Merrill Lynch Accelerates Fiduciary Rule Response

The firm initially planned to halt commission-based brokerage sales to retirement accounts when the first DOL fiduciary rule deadlines arrive in 2017, but Merrill Lynch has decided to halt the practice immediately to head off any potential issues. 

Merrill Lynch, known as one of the four big wirehouse broker/dealers in the U.S., has halted the sale of mutual fund products in commission-based individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

The general tenants of the plan had actually already been announced by the firm in early October, but this week additional news reports emerged that Merrill Lynch would move even faster than first indicated to adjust its sales practices to get ahead of regulatory changes being implemented by the Department of Labor (DOL).

A firm spokesperson tells PLANADVISER that all decisions made regarding the DOL fiduciary rule reform “are grounded in our strategy to provide best interest, goals-based advice to our retirement clients while preserving client choice. They also reflect our goal of ensuring that our advisers and our firm are best positioned to comply with the rule.”

Advisers who until this week operated as brokerage distributors (i.e., who collected their compensation via variable commissions based on sales) will immediately begin transitioning to the firm’s Investment Advisory Program (IAP), Merrill Edge Select Portfolios, the Merrill Edge self-directed channel and Merrill Edge Guided Investing. Each of these offerings, among others, will be augmented on an ongoing basis to ensure choice for both clients and advisers, the firm says.

“Advisers are receiving in-depth training on the rule, which includes its impact on product-related changes as well as how to document recommendations,” the firm adds.

Many in the industry probably anticipated the move even before the initial October announcement that Merrill Lynch would halt such sales. With a strict new conflict of interest rule coming into effect, brokerage firms recognize that recommendations by their commission-based advisers to purchase mutual funds within brokerage retirement accounts could create a conflict of interest. In Merrill Lynch’s case, if such a client had already been charged a commission and then they later enrolled the Investment Advisory Program, for example, the client could be charged an additional fee on that same mutual fund that had been purchased prior to April 10, potentially resulting in a prohibited transaction. 

Other firms are making similar adjustments to address similar structural issues that will have to be resolved prior to the DOL implementation deadlines. In Merrill Lynch’s case, clients will continue to have the option of maintaining previously purchased mutual funds in retirement accounts, which will be designated as “legacy asset exemption” accounts. However, after April 10, 2017, clients will not be able to add to the mutual fund positions or make any new purchases or exchanges between funds, or within fund families. Then, if clients want to continue purchasing mutual funds after November 2016, they can transition retirement accounts into Merrill Lynch’s Investment Advisory Program, or to Merrill Edge (self-directed or Merrill Edge Select Portfolios) based on their needs and preferences.

Given the fiduciary rule requirements, brokerage firms will also not be able to make new dividend reinvestment instruction in mutual funds in IRAs after April 10, 2017. Advisers may choose to continue to receive compensation on trails for mutual fund positions in legacy asset exemption accounts on or after April 10, 2017. Important to note, in Merrill Lynch’s case as with other firms, self-directed accounts will remain open for mutual fund purchases, but advisers may not provide advice on purchases in such accounts.