While we won’t know until the end of the month whether the DOL fiduciary rule will survive beyond May 7, there are some activities that won’t be affected, regardless of what happens.
Let’s start by reviewing basics. A fiduciary under ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) includes one who provides investment advice to an ERISA plan and/or IRA for a fee –an “advice fiduciary.” Before the new DOL fiduciary rule, a broker-dealer or RIA (referred to here as a “firm”) would be considered an advice fiduciary if a five-part test was satisfied: (1) its advisor provided advice for compensation about a security or other property, (2) on a regular basis, (3) pursuant to a mutual understanding, (4) that the advice would form a primary basis for the investor’s decision and (5) it was individualized based upon the investor’s particular needs. If the DOL’s new fiduciary rule does not survive, the five-part test will come back into effect.
Regardless of whether the DOL fiduciary rule or the five-part test applies, there are some things that will remain unchanged:
• Investment Management Services: Discretionary investment management for ERISA plans or IRAs is and will continue to be a fiduciary service. This is because under both ERISA and the Code, there is a definition of “fiduciary” separate and apart from an “advice fiduciary.” That definition says that a broker-dealer or RIA, or its representative, is a fiduciary when it has discretion over ERISA or IRA assets. This means that investment management services for ERISA plans are, and continue to be, subject to ERISA’s prudent man standard of care and duty of loyalty. Also, managing ERISA and/or IRA plan assets is, and will continue to be, subject to the fiduciary prohibited transaction rules in ERISA and the Code. Firms need to have policies, training and supervisory processes in place to ensure that advisors providing investment management services to ERISA plans and/or IRAs comply with these rules, even if the DOL fiduciary rule does not survive.
• Reasonable Compensation: Firms also need to make sure that compensation for services to ERISA plans or IRAs is reasonable, because unreasonable compensation is a prohibited transaction under both the Code and ERISA. This requirement applies to all service providers to plans, participants and IRAs, and to service providers who are not fiduciaries. Firms need to develop systems and data to determine reasonable compensation for different products and services and to manage advisor compensation practices.
• Rollover Recommendations by Fiduciary Advisors: Even if the DOL fiduciary rule does not survive, some rollover recommendations may still be fiduciary acts. Specifically, under a DOL advisory opinion, if an advisor (and the firm) is a plan fiduciary and its advisor recommends that a plan participant take a distribution and roll over to an IRA, the advisor will be a fiduciary for that purpose. As such, the advisor’s recommendation needs to satisfy the ERISA prudent man standard. Additionally, if the DOL fiduciary rule does not survive, there will not be a Best Interest Contract Exemption to “cure” the resulting prohibited transaction. If, on the other hand, the firm is not a fiduciary to the plan and the advisor recommends a rollover, it will not be a fiduciary act if the DOL fiduciary rule does not survive. Firms should examine their current rollover practices and determine what processes will need to be retained to address these issues.
• Ongoing Advisory Services: Providing ongoing investment advisory services to ERISA plans or IRAs based upon the particular needs of the retirement investor will continue to be a fiduciary act even if the DOL fiduciary rule is vacated. The reason is that under most advisory arrangements, the advisor is providing the advice on a regular basis and meeting the other elements of the five-part test. The firm should identify current arrangements that satisfy the five-part test and make sure there are policies and procedures in place to ensure compliance with the prohibited transaction rules and exemptions and, in the case of ERISA plan services, compliance with the prudent man rule and duty of loyalty.
While the possible demise of the DOL fiduciary rule will limit the scope of investment activities that are fiduciary in nature, there are still investment services that will be fiduciary and thus subject to the prohibited transaction requirements. As a result, firms should take steps now to identify those activities and take appropriate steps for compliance.