On March 30, 2022, the SEC issued “Staff Bulletin: Standards of Conduct for Broker-Dealers and Investment Advisers Account Recommendations for Retail Investors” (SEC Retail Standards Bulletin). This guidance builds on prior SEC guidance regarding Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) and the SEC’s “Main Street” initiatives impacting investment advisory firms since the SEC’s self-reporting “Share Class Selection Disclosure Initiative” announced just over four years ago. In the intervening years, the SEC issued a FAQ “Regarding Disclosure of Certain Financial Conflicts of Interest Related to Investment Adviser Compensation” and issued the Reg BI rulemaking package that included the “Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers.” This blog has covered all of these developments and, regarding the once separate standards of conduct for brokerage and investment advisory firms, described the developing convergence of these standards as they apply to retail investors.
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Pennsylvania has adopted legislation implementing the model regulation concerning suitability in annuity transactions adopted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). This brings to 19 the total number of states adopting the NAIC suitability model. Nevada may be the next state to watch. Nevada’s Securities Administrator has indicated that she is resuming work on the state’s fiduciary rule for investment advisers and broker-dealers and expects to release the rule by November. Stay tuned.
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 Parts 1 and 2 of this post, we talked about the current and proposed rules applicable to rollover recommendations by broker-dealers and RIAs. Part 1 discussed the DOL and FINRA rules that apply now. In Part 2, we explained the SEC proposals. In this post, we talk about how to make a compliant rollover recommendation, regardless of which set of rules applies.
(“Rollover recommendation” refers to advice to a retirement plan participant to take a distribution of his or her account and roll it over to an IRA that is being advised by the broker-dealer or RIA.)
In our first post on this topic, we discussed the existing rules that apply to rollover recommendations by broker-dealers and RIAs. This discussion included the ERISA guidance that remains after the 5th Circuit’s decision vacating the Fiduciary Rule, as well as FINRA’s Regulatory Notice 13-45. In this post, we focus on the SEC’s best interest proposals for broker-dealers and RIAs and where that may take firms in the future. In our next, and final, post in this series, we’ll talk about how to make a compliant rollover recommendation.
(As a reminder, by “rollover” recommendation, we mean a recommendation to a retirement plan participant to take a distribution of his or her account and roll it over to an IRA being advised by the broker-dealer or RIA.)
Continue reading “Recommending Rollovers in the Evolving Regulatory Environment (Part 2)”
With recent developments in the regulatory landscape – the demise of the DOL Fiduciary Rule, the SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI) and RIA fiduciary interpretation, and the existing FINRA guidance on rollovers – it’s important for firms to understand the rules for rollover recommendations. This article discusses the rules as they apply to both broker-dealers and RIAs. While there are similarities in the application, there are also material differences. Continue reading “Recommending Rollovers in the Evolving Regulatory Environment (Part 1)”
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”
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.
On April 12, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced an open meeting scheduled for April 18, 2018 at 3:30 p.m. (ET) to discuss standards applicable to broker-dealers and investment advisers in their dealings with retail investors. The subject matters scheduled to be covered are threefold: