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403(b) and 457(b) Plans Going Under the Regulatory Microscope

It appears that the SEC has initiated a “sweep” examination to inquire into the sales practices applicable to retirement plans for teachers and state and local government employees. We understand that multiple SEC regional offices have issued document requests seeking information from the third-party administrators, the broker-dealers, and the registered investment advisers that work with 403(b) and 457(b) plans. Further, the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) recently launched an investigation into the sales tactics and costs involved with 403(b) plans, which appears to focus on the annuity practices of the insurance industry.

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A Look Inside the SEC’s Final RIA Guidance and Its Discussion of “Best Interest”

In light of the significance of the final rules and commission interpretations issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission on June 5, 2019, Drinker Biddle & Reath’s Best Interest Compliance Team is publishing a series of articles on the subject. The first article, “The Final Reg BI Package: What to Know and What’s Next,”  described the final package of rules and interpretations. The second article covered “Form CRS .” The third article, summarized here, will provide a more detailed analysis of strategically selected provisions of the RIA Guidance.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (RIA Guidance) reaffirms, interprets, clarifies, and provides guidance regarding the fiduciary duty an investment adviser owes to its clients under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (Advisers Act) as it has been interpreted by common law and SEC guidance. The RIA Guidance also describes the underlying responsibilities that constitute an investment adviser’s fiduciary duties: the Duty of Care and the Duty of Loyalty.

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Seven States and D.C. Aggressively Challenge Reg BI

On September 9, 2019, the states of New York, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Mexico and Oregon, and the District of Columbia (collectively, the States) filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against the SEC challenging Reg BI. By way of background, the SEC finalized Regulation Best Interest: The Broker-Dealer Standard of Conduct (Reg BI or the Final Rule) on June 5, 2019. The SEC also issued a final rule regarding Form CRS and two final Commission Interpretations. The implementation date for Reg BI and Form CRS is June 30, 2020.

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Standard of Care for Rollover Advice

The standard of care for rollover recommendations has been top of mind for broker-dealers beginning with the issuance of the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) now vacated fiduciary rule, and more recently with the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), raising the question of  the extent to which the SEC standard of care for rollover recommendations differs from the DOL’s.

The standards appear to be essentially the same – a requirement to act in the customer’s best interest (keeping in mind that Reg BI will not be applicable until June 30, 2020, while the DOL rules are applicable now). However, there are two major differences:

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Financial Services Industry’s New Regulation Best Interest Standard of Care

On June 5, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) approved the Regulation Best Interest Final Package, the new disclosure requirements that accompany the financial services industry’s new Regulation Best Interest standard of care. In light of the significance of Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) for the financial services industry, Drinker Biddle & Reath’s Best Interest Compliance Team is publishing a series of articles on the SEC’s finalized “Reg BI Package” of rules and guidance.

One of the four parts of that package is Form CRS − a mandate that broker-dealers and investment advisers with retail investors (natural persons, trusts or entities representing natural persons) provide a two-page relationship summary disclosing information about their firm before a new client enters an investment adviser’s agreement or engages the services of a broker-dealer, or in the case of an existing client when there is any material change in the nature and scope of the relationship.

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Waive or Pay: FINRA Reaches Final Settlements in Its Mutual Fund Waiver Initiative

Justice Brandeis once famously said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Perhaps, but in FINRA’s purview, settlements might be better. Along these lines, FINRA recently announced that it has reached final settlements in its nearly four-year initiative to obtain restitution from member firms that allegedly failed to waive mutual fund sales charges. These firms also allegedly failed to properly supervise the sale of mutual funds that offer sales charge waivers. The settlements were substantial: 56 member firms agreed to pay $89 million in restitution for 110,000 charitable and retirement accounts.

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An Imperfect Storm(s): FINRA Bars Compliance Personnel for Falsifying Branch Audit Data

It often is said that “it’s not the crime, but the cover-up” that is the most damaging to someone alleged to have committed misconduct. In a recent FINRA enforcement action, however, the cover-up was the crime. On July 3, 2019, FINRA barred Vincent J. Storms, a now-former Raymond James & Associates (RJA) compliance associate, for particularly egregious falsifications of RJA’s branch audit data that violated FINRA Rules 2010 and 4511.

At RJA, Mr. Storms was responsible for auditing branch offices and performing follow-up work resulting from the audits. As part of the audits, RJA sent an email to each registered representative requesting that they complete a questionnaire that gathered information such as whether the representative had any undisclosed outside business activities or undisclosed securities accounts at other broker-dealers, and whether the branch used third-party vendors to store data.

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Recent State Fiduciary Duty Developments: Updates from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois and the CFP Board

The issue of “best interest” continues to be a hot topic in the states and trade groups, though one state has fallen out of the running…at least for now.

The State of Massachusetts has two pending initiatives. The first is a regulation proposed by the state Securities Division requiring investment advisers to create a table of fees for their services. The comment period on the proposal ended in May, and we await further action. In a more recent development, the Division is considering a regulation that would apply a fiduciary standard on broker-dealers, investment advisers and their representatives. The proposal was released in mid-June, and the comment period ends on July 26. Under the proposal, enforcement would be vested in the Securities Division, and it would not create a private right of action.

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House Looks to Put the Brakes on Reg BI

On the heels of the SEC’s recent approval of the “Reg BI Package,” on June 26, 2019 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent enforcement of Reg BI.  Specifically, Rep. Maxine Waters included a last minute amendment to an appropriations bill that would prevent any funds from being used to “implement, administer [or] enforce” Reg BI.

While the bill was comfortably passed in the House, its prospects to pass in the Senate seem unlikely.  Senators will have the opportunity to introduce their own version, which will then need to be reconciled with the House’s.  As always, we will continue to closely monitor any developments concerning Reg BI, and will publish any updates.

The Final Reg BI Package: What to Know and What’s Next

To nobody’s great surprise, on June 5, the SEC approved the “Reg BI Package,” which includes a series of new standards governing the fiduciary responsibilities of broker-dealers and investment advisers. The approved items consisted of the Regulation Best Interest – Standard of Conduct for Broker-Dealers; Form CRS Relationship Summary; Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers; and Interpretation of “Solely Incidental,” all of which seem likely to have considerable impact on the industry going forward.

Drinker Biddle’s Best Interest Compliance Team issued an alert summarizing the June 5th meeting, certain statements made by the commissioners, and examining the potential effects of the new standards.

Read the full client alert.