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).
Author: Joan Neri
Posts by Joan Neri:
The SEC’s standard of conduct for broker-dealers under Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) became effective on June 30, 2020. While registered investment advisers (RIAs) always have been subject to a best interest standard of conduct (i.e., the overarching standard that encompasses both the duty of care and the duty of loyalty), the SEC’s clarification of that standard in its Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers (the RIA Interpretation) has been in effect since July 12, 2019. There are similarities in these two standards, but there are significant differences as well. Here is how the two standards compare:
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:
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.)
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.
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.
Most of us want to help family members – especially with issues in our realm of experience. But helping family members with their IRAs creates a problem under the “prohibited transaction” rules of the Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”). (Similar issues arise in connection with retirement plan accounts under the ERISA rules, but as we discuss later, the consequences aren’t quite as severe. Thus, our focus in this article is on IRAs.)
In our experience, this problem is not well-known and will come as an unpleasant surprise to many. To help you make sense of this, we are getting a little deeper into the legal weeds than we usually do.
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.
Householding of brokerage accounts is a common practice. Clients like it because they can get reduced fees by aggregating all of their accounts. Broker-dealers like it because they get more assets to manage. But when retirement accounts are involved, broker-dealers need to be mindful of special rules that can adversely affect their clients…because unhappy clients don’t tend to remain clients for long.
The problem occurs under the prohibited transaction rules of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code. They say that a fiduciary (i.e., the person in control of the account – the investor) can’t use retirement assets to obtain a personal benefit. With householding, the client gets a personal benefit when the combined value of both his or her retirement and personal accounts hits a breakpoint that reduces the fee on the personal accounts. In other words, the investor gets a personal benefit from the use of retirement assets.