Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #85

The Fiduciary Rule: What’s Next (Part 1)?

This is my 85th 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.

By now, it’s common knowledge that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out the fiduciary rule. That includes the regulation expanding the definition of fiduciary advice and the related prohibited transaction exemptions, for example, the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE). At the same time, the SEC is working on a new “best interest” standard of care, and the DOL is working on amending the fiduciary regulation and related exemptions.

That raises the critical questions . . . where are we now and where are we going?

Let’s start by looking at the issues that the DOL and SEC need to address. Subsequent posts will cover each of these points in more detail.

1. Who is a fiduciary?

This is the threshold question. The 5th Circuit’s opinion said that a fiduciary relationship is one of “trust and confidence” which, in the Court’s opinion, was not typical of arrangements with brokers. Instead, the Court focused on the “mutuality” and “regular basis” parts of the old fiduciary definition (which is discussed in the next Angles, #86).

While not certain, it is possible that the Department of Labor will propose a new regulation, which expands on the old definition and which focuses on the elements of trust and confidence, as well as other criteria.

Meanwhile, the SEC has an entirely different approach. The DOL approach is “functional,” that is, it is based on conduct—if you act in a way that satisfies the fiduciary definition, you are a fiduciary regardless of your registration as a representative of a broker-dealer or RIA. By contrast, the SEC has, at least in the past, regarded representatives of RIAs and broker-dealers as providing different levels of advisory services (e.g., primary versus incidental) and, as a result, as being subject to different standards of care. A critical question for the SEC is whether RIAs and broker-dealers will have the same standard of care.

2. What is the fiduciary standard of care?

The fiduciary standard of care for advice to plans and participants is the prudent man rule and the duty of loyalty. That is based on the ERISA statute and cannot be changed by regulation. (But, of course, this assumes that an advisor is a fiduciary.)

The FINRA “standard of care” for broker-dealers is suitability.

RIAs are fiduciaries under a Supreme Court decision. However, there isn’t any formal definition of that standard of care. The SEC staff has taken the position that the suitability standard applies and that investment advisors must disclose all material information to their clients to permit them to make informed decisions about transactions and their advisory relationship. In addition, from time to time, the SEC applies a “reasonable basis” standard to RIAs.

 (Out of fairness to both broker-dealers and RIAs, the requirements are greater than those described. However, this is a short article, so I am using general descriptions.)

3. How will conflicts of interest be treated under the new rules?

This is the area of greatest differences among the regulators.

 Tax-qualified, ERISA-governed retirement plans are subject to the prohibited transaction rules in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. (Those rules are virtually identical in both statutes.) However, only the Code applies to IRAs.

Under both ERISA and the Code, financial conflicts of interest are prohibited. Generally speaking, the conflicts relate to compensation paid to financial institutions, individual advisors or any affiliates. In other words, it’s prohibited for fiduciary advisors and their firms to receive conflicted compensation. However, the DOL has the authority to issue exceptions (called “exemptions”) to the prohibited transaction rules. The most helpful exemption—the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE)—was thrown out by the 5th Circuit. As a result, in many cases conflicted compensation for fiduciary advice will be prohibited—if the 5th Circuit decision is the final word. However, it’s likely that the DOL will issue new exemptions—with conditions.

Both the SEC and FINRA generally rely on disclosures to mitigate conflicts. In other words, if adequately disclosed, it is permissible to have financial conflicts of interest for SEC and FINRA regulated advisors.

That describes the general lay of the land. My next few posts will deal with each of those three points.

We live in interesting times.

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

The material contained in this communication is informational, general in nature and does not constitute legal advice. The material contained in this communication should not be relied upon or used without consulting a lawyer to consider your specific circumstances. This communication was published on the date specified and may not include any changes in the topics, laws, rules or regulations covered. Receipt of this communication does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In some jurisdictions, this communication may be considered attorney advertising.

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