The overturning of the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule by the Fifth Circuit last year had two impacts: first, the definition of “fiduciary” for investment advice to plans and IRAs reverted back to the narrower Five-Part Test issued in 1975; second, the Best Interest Contract Exemption (or “BIC Exemption”) and amendments to other exemptions also ceased to exist.
Author: Joshua Waldbeser
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If you thought that avoiding fiduciary status would be a slam-dunk after the “new” DOL fiduciary advice rule was vacated, think again. The DOL’s old fiduciary regulation is back and it casts an unexpectedly wide net.
Let’s start with the background. The reinstated fiduciary definition says that a broker-dealer and its advisor (a “broker”) are fiduciaries to a plan if a functional five-part test is satisfied: (1) the broker provides advice about investments for a fee or other compensation, (2) on a regular basis, (3) under a mutual understanding, (4) that the advice will form a primary basis for the plan’s decisions, and (5) that the advice is individualized based upon the plan’s particular needs. For this purpose, a “plan” includes not only an ERISA plan, but also an IRA. (In the context of IRAs, being a fiduciary under the five-part test does not itself implicate a standard of care, but does apply to the applicability of certain prohibited transactions.)
In a previous post, we discussed why broker-dealers and their representatives will likely still be fiduciaries to ERISA plans and IRA investors in many cases despite the DOL Fiduciary Rule’s impending death (we say “impending” because, while the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in mid-March vacates the Fiduciary Rule in its entirety, the court’s official order implementing this decision has yet to be issued). To review, this is because broker-dealers and their representatives often satisfy all the prongs of the soon-to-be reinstated 1975 fiduciary regulation’s “Five-Part Test” defining when investment recommendations rise to the level of “fiduciary” advice. Previous industry assumptions that brokers and other “sellers” of investments generally were not fiduciaries under the 1975 regulation should no longer be relied upon. In this post, we’ll examine how the Fiduciary Rule’s impending demise will affect prohibited transaction and compensation issues for broker-dealers in light of their likely continuing status as fiduciaries. Continue reading “Why Fiduciary Status Still Matters in a Post-Fiduciary Rule World: A Look at Prohibited Transactions And Compensation”
The “old” rules will again prevail—but the old rules will not be applied in the old ways, and this will have some significant impacts on broker-dealers.
As the DOL has not asked for a rehearing of the Fifth Circuit’s decision vacating the Fiduciary Rule, or yet sought to appeal the decision, it is widely anticipated that the March 15 ruling will soon take effect, restoring the DOL’s 1975 regulation defining fiduciary investment advice to plan and IRA investors (we say “widely anticipated” because, while the official mandate vacating the Fiduciary Rule is expected soon, it has been delayed while the court considers efforts from certain states and other third parties to intervene in the case). While the SEC has proposed new regulations for broker-dealers, and while we expect the DOL to propose new prohibited transaction exemptions or regulations that will coordinate with the SEC’s actions, it will be at least a year before these initiatives could begin to apply. Continue reading “Old Standard, New Day: The Death of the Fiduciary Rule Doesn’t Mean That Broker-Dealers Won’t be Fiduciaries”
Should you say goodbye to the Fiduciary Rule? Maybe, but not just yet. The DOL has until the end of April to decide whether to let the 5th Circuit decision vacating the Fiduciary Rule stand or try to get it over-turned. If they do nothing, the ruling becomes effective May 7, and bye-bye Fiduciary Rule – the regulation re-defining fiduciary investment advice for plans and IRAs and the related prohibited transaction exemptions.
Many pundits say this is what will happen. But it’s possible that the DOL will either ask the court to reverse itself – this would mean the 15 judge panel agreeing to re-hear and re-decide the case – or try to get the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to accept an appeal. SCOTUS doesn’t have to do that, so those who think the DOL won’t let this go are betting on the re-hearing request. While requests for rehearing are rarely granted, in this case there might be a better chance. The decision vacating the Fiduciary Rule was a split decision, with Chief Judge Carl E. Stewart dissenting in favor of the Rule.
In a previous post , we debunked the myth that the Fiduciary Rule requires advisors to recommend the lowest-cost investments. In this post, we discuss what is required when it comes to fees and compensation – that they not exceed a “reasonable” level.
Broker-dealers and advisors who rely on the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) need to comply with the Impartial Conduct Standards. These include three requirements: (1) recommendations to plan and IRA investors must be in the “best interest” of the customer, (2) communications with customers must not include materially misleading statements, and (3) the firm’s and advisor’s compensation must be reasonable. If any of these is not met, they have engaged in a non-exempt prohibited transaction.
The reasonable compensation requirement is more than a condition imposed by the DOL. The requirement is statutory. That is, it is imposed under ERISA for employer-sponsored plans. It is imposed under the Code for all service arrangements with both plans and IRAs. The reasonable compensation limit applies to service providers regardless of whether or not they are fiduciaries.
This means two things. First, the requirement is not going away. Because it is embedded in the statutes, it can only be repealed by Congress – not the DOL, the SEC or any state rule – and this is not likely. While the DOL will undoubtedly make changes to BICE and other exemptions during the current transition period, firms and advisors cannot expect the reasonable compensation requirement to go away, or even be changed. Second, it applies to all service relationships. Even for level-fee advice arrangements – which do not have to satisfy BICE or any other similar exemption, compensation must be reasonable.
Reasonable compensation defined
What does “reasonable” mean? The requirement is that compensation be reasonable in relation to the services and benefits being provided. As the DOL explains in the BICE preamble:
At bottom, the standard simply requires that compensation not be excessive, as measured by the market value of the particular services, rights, and benefits the (advisor) and Financial Institution are delivering to the Retirement Investor.
For compensation to be reasonable, it is not necessary to recommend a product that pays the least compensation. It is not necessary that compensation be below average. It just cannot rise to a level that is excessive in relation to the services and benefits provided.
Note that the reasonableness requirement applies to the compensation received by the broker-dealer and to the amount passed on by the firm to the advisor. If, for example, a firm receives an excessive level of commissions for recommending a product, this would violate the standard even if the advisor’s “share” of the commission were within industry norms.
Value of services
The BICE preamble also makes clear that all services and benefits provided can be taken into account – not just the advice services – in determining if compensation is reasonable. The DOL offers the following example:
In the case of a charge for an annuity or insurance contract that covers both the provision of services and the purchase of the guarantees and financial benefits provided under the contract, it is appropriate to consider the value of the guarantees and benefits in assessing the reasonableness of the arrangement, as well as the value of the services.
In other words, the value of the services may be enhanced by the complexities and services associated with a product, and those can be considered in determining whether the compensation is reasonable.
Factors in determining reasonableness
How is “reasonableness” determined? While the requirement is imposed by law, the standard itself is an industry, or market standard. Per the DOL, there are “several” factors involved. They include, but are not necessarily limited to, the:
- market pricing for similar services and products
- scope of monitoring, if any
- complexity of the product
To help determine market standards for compensation, broker-dealers use benchmarking or similar services. In fact, the DOL has said that firms may want to seek “impartial reviews” of their fee structures. At the same time, firms should recognize that “reasonable” and “customary” do not necessarily mean the same thing. That is, in limited circumstances, the markets may not provide competitive pricing. However, where markets are transparent and competitive, the benchmarking information should properly define reasonable compensation.
Finally, firms may wish to consider “re-benchmarking” their compensation structures at reasonable intervals – what is reasonable this year might not be reasonable next year.
The Department of Labor (DOL) has extended the current transition period for the DOL Fiduciary Rule exemptions in order to reexamine the rule and its exemptions to see if changes are warranted and to coordinate with other regulatory agencies. This pushes the end date from January 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019.
The extension does not change the requirements of the Fiduciary Rule or the transition period exemptions currently in effect. However, there are certain provisions of the Best Interest Contract Exemption, the Principal Transaction Exemption, and amendments to Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24 that are deferred.
So, does the extension mean you can relax? The simple answer is no.
We published a client alert that details what the extension means for plan service providers, and some essential steps they should take in the year ahead. Click here to read the alert.
The playing field for the financial services industry in general, and broker-dealers and brokers in particular, has changed during this past year. On June 9, 2017, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) fiduciary advice standard, which is applied to all financial professionals advising retirement (plan and IRA) accounts, became applicable. As a result, the standard of care required of broker-dealers providing advice to IRA investors has changed, at least in many cases. This Article describes the effect on litigation against broker-dealers providing advice to IRA investors that would result if firms are required to enter into “Best Interest Contracts” with IRA investors, as the DOL’s Best Interest Contract Exemption currently requires.
Continue reading “The DOL’s Best Interest Contract Requirement: Effect on Litigation Against Broker-Dealers”