The DOL’s Fiduciary Interpretation and Exemption: Impact on Rollover Recommendations

On December 18, 2020, the Department of Labor published its expansion of the fiduciary interpretation and exemption for conflicted advice in the Federal Register. (Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02, Improving Investment Advice for Workers and Retirees.) The exemption will be effective on February 16, 2021. The interpretation is effective immediately.

Since the effective date for the exemption is after the inauguration of the Biden administration, it is almost certain that the effective date will be further delayed. During that delay, we think it is likely the exemption will be revised or possibly withdrawn. But, it is just as likely that the expanded definition of fiduciary advice for rollover recommendations will be retained and possibly expanded. That could make life more difficult for broker-dealers, investment advisers and insurance companies. While these rules will affect all of those industries, this article focuses on the impact of the likely outcomes on broker-dealers.

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The SEC’s CCO Guidance Month

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released guidance on several platforms in a 30-day period in 2020 regarding certain views on the important role and potential liability risks of chief compliance officers (CCOs). The SEC’s focus on the role of compliance is not new but sometimes the SEC’s support for compliance has not appeared to extend beyond the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE). In this article, we analyze the guidance provided by each source.
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Recent State Fiduciary Duty Developments: Alabama and Rhode Island Issue Regulations

Alabama and Rhode Island are the most recent states to issue regulations setting forth a best interest standard for annuity producers in recommending an annuity to their customers. Both regulations follow the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ (NAIC’s) model regulation by requiring producers to act in the consumer’s best interest and not place the producer’s financial interest ahead of the consumer’s. Prior to recommending an annuity, producers are required to disclose the scope and terms of their relationship with the consumer, how the producer is being compensated and any material conflicts of interest. Like the NAIC model regulation, the Alabama and Rhode Island regulations do not create a fiduciary obligation or relationship with the consumer and producers are not subject to civil liability for breaching any fiduciary standard of conduct.

The Alabama regulation is still in its proposed form, with comments due December 7, 2020. If finalized without delay, the regulation would take effect on January 1, 2021. The Rhode Island regulation has been finalized and takes effect on April 1, 2021. A copy of the updated state chart can be found here.

Documenting Rollover Recommendations: The DOL and SEC Requirements

The Department of Labor (DOL) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are focusing on rollover recommendations and their impact on plan participants. The DOL has historically taken the position that a recommendation by a fiduciary advisor is subject to the ERISA prudent man rule and the duty of loyalty (known in combination as a best interest standard), and has recently expanded the definition of who is a fiduciary advisor. The SEC says that rollover recommendations by investment advisers and broker-dealers are subject to its best interest requirements. This article discusses the recent DOL guidance and the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI).

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SEC Roundtable on Reg BI and Form CRS

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) hosted a virtual roundtable in late October to discuss the Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) and Form CRS. With a few months of observations from examinations since the June 30, 2020, compliance date, SEC and FINRA officials provided insights and tips for broker-dealer compliance with the new rules. The roundtable kicked off with brief remarks from SEC Chair Jay Clayton followed by a discussion among SEC staff from the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE); and the Divisions of Trading and Markets and Investment Management. FINRA staff also participated.

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Applicability of Regulation Best Interest to Retirement Plans

The SEC’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) applies to recommendations by a broker-dealer to “retail customers.” As the term suggests, a retail customer is a “natural person” (or the legal representative of a natural person) who uses the recommendation “primarily for personal, family, or household purposes.” This means that advice given to legal entities and advice related to investing the assets of a business are not covered by the regulation. But what about recommendations provided to retirement plans?

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SEC Joint Statement on Form CRS and New FAQs & Upcoming Roundtable

On October 8, 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released a joint statement by SEC Chairman Jay Clayton and the SEC’s directors of the Division of Investment Management and the Division of Trading and Markets “Regarding New FAQs for Form CRS” (CRS FAQ Joint Statement). The CRS FAQ Joint Statement offers guidance to both broker-dealers and registered investment advisers (collectively, firms). The focus of this guidance addressed Form CRS disclosures regarding firm or financial professional disciplinary histories. Along with the CRS FAQ Joint Statement, the SEC modified and released its “Frequently Asked Questions on Form CRS” (Form CRS FAQs).

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Comparing the DOL Proposal to the Broker-Dealer and RIA Standards of Conduct

Our recent blog post compared the SEC’s standard of conduct for broker-dealers under Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) with the standard of conduct for registered investment advisers (RIAs) under the SEC’s Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (the RIA Interpretation). Here, we add a comparison of the Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) proposed prohibited transaction exemption, which includes in the preamble an expanded interpretation of who qualifies as an investment advice fiduciary under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (the DOL Proposal).

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Recent State Fiduciary Duty Developments

September 1 marked the deadline for enforcement of the Massachusetts regulation on the fiduciary standard for securities recommendations. The regulation went into effect in March 2020. It is widely anticipated that enforcement steps will begin in the near future and that the Massachusetts Securities Division will be aggressive in seeking compliance with the new requirement.

View a copy of the updated state chart.