DOL Finalizes Rule to Address Fiduciary Conflicts of Interest in Retirement Advice

 
Thursday, April 21, 2016
 

A final regulation defining who is a ‘‘fiduciary’’ of an employee benefit plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA or the Act) as a result of giving investment advice to a plan or its participants or beneficiaries becomes effective June 7, 2016. The final rule also applies to the definition of a ‘‘fiduciary’’ of a plan (including an individual retirement account (IRA)) under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (Code). The final rule treats persons who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of a plan or IRA as fiduciaries in a wider array of advice relationships.

The rule describes the kinds of communications that would constitute investment advice and then describes the types of relationships in which those communications would give rise to fiduciary investment advice responsibilities.
Covered investment advice is defined as a recommendation to a plan, plan fiduciary, plan participant and beneficiary and IRA owner for a fee or other compensation, direct or indirect, as to the advisability of buying, holding, selling or exchanging securities or other investment property, including recommendations as to the investment of securities or other property after the securities or other property are rolled over or distributed from a plan or IRA.

Covered investment advice also includes recommendations as to the management of securities or other investment property, including, among other things, recommendations on investment policies or strategies, portfolio composition, selection of other persons to provide investment advice or investment management services, selection of investment account arrangements (e.g., brokerage versus advisory); or recommendations with respect to rollovers, transfers, or distributions from a plan or IRA, including whether, in what amount, in what form, and to what destination such a rollover, transfer, or distribution should be made.
Under the final rule, the fundamental threshold element in establishing the existence of fiduciary investment advice is whether a "recommendation" occurred. A "recommendation" is a communication that, based on its content, context, and presentation, would reasonably be viewed as a suggestion that the advice recipient engage in or refrain from taking a particular course of action. The more individually tailored the communication is to a specific advice recipient or recipients, the more likely the communication will be viewed as a recommendation. The Department has taken an approach to defining "recommendation" that is consistent with and based upon the approach taken by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the independent regulatory authority of the broker-dealer industry, subject to the oversight of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The types of relationships that must exist for such recommendations to give rise to fiduciary investment advice responsibilities include recommendations made either directly or indirectly (e.g. through or together with any affiliate) by a person who:
Represents or acknowledges that they are acting as a fiduciary within the meaning of ERISA or the Internal Revenue Code (Code);
Renders advice pursuant to a written or verbal agreement, arrangement or understanding that the advice is based on the particular investment needs of the advice recipient; or
Directs the advice to a specific recipient or recipients regarding the advisability of a particular investment or management decision with respect to securities or other investment property of the plan or IRA.

The recommendation must be provided in exchange for a "fee or other compensation." "Fee or other compensation, direct or indirect" means any explicit fee or compensation for the advice received by the person (or by an affiliate) from any source, and any other fee or compensation received from any source in connection with or as a result of the recommended purchase or sale of a security or the provision of investment advice services including, though not limited to, such things as commissions, loads, finder's fees, and revenue sharing payments. A fee or compensation is paid "in connection with or as a result of" such transaction or service if the fee or compensation would not have been paid but for the transaction or service or if eligibility for or the amount of the fee or compensation is based in whole or in part on the transaction or service.

Compliance with the new requirements will not begin to be required until one year after the final rule is published in the Federal Register — in other words, April 2017. The Department has determined that, in light of the importance of the final rule's consumer protections and the significance of the continuing monetary harm to retirement investors without the rule's changes, an applicability date of one year after publication of the final rule in the Federal Register is appropriate and provides adequate time for plans and their affected financial services and other service providers to adjust to the change from non-fiduciary to fiduciary status.

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