemptions

This is my 45th 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.

My last post (Angles #44) discussed the requirements of ERISA’s prudent man rule and of the best interest standard of care for IRAs and plans. This article outlines the requirements of the two prohibited transaction exemptions that will apply to recommendations of investment products and services and insurance products to plans, participants and IRAs (“qualified accounts”). Those two exemptions are:

  • Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24 (which covers recommendations of insurance products, including annuities and life insurance policies). This “transition” 84-24 has been amended to cover all types of annuities (group and individual, variable, fixed rate and fixed index) and applies to the period from June 9, 2017 through December 31, 2017.
  • The Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) which can be used for sales of any investment products and services or any insurance products (including those covered by 84-24) during the transition period.

Before discussing the general requirements of those exemptions, I should point out that not all advisory services require the use of an exemption. For example, if an adviser provides investment services to a plan, participant or IRA for a pure level fee, there is not a conflict of interest, in the sense that the adviser’s compensation remains the same regardless of the investments that are recommended. By “pure level fee,” I mean that neither the adviser, nor any affiliate nor related party (including the adviser’s supervisory entities, e.g., broker-dealer), receives any additional compensation or financial benefit.

If, however, the adviser, or any affiliated or related party, does receive additional compensation, that would be a financial conflict of interest, which is a “prohibited transaction” under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. In that case, the adviser would need to take advantage of one of the exemptions: BICE or 84-24. (I should point out that neither 84-24 nor BICE is available where the adviser has discretion over the investments in the plan, participant’s account or IRA. As a result, discretionary investment management must be for a pure level fee or a different exemption must be found.)

Here are some examples of compensation that constitutes a prohibited transaction: commissions; 12b-1 fees; trailing payments; asset-based revenue sharing; solicitor’s fees; proprietary investments; and payments from custodians. If any of those payments, or any other financial benefits (such as trips, gifts, or marketing allowances), are received by the adviser, or any affiliated or related party, partially or entirely as a result of an investment or insurance recommendations, that would be a prohibited transaction.

The most common exemption will be the Best Interest Contract Exemption. During the transition period, that exemption, BICE, requires only that the adviser (and the adviser’s Financial Institution, e.g., the RIA firm or broker-dealer) “adhere” to the Impartial Conduct Standards (ICS). There are three requirements in the ICS. Those are:

  • Best interest standard of care (which, in its essence, consists of the prudent man rule and duty of loyalty).
  • The receipt of only reasonable compensation.
  • The avoidance of any materially misleading statements.

The use of the word “adhere” means only that the adviser and Financial Institution must comply with those requirements. There is not a requirement to notify the plan, participant or IRA owner of those requirements, nor is there a requirement during the transition period to enter into a Best Interest Contract.

On the other hand, 84-24 does impose some written requirements. For example, the insurance agent or broker must disclose his initial and recurring compensation, expressed as a percentage of the commission payments. And, the plan fiduciaries or IRA owners must, in writing, acknowledge receipt of that information and affirm the transaction. On top of that, though, the agent must also “adhere” to the Impartial Conduct Standards.

It is my view that Financial Institutions (such as broker-dealers and IRA firms) should, between now and June 9, focus on the fiduciary processes that will be implemented by the home offices (for example, which mutual fund families and insurance products can be sold to “qualified” accounts such as IRAs plans). In a sense, the Financial Institutions will be co-fiduciaries with the advisers and, therefore, share responsibility for the recommendations that are made to the qualified accounts. As a result, Financial Institutions need to have protective policies, procedures and practices in place.

In addition, the home offices of Financial Institutions need to focus on the training of their advisers to comply with the prudent process requirement imposed by the fiduciary rules, including documentation of those processes. While part of a prudent process will be similar to what is currently required under the suitability and know-your-customer rules, these new fiduciary standards place greater emphasis on certain factors, for example, the costs of investments and the quality of the investment management (as well as the financial stability of an insurance company).

With regard to the reasonable compensation requirement, the burden of proof is on the person claiming that the compensation was reasonable. In other words, the burden of proof will be on the broker-dealer, the RIA firm, and the agent or insurance adviser. As a result, advisers and Financial Institutions should have data in place to support their compensation for each investment category that they recommend to plans, participants and IRA owners.

Finally, with regard to 84-24, the required disclosure and consent forms need to be developed and agents need to be educated on the use of the forms, including the disclosure and consent requirements.

Unfortunately, in a short article like this one, I can only discuss some of the requirements. Obviously, there is more than this, but this is a good starting point for understanding the rules and working on compliance with the new requirements.

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