DOL FAQ Delves Into Investor Rights Regarding Advice

Flat-fee models clearly favored by the DOL for being perceived as less conflicted will have a competitive edge in the new fiduciary future.

A new frequently asked questions publication from the Department of Labor (DOL) seeks to inform investors about their rights as consumers of products and services governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

The document, in turn, gives advisers an important look into the consumer-protection thinking that has played an important role within the DOL’s fiduciary reform efforts.

“While many investors think that their financial adviser already is required to act in their best interest, like their doctor or their lawyer, the law hasn’t always required it,” DOL explains. This is likely to change with the forthcoming DOL conflict of interest reforms—slated to take effect in April of this year unless the new Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress act quickly to stop it.

“After April 10, advisers who are paid to make recommendations about retirement accounts, such as individual retirement accounts [IRAs] and 401(k) accounts, will be treated as fiduciaries,” DOL tells consumers. “This includes advisers who are paid directly by you or paid indirectly through commissions or other payments they may receive from third parties.”

On the question of whether the rule is expected to “cause change in the financial services industry,” the DOL answers with an unequivocal “yes.”

“Although many advisers already work hard to give sound advice that puts the customer first, the new rule will generally make best interest advice the law,” DOL suggests. “Also, the rule will require many financial institutions to significantly change their compensation practices. The financial services industry will not be permitted to use incentives such as quotas, bonuses or prizes that encourage advisers to make recommendations that are not in your interest.”

NEXT: FAQ grants inside look at DOL thinking 

The DOL document goes on to say the conflict of interest rulemaking “closes the large loopholes that permitted conflicted investment advice.”

“These loopholes exposed many working families, and especially IRA owners, to conflicted advice,” DOL suggests. “Before the rule, some financial advisers could give retirement investment advice that was not in their customers’ best interest. Many advisers, such as securities brokers or insurance agents, had financial incentives that rewarded them for steering customers to products that were not in the customers’ best interest.”

DOL says it has made the push now to strengthen and expand the fiduciary standard because, over the last few decades, the lasting push away from defined benefit plans in favor of defined contribution arrangements has put the onus on individuals to monitor the fairness of their own service provider fees.

“These individual investors are not investment professionals, and commonly depend on advisers to make important investment decisions,” DOL continues. “But these advisers often have strong financial incentives to recommend investments that result in a larger financial benefit to the adviser but may not be in their customer’s best interest. Recent research has found that advisers’ conflicts cause real harm to ordinary investors who rely on their advice.”

DOL further suggests “this broken regulatory system was costing some working families tens of thousands of dollars of their retirement savings.”

“While many financial advisers acted in their customers’ best interest, not everyone was legally obligated to do so,” DOL concludes. “This rule levels the playing field, and makes sure that all retirement advisers follow the same standards. America’s workers should be able to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work and getting fiduciary investment advice will make it easier to reach this goal.”

The full FAQ is available for download here