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The New Fiduciary Rule (25): Robo Advice and Robo Conflicts

In November 2023, the U.S. Department of Labor released its package of proposed changes to the regulation defining fiduciary advice and to the exemptions for conflicts and compensation for investment recommendations to retirement plans, participants (including rollovers), and IRAs (including transfers). On March 8, 2024, the DOL sent the final rule to the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.

Key Takeaways

  • The DOL’s proposals make it clear that robo advice, both “hybrid” and “pure”, can be fiduciary advice, subject to the provisions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code.
  • When pure robo advice (no human directly involved) or hybrid robo advice is given, if it satisfies the regulatory definition of fiduciary advice, the financial institution will be a fiduciary under ERISA (if to an ERISA plan or a participant in such a plan) and subject to ERISA’s duties of prudence and loyalty.
  • If robo advice generates a fiduciary recommendation that is conflicted, the conflicted amount (e.g., commissions, management fees) will be a prohibited transaction under ERISA and the Code, which would necessitate compliance with the conditions of a prohibited transaction exemption (PTE).
  • This article discusses robo advice under PTE 2020-02.

Under the current PTE 2020-02, the exemptive relief is not extended to “pure” robo-advisers. Instead, only “hybrid” robo-advisers can provide nondiscretionary fiduciary advice to retirement investors where the advice is conflicted (e.g., proprietary investments, revenue sharing, commissions). However, when the proposed amendments to the PTE become final and applicable, compensation resulting from conflicted nondiscretionary advice will be permitted if the conditions of the exemption are satisfied.

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