DOL Finalizes Regulations and Related Exemptions on ERISA Fiduciary Definition and Conflicts of Interest in Investment Advice

The Department of Labor (DOL) has adopted its long-awaited final rule defining who is a fiduciary investment adviser, and has issued accompanying prohibited transaction class exemptions that allow certain broker-dealers, insurance agents and others that act as investment advice fiduciaries to continue to receive a variety of common forms of compensation, as long as they adhere to standards aimed at ensuring that their advice is impartial and in the best interest of their customers.

Going forward, individuals and firms that provide investment advice to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, plan participants, beneficiaries and IRAs and IRA owners must either avoid payments that create conflicts of interest or comply with the protective terms of an exemption issued by the DOL.

Under new exemptions adopted with the rule, firms will be obligated to acknowledge their status and the status of their individual advisers as “fiduciaries.” Firms and advisers will be required to:

  • make prudent investment recommendations without regard to their own interests, or the interests of those other than the customer;
  • charge only reasonable compensation; and
  • make no misrepresentations to their customers regarding recommended investments.

I.  What Is Covered Investment Advice Under the Rule?

Covered investment advice is generally 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.

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.

II.  What Is Not Covered Investment Advice Under the Rule?

The final rule includes some specific examples of communications that would not rise to the level of a recommendation and therefore would not constitute a fiduciary investment advice communication, including:

  • Education about retirement savings and general financial and investment information. For example, education can include specific investment alternatives as examples in presenting hypothetical asset allocation models or in interactive investment materials intended to educate participants and beneficiaries as to what investment options are available under the plan, as long as they are designated investment alternatives selected or monitored by an independent plan fiduciary and other conditions are met. In contrast, because there is no similar independent fiduciary in the IRA context, the investment education provision in the rule does not treat asset allocation models and interactive investment materials with references to specific investment alternatives as merely “education.”
  • General communications that a reasonable person would not view as an investment recommendation
  • Simply making available a platform of investment alternatives without regard to the individualized needs of the plan, its participants, or beneficiaries if the plan fiduciary is independent of such service provider
  • Transactions with Independent Plan Fiduciaries with Financial Expertise. ERISA fiduciary obligations are not imposed on advisers when communicating with independent plan fiduciaries if the adviser knows or reasonably believes that the independent fiduciary is a licensed and regulated provider of financial services (banks, insurance companies, registered investment advisers, broker-dealers) or those that have responsibility for the management of $50 million in assets, and other conditions are met.
  • Employees working in a company’s payroll, accounting, human resources, and financial departments who routinely develop reports and recommendations for the company and other named fiduciaries of the sponsors’ plans are not investment advice fiduciaries if the employees receive no fee or other compensation in connection with any such recommendations beyond their normal compensation for work performed for their employer

III.  Best Interest Contract Exemption

The Best Interest Contract Exemption permits firms to continue to rely on many current compensation and fee practices, as long as they meet specific conditions intended to ensure that financial institutions mitigate conflicts of interest and that they, and their individual advisers, provide investment advice that is in the best interests of their customers. Specifically, in order to align the adviser’s interests with those of the plan or IRA customer, the exemption requires the financial institution to:

  • acknowledge fiduciary status for itself and its advisers
  • adhere to basic standards of impartial conduct, including giving prudent advice that is in the customer’s best interest, avoiding making misleading statements, and receiving no more than reasonable compensation.
  • have policies and procedures designed to mitigate harmful impacts of conflicts of interest and
  • disclose basic information about their conflicts of interest, including descriptions of material conflicts of interest, fees or charges paid by the retirement investor, and a statement of the types of compensation the firm expects to receive from third parties in connection with recommended investments.
  • Investors also have the right to obtain specific disclosure of costs, fees, and other compensation upon request.
  • In addition, a website must be maintained and updated regularly that includes information about the financial institution’s business model and associated material conflicts of interest, a written description of the financial institution’s policies and procedures that mitigate conflicts of interest, and disclosure of compensation and incentive arrangements with advisers, among other information.

IV.  Additional Exemptive Relief

In addition to the Best Interest Contract Exemption, the DOL issued a Principal Transactions Exemption, which permits investment advice fiduciaries to sell or purchase certain recommended debt securities and other investments out of their own inventories to or from plans and IRAs. As with the Best Interest Contract Exemption, this requires, among other things, that investment advice fiduciaries adhere to certain impartial conduct standards, including obligations to act in the customer’s best interest, avoid misleading statements, and seek to obtain the best execution reasonably available under the circumstances for the transaction.

V.  Effective Date

Compliance with the new rule is required as of April 2017.  The exemptions will generally become available upon the applicability date of the rule. However, the DOL has adopted a “phased” implementation approach for the Best Interest Contract Exemption and the Principal Transactions Exemption. Both exemptions provide for a transition period, from the April 2017 applicability date to January 1, 2018, under which fewer conditions apply. This period is intended to give financial institutions and advisers time to prepare for compliance with all the conditions of the exemptions while safeguarding the interests of retirement investors.

During this transition period, firms and advisers must adhere to the impartial conduct standards, provide a notice to retirement investors that, among other things, acknowledges their fiduciary status and describes their material conflicts of interest, and designate a person responsible for addressing material conflicts of interest and monitoring advisers’ adherence to the impartial conduct standards. Full compliance with the exemption will be required as of January 1, 2018.

VI. More…

Regulations and Related Exemptions

DOL Fact Sheet

DOL FAQs