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Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #87- The Fiduciary Rule: What’s Next (Part 3)?

This is my 87th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

This is the third of my four-part series on the critical questions raised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to “vacate,” or throw out, the Fiduciary Rule. The first article, Angles #85, discusses the three critical questions for the SEC and DOL to answer. The second article, Angles #86, discussed the first critical question, “Who is a fiduciary?”

This post covers the second critical question, “What is the fiduciary standard of care?”

For purposes of advice to retirement plans and participants, that’s an easy answer. It’s ERISA’s prudent man rule and duty of loyalty. That standard is statutory and, as a result, it cannot be modified by rule or regulation—by the DOL or SEC.

There is a large amount of guidance, both from the DOL and the courts, on how to comply with the standard. For example, a fiduciary advisor must engage in a prudent process—at the level of a hypothetical, knowledgeable person—taking into account that the purpose of the investments is to provide retirement benefits. That means that an advisor must consider the “relevant” factors for making a prudent recommendation. You might call that a “duty to investigate,” and then to evaluate. Courts have also said that fiduciaries must use generally accepted investment theories and prevailing investment industry standards (e.g., for asset allocation and selection of investments).

But, of course, those standards only apply if an advisor is a fiduciary. Fiduciary status was discussed in Angles #86.

The issue is more complex for fiduciary advice to IRAs. Where an advisor to an IRA owner does not engage in prohibited transactions—for example, charges a reasonable level fee (and the advisor, supervisory entity and all affiliated and relates parties do not receive anything in addition to that fee), there is not a prohibited transaction. As a result, neither the IRS nor the DOL have a basis for further regulating the advisor. On the other hand, where an advisor (or the supervisory entity, or any affiliated or related party) receives conflicted compensation, that would be a prohibited transaction and an exemption would be needed. Generally speaking, there are two forms of conflicted compensation. The first, and most common, is any payment from a third party (for example, a 12b-1 fee from a mutual fund or a commission from an insurance company). The second form of conflicted compensation is sometimes referred to as “variable” compensation (for example, a commission on each recommended transaction in a brokerage account).

Before the 5th Circuit decision, the primary exemption for those conflicts was BICE (the Best Interest Contract Exemption). That exemption permitted conflicted compensation if the advisor and the supervisory entity (e.g., a broker-dealer) adhered to the best interest standard of care (and other Impartial Conduct Standards). However, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out BICE, as well as the fiduciary regulation. After that decision, there are only a few exemptions for conflicted advice—and they are very limited.

However, the DOL will likely issue a new exemption to replace BICE, and will impose conditions. It remains to be seen what those will be. But, it’s possible that some standard of care would be imposed, perhaps the new standard that the SEC is working on—and it’s almost certain that disclosures will be required.

One thing that is certain is that the limitation for reasonable compensation will be a requirement of the exemption. It’s a statutory provision in both the Code and ERISA.

At this point, it’s impossible to know what the SEC’s new standard of care will be. There are important questions to be answered. For example, will the standard be the same for RIAs and broker-dealers when investment advice is given to retail investors, such as IRA owners? While uncertain, it is possible that a duty of loyalty will be applied to both types of advisors. And, since RIAs are already fiduciaries under the securities laws, it’s hard to imagine that a lower standard of care would be required for RIAs.

On the other hand, there is some discussion that the SEC might develop an “enhanced” suitability standard for broker-dealers. While that sounds interesting on paper, it’s more difficult to imagine what it would be. For example, the DOL has said that, if a recommendation is not suitable, it would not be prudent. However, the DOL went on to say that, if a recommendation is suitable, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s prudent. So, the question is, will the SEC draw a line between those two standards and, if so, where will that line be?

On a related point, and as a guess, I don’t believe the DOL or the SEC will say that the new standards can be enforced by retail investors. In other words, it is likely that the standards will only be enforceable by regulators. While that may be the outcome for the case for IRAs and other retail accounts, ERISA allows for private claims for violations of its provisions, and those statutory rights cannot be taken away by rules or regulations. As a result, advice to plans and participants will be enforceable as private claims.

Since the SEC’s proposed guidance will be issued in the near future, we will know the answers soon enough.

Part 1- Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #1

Part 2 - Best Interest Standard of Care: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #2 

Part 3 - Hidden Preamble Observations: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #3

Part 4 - TV Stock Tips and Fiduciary Advice: Interesting Angles #4

Part 5 - Level Fee Fiduciary Exemption: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #5

Part 6 - Fiduciary Regulation And The Exemptions: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #6

Part 7 - Fiduciary Regulations And The Exemptions : Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #7

Part 8 - Designated Investment Alternatives: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #8

Part 9 - Best Interest Standard and the Prudent Man Rule: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #9

Part 10 - FINRA Regulatory Notice: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #10

Part 11-ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #11

Part 12- Potential Prohibited Transactions: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #12

Part 13-Investment Policies: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #13

Part 14- Investment Suggestions: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #14

Part 15- Best Interest Contract Exemption: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #15

Part 16 - Adviser Recommendations: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #16

Part 17 - Level Fee Fiduciary: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #17

Part 18- Best Interest Contract Exemption and IRA Advisor Compensation: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #18

Part 19- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #19: Advisors' Use of "Hire Me" Practices.

Part 20- Three Parts of "Best Interest Standard of Care": Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #20

Part 21- Retirement Plan Documentation and Prudent Recommendation: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #21

Part 22-Banks and Prohibited Transactions: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #22

Part 23-Prohibited Transactions: IRA and RIA Qualified Money: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #23

Part 24 - Differential Compensation Based on Neutral Factors

Part 25-Reasonable Compensation Versus Neutral Factors: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #25

Part 26- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #26- Reasonable Compensation for IRAs: When and How Long?

Part 27 - Definition of Compensation

Part 28 - What About Rollovers that Aren’t Recommended?: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #28

Part 29- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #29- Capturing Rollovers: What Information is Needed?

Part 30- Three Kinds of Level Fee Fiduciaries . . . and What’s A “Level Fee?”: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #30

Part 31 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #31: “Un-levelizing” Level Fee Fiduciaries

Part 32 - What “Level Fee Fiduciary” Means for Rollover Advice: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #32

Part 33- Discretionary Management, Rollovers and BICE: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #33

Part 34- Seminar Can Be Fiduciary Act: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #34

Part 35- Presidential Memorandum on Fiduciary Rule: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #35

Part 36 -Retirement Advice and the SEC: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #36

Part 37 - SEC Retirement-Targeted Examinations: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #37

Part 38- SEC Examinations of RIAs and Broker-Dealers under the ReTIRE Initiative: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #38

Part 39- FINRA Regulatory Notice 13-45: Guidance on Distributions and Rollovers: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #39

Part 40 - New Rule, Old Rule - What Should Advisers Do Now?: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #40

Part 41 - While We Wait: The Current Fiduciary Rule and Annuities: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #41

Part 42 - Rollovers under DOL’s Final Rule: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #42

Part 43 - BICE Transition: More Than the Eye Can See - Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #43

Part 44 - Basic Structure of Fiduciary Package (June 9): Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #44

Part 45 - DOL Fiduciary “Package”: Basics on the Prohibited Transaction Exemptions: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #45

Part 46 - How Does an Adviser Know How to Satisfy the Best Interest Standard?: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #46

Part 47- “Real” Requirements of Fiduciary Rule: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #47

Part 48- The Last Word: The Fiduciary Rule Applies on June 9- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #48

Part 49- The Requirement to Disclose Fiduciary Status: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #49

Part 50- Fourth Impartial Conduct Standard: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #50

Part 51- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #51: Recommendations to Transfer IRAs

Part 52 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #52: The Fiduciary Rule and Exemptions: How Long Will Our Transition Be?

Part 53 - Fiduciary Rule and Discretionary Investment Management: Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #53

Part 54 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #54: The DOL’s RFI and Possible changes to BICE

Part 55- DOL’s RFI and Recommendation of Annuities- Interesting Angles on DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #55

Part 56-Recommendations of Contributions as Fiduciary Advice: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #56

Part 57- Relief from 408(b)(2) Requirement on Change Notice: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #57

Part 58- Recommendations to Contribute to a Plan or IRA- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #58

Part 59- What Plans and Arrangements Are Covered by the Fiduciary Rule: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #59

Part 60- What the Tibble Decision Means to Advisers: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #60

Part 61- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #61: The Fiduciary Rule, Distributions and Rollovers

Part 62 - Is It Possible To Be An Advisor Without Being A Fiduciary? - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #62

Part 63-Policies and Procedures: The Fourth BICE Requirement - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #63

Part 64 -What Does the Best Interest Standard of Care Require?-Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #64

Part 65- Unexpected Consequences of Fiduciary Rule - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #65

Part 66- Concerns About 408(b)(2) Disclosures: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #66

Part 67- From the DOL to the SEC - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #67

Part 68-Recommendations of Distributions - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #68

Part 69- Compensation Risks for Broker-Dealers and RIAs: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #69

Part 70-Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #70: The Fiduciary Rule and Recordkeeper Services

Part 71- Senate, Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, income tax rate, Corporate Tax Rate, Passthrough Entities, Foreign Income, Qualified Property, Interest Deduction Limitation

Part 72-Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #72 - The "Wholesaler" Exception

Part 73- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #73: Recordkeeper Investment Support for Plan Sponsors

Part 74 -Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #74: One More Fiduciary Issue for Recordkeepers

Part 75 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #75: The Fiduciary Rule: Mistaken Beliefs

Part 76 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #76

Part 77 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #77: The Fiduciary Rule: Mistaken Beliefs (#2)

Part 78 - Interesting Angles on the DOL's Fiduciary Rule #78: The Fiduciary Rule: Mistaken Beliefs (#3) 

Part 79 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #79-The Fiduciary Rule: Mistaken Beliefs (#4)

Part 80 - Enforceable During Transition?: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #80

Part 81 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #81: The Fiduciary Rule Prohibits Commissions... or Not (Myth #6)

Part 82 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #82- Undisclosed (and Disclosed) 12b-1 Fees: The Different Views of the SEC and DOL

Part 83 - Part 2 of Undisclosed (and Disclosed) 12b-1 Fees: Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #83

Part 85 - Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #85

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About this Author

Fred Reisch, Drinker Biddle Law Firm, Los Angeles, Labor and Employment Law Attorney
Partner

Fred Reish represents clients in fiduciary issues, prohibited transactions, tax-qualification and Department of Labor, Securities and Exchange Commission and FINRA examinations of retirement plans and IRA issues.

Fred works with both private and public sector entities and their plans and fiduciaries and represents plans, employers and fiduciaries before federal agencies such as the DOL and IRS. He consults with banks, trust companies, insurance companies and mutual fund management companies on 401(k) recordkeeping services, investment products and...

(310) 203-4047