fiduciary fitness | PLANADVISER May/June 2016

The New Fiduciary Rule

How advisers' plan sponsor clients will feel the effect

By Marcia Wager | May/June 2016

PAJF16_Portrait-FidFit-Wagner-Portrait_Tim-Bower.jpgArt by Tim BowerThe new fiduciary rule from the Department of Labor (DOL) expands the definition of investment advice to create a very wide net, covering many service providers that previously had not considered themselves fiduciaries. All that is needed to constitute fiduciary advice is to make a recommendation to follow a particular course of action—e.g., to buy, sell or hold investment property—geared to the needs of the plan or its participants. The new definition’s scope also includes making recommendations to take a rollover from a plan and how to invest rollover assets. Further, the widened net catches communications relating to investment policies and/or strategies, plus the selection of investment managers and investment account arrangements such as the choice between a brokerage and an advisory account.

A communication of this nature becomes fiduciary advice merely by receipt of a fee by the person making the communication in return for giving the advice. The regulation adds a “but for” test so that if the same fee would have been paid irrespective of the recommendation, that will not be characterized as fiduciary advice. On the other hand, if the recommendation is viewed as part of a provider’s regular services, for which it earns a fee, the provider would be deemed a fiduciary.

This wide net would be unworkable and disrupt the delivery of plan services by providers unwilling to assume fiduciary obligations were it not strategically narrowed by a half dozen exclusions from the fiduciary definition. If a provider satisfies the conditions under one of these exclusions, it will not be deemed a fiduciary even when providing investment-related recommendations to retirement clients.

Several of these exclusions should be of particular interest to advisers’ plan sponsor clients. The first exclusion deals with general communications that a reasonable person would not view as an investment recommendation such as newsletters, talk shows, speeches, research and news reports, market data, performance reports and prospectuses. To encourage the continued flow of information from defined contribution (DC) plan platform providers, the DOL created another exclusion, which allows for marketing funds on the platform if this is done without regard to the individualized needs of the particular plan or its participants. To qualify for the exclusion, the platform provider would also need to disclose in writing that it was not undertaking to provide advice—impartial or otherwise.

Plan sponsors should understand, however, that the exclusions skirt the main purpose of the new rule, which is to restrict incentives for which fiduciary advisers steer retirement investors, including plans, plan participants and individual retirement account (IRA) owners, to more expensive investment products that raise the adviser’s compensation. Imposing fiduciary status on the group left uncovered by the exclusions means those advisers will violate the prohibited transaction rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) if they receive variable compensation, such as commissions, whose amount may increase or decrease depending on the selected investment. Without expansion of the prohibited transaction system consisting of roughly 55 class exemptions the DOL has issued, plan investment activity would be in danger of seizing up.

In response to this need, the final regulatory package includes a new best interest class (BIC) exemption that allows fiduciary advisers to continue receiving variable compensation, subject to constraints that include the adviser’s written commitment to a new fiduciary standard: the best interest standard. This new standard combines ERISA’s duties of prudence and loyalty and, most importantly, requires that investment recommendations be made without regard to the fiduciary adviser’s own financial interests. This is the heart of the entire regulatory package.

For IRAs and non-ERISA plans, the standard will need to be reflected in a written contract that will be the basis for a new contract-based legal action by these retirement investors. For ERISA plans or plans served by fiduciaries receiving a level fee, the contract requirement is reduced to providing a written statement of the adviser’s fiduciary status and adherence to the best interest standard.

Depending on which version of the BIC exemption applies, qualifying for that will require general disclosures regarding an adviser’s compensation, transaction disclosures for each recommended investment, and disclosure of related conflicts of interest, as well as a warranty that the adviser’s firm has adopted compliance policies to mitigate these conflicts.

An adviser’s failure to meet the best interest standard or to fulfill the other requirements of the exemption will mean that he loses his protection, while touching all the substantive and procedural bases of the exemption will mean that he remains eligible to receive variable compensation such as commissions.

Marcia Wagner is an expert in a variety of employee benefits and executive compensation issues, including qualified and nonqualified retirement plans, and welfare benefit arrangements. She is a summa cum laude graduate of Cornell University and Harvard Law School and has practiced law for 29 years. She is a frequent lecturer and has authored numerous books and articles.