The DOL and SEC should both take notice of a long-standing judicial reluctance to 'dumb down' fiduciary standards.
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Item 1: Back when yours truly was a young pup politico-in-training in Washington, D.C., our gaggle of (unpaid) interns and (low-paid) employees would descend after work on receptions hosted by trade association lobbyists held in various congressional hearing rooms on Capitol Hill. Those receptions always featured good food, which we eagerly turned into our dinner, given our impecunious condition. We weren't exactly feeding at the public trough--the food was paid for by the lobbyists--but I sometimes grimace at the thought of all the deductions taken for that food, which, of course, reduced the taxes that would have otherwise flowed to the national treasury. We all agreed that one lobbying group stood head and shoulders above all others in the taste and quality (and therefore expense) of the food that it served at its receptions. For me, one food that this group served was, by far, head and shoulders above all others: baby lamb chops. Folks, I love lamb, and those chops were truly in a class by themselves. I couldn't get enough of them. Think Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places as the inebriated Santa Claus at the office Christmas party where he attempts to stuff an entire salmon into the pocket of his red suit. I'd like to say that I didn't actually smuggle out any of those sublime lamb chops in my pockets, but I must confess it's certainly possible that I did.
Item 2: Footnote 44 of my book, The Prudent Investor Act: A Guide to Understanding, reads, in part: "An SEC Release entitled 'Certain Broker-Dealers Deemed Not To Be Investment Advisers' [i.e., the Merrill Lynch Rule] proposes that financial consultants employed by major brokerage firms such as Merrill Lynch [who receive asset-based advisory fees] be exempt from registration under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. This would allow such consultants to avoid the more stringent legal and professional obligations that are otherwise imposed on a 'Registered Investment Adviser...' The Financial Planning Association...has been vociferous in opposing this exemption. Rather than opposing the exemption, perhaps the FPA should embrace it and turn it into a marketing opportunity for its...RIA membership. In a highly competitive environment, RIAs may want to emphasize that they have to meet stringent standards of fiduciary conduct while advisors at large brokerage firms don't." (The Merrill Lynch Rule was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2007.)
More on these two items in next month's column.
A fiduciary wrestling match is now taking place between those doing business in the qualified retirement plan marketplace, and the Department of Labor (DOL) as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). On Jan. 21, the staff of the SEC issued two reports as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, one of which examined whether broker/dealers (B/D) should be subjected to the "best interest" fiduciary standard of conduct under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 ('40 Act) when providing personalized investment advice about securities to their retail customers. (One commentator--Ron Rhoades--is precise in pointing out that Congress never, via the Dodd-Frank Act, authorized the SEC staff to study whether B/Ds should be subjected to a "uniform" or "harmonized" fiduciary standard of conduct. Rather, the study topic assigned was whether B/Ds should be subjected, when dealing with the retail accounts of their customers, to the best interest fiduciary standard of conduct under the '40 Act.)
The conduct of RIAs and their investment adviser representatives is governed legally by the '40 Act, which requires them to adhere to a best interest fiduciary standard of conduct. The SEC is the regulatory body governing larger RIAs, while state securities administrators oversee smaller RIAs. The conduct of B/Ds, in contrast, is governed legally by the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 ('34 Act). Under rules adopted by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the self-regulatory organization (SRO) for B/Ds, B/Ds and their registered representatives must adhere to a number of specific rules including those relating to suitability. Both RIAs and B/Ds may also be subject to fiduciary duties arising under state common law, which generally applies broad fiduciary duties of care and loyalty upon those providing financial and investment advice when they're in a relationship of trust and confidence with their clients.
In addition to the study issued by the SEC staff in January, the Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a new regulation in 2010 that changes the definition of "fiduciary advice" and, in so doing, changes the definition of a "fiduciary" under section 3(21) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) with respect to qualified retirement plans such as 401(k) plans. ERISA generally imposes the "sole interest" fiduciary standard of conduct and also applies "prohibited transaction" rules, any one of which doesn't apply when a specific exemption has been granted to it by the DOL.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the years discussing the many ins and outs of the varying standards of fiduciary conduct and whether (or how) non-fiduciaries such as B/Ds, insurance agents and benefits brokers could (or should) be governed by any of these standards when interacting in certain ways with qualified retirement plans. It's plain to see, though, from the DOL's proposed regulation that the battle has already been fought--and lost--by those who are advocates of providing qualified retirement plans with truly impartial fiduciary investment advice. As under the existing regulation, non-fiduciaries under the proposed regulation will be permitted to have meaningful interactions with ERISA-governed retirement plans despite the inherent conflicts in the suitability standard (or no standard) they are required to adhere to and the resultant business model they follow. A one-page document issued as a "Fact Sheet" by the DOL's Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) on March 30 succinctly clarifies this. It's time well spent to review an edited portion of it.
The EBSA March 30 Fact Sheet
Definition of the Term "Fiduciary"
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) requires plan fiduciaries to act prudently and solely in the interest of the plan's participants and beneficiaries, prohibits self-dealing, and provides judicial remedies when violations of these standards cause harm to plans. In enacting ERISA, Congress recognized that the security of America's employee benefit plans depends on their fiduciaries. The Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has proposed a rule to recast an existing regulation to better reflect relationships between investment advisers and their employee benefit clients.