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

Is It Possible To Be An Advisor Without Being A Fiduciary?

This is my 62nd article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

Under the new fiduciary definition (that applied on June 9), an investment “suggestion” is fiduciary advice. That includes suggestions about a range of issues, including investments, insurance products, investment strategies, other investment advisors and managers, IRA transfers, and plan distributions.

Because of the breadth of the definition, it is almost impossible to be an advisor to a plan without becoming a fiduciary. Under the old rules advisors would provide investment information that, at least arguably, was not fiduciary investment advice. However, under the new definition, where an advisor provides information about investments, it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that the advisor would reasonably be viewed as having suggested that the plan sponsor, participant or IRA owner choose the investments. Otherwise, why provide information about those specific investments . . . unless it was a suggestion that the retirement investor select one or more of them?

Let’s delve into that a little more deeply . . . in the context of a 401(k) plan. It is possible that for a new plan or for a plan changing recordkeepers, the recordkeeper would provide a list of investments in response to an RFI or RFP. If properly done, the list will not be fiduciary advice—because of a fiduciary exception for recordkeepers. In turn, if the advisor does not comment on the list, either favorably or unfavorably, the advisor would not be viewed as having provided fiduciary advice.

Then, at future meetings with the plan sponsor, the advisor or the recordkeeper could simply provide information about the existing investments. However, is it feasible that an advisor would not make comments about poorly performing investments which could be viewed as “suggestions” that they be removed? If those suggestions are made by an advisor, it could be fiduciary advice. Similarly, if an investment is removed, a plan sponsor needs to select a replacement investment. Who will provide the potential replacement investments to the plan sponsor? If the advisor does, that could be a suggestion, or fiduciary advice, that one of those replacement investments be used.

Alternatively, some broker-dealers may decide that their advisors can only use recordkeepers that include fiduciary advisers on their platforms. Those platform advisers would then recommend or select a plan’s investment line-up (and, in the future, would remove and replace investments, as appropriate). That might work. However, the recommendation of a third party fiduciary investment adviser or manager is also a fiduciary act. So, while the advisor would not be a fiduciary for the recommendation of investments, the advisor could be a fiduciary for “suggesting” that the plan sponsor use a fiduciary on the recordkeeper platform.

Unfortunately, these issues have not been tested in the courts or in FINRA arbitrations . . . so, it’s almost impossible to tell where the line will be drawn. As a result, broker-dealers and RIAs need to decide whether they will take the position that they are not fiduciaries—and be subject to risk, or whether they will take a conservative position and clearly be compliant.

While these rules apply to both ERISA retirement plans and IRAs, the issue is particularly acute for plans. That is because a service provider to plans must state, in its 408(b)(2) disclosures, whether it is serving as an ERISA fiduciary. If it is not, then it can remain silent on the issue. However, if the firm and its advisors will be acting as ERISA fiduciaries, that must be affirmatively stated in the 408(b)(2) disclosures. (Note that, during the transition period, recent DOL guidance permits the firm to describe its fiduciary services in the 408(b)(2) disclosures, but does not require that the firm specifically state that it is an ERISA fiduciary . . . with one exception. If a firm has previously said in its 408(b)(2) disclosures, that it was not acting as a fiduciary, that must be corrected by affirmatively saying that it is now acting as a fiduciary.)

The new rules have a number of unforeseen applications. With the likely delay of the applicability dates of the exemptions, including of the full and final Best Interest Contract Exemption, this is a good time to think about how these rules apply and what changes need to be made.

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 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- Interesting Angles on the DOL’s Fiduciary Rule #71: Recordkeepers and Financial Wellness Programs

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

©2017 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

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About this Author

Fred Reish, Partner, Drinker Biddle,  Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation
Partner

C. Frederick Reish is a partner in the firm's Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Practice Group, Chair of the Financial Services ERISA Team and Chair of the Retirement Income Team.  His practice focuses on fiduciary issues, prohibited transactions, tax-qualification and DOL, SEC and FINRA examinations of retirement plans and IRA issues.

Fred's experience includes advising insurance companies and investment managers of the development of products and services that are consistent with ERISA's...

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