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Compliance with PTE 2020-02: Mitigating Conflicts of Interest

Key Takeaways

  • PTE 2020-02 requires that financial institutions—such as broker-dealers—mitigate conflicts of interest “to the extent that a reasonable person reviewing the policies and procedures and incentives as a whole would conclude that they do not create an incentive for the firm or the investment professional to place their interests ahead of the interest of the retirement investor.
  • The DOL has issued FAQs that provide examples of mitigation techniques to reduce compliance risks in connection with compensation structures.
  • While there are a variety of mitigation techniques that can be used for different types of conflicts, the following two elements need to be part of mitigating every type of conflict: (1) an appropriate best interest process for developing the recommendation; and (2) supervision of the proper implementation of that process.

Background

The DOL’s prohibited transaction exemption (PTE) 2020-02 (Improving Investment Advice for Workers & Retirees), allows broker-dealers and their registered representatives (advisors) to receive conflicted compensation resulting from non-discretionary fiduciary investment advice to private sector tax-qualified and ERISA-governed retirement plans, participants in those plans, and IRA owners. (The PTE refers to those 3 classes of investors as “retirement investors.”) In addition, in the preamble to the PTE, the DOL announced an expanded definition of fiduciary advice, meaning that many more broker-dealers and their advisors are fiduciaries for their recommendations to retirement investors – including rollover recommendations – and therefore, will need the protection provided by the exemption.

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PTE 2020-02 Compliance: Avoiding Five Common Mistakes

It may be a New Year, but 2022 is going to seem very familiar to Broker-Dealers (BD) and their Registered Representatives who advise retirement plans and IRAs: they are going to be spending a lot of time working to comply with new exemptions and new ERISA rules coming from the Department of Labor (DOL). As some of these deadlines are right around the corner, in this post we’re going to review the five most common pitfalls and problems we’ve seen clients face, and how to better address them in disclosures and policies and procedures.

So what’s ahead this year regarding fiduciary advice and exemptions? First, DOL is working on a new proposed definition of ERISA fiduciary investment advice to replace the 1975 regulation, and could publish the new proposal for comments this spring. This proposal may also include changes to DOL’s new Prohibited Transaction Exemption 2020-02 (the PTE). If DOL succeeds in rewriting these rules, they likely will go into effect in 2023. That means the current rule and the current version of the PTE will likely remain in effect for the next 12-18 months.

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The New DOL Fiduciary “Rule” For Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers and the December 20 Deadline: The Time to Act is Now

The DOL’s new fiduciary “rule” became effective on February 16, 2021. The rule is a combination of a new and expansive definition of fiduciary advice (and status) and an exemption from the prohibitions of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code for financial conflicts of interest arising from nondiscretionary fiduciary advice. These changes impact all investment advisers and broker-dealers who provide services to retirement plans, participants and IRA owners.

This article summarizes the new guidance, the requirements currently in effect, and the demanding additional requirements that must be satisfied beginning on December 21, 2021. And, beginning on December 21, the full terms of Prohibited Transaction Exemption (PTE) 2020-02 will apply, including the acknowledgement of fiduciary status, the conflicts and services disclosures and, for the types of rollovers discussed below, the written statement of the “specific reasons” the rollover recommendation is in the best interest of the participant or IRA owner.

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Reasonable Compensation

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.

Fiduciary Rule Myths

MYTH:  “Advisors must recommend the lowest cost investment.”

This post discusses what broker-dealers and their advisors need to do to manage the risks in providing investment recommendations to plans and IRAs. In order to manage those risks, though, broker-dealers and advisors need to understand what the rules require. To do that, we need to debunk some “myths” about the rules. Continue reading “Fiduciary Rule Myths”

Householding Accounts – Avoiding a Prohibited Transaction

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.

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