On April 6 of 2016, the world of professional financial advice took its first step into the future with the issuance of a Department of Labor (DoL) fiduciary rule, declaring that brokers can no longer earn commissions and other forms of conflicted advice compensation from consumers, unless they agree to do so pursuant to a Best Interests Contract (BIC) agreement with the client, which commits the advice-provider to a fiduciary standard of giving advice in the “best interests” of the client, earning “reasonable compensation”, and providing appropriate disclosure and transparency about the products and compensation involved.
Fiduciary advocates have lamented that the Department of Labor conceded several major points in its final DoL fiduciary rule, including shifting a number of key disclosures to be provided “upon request” or via the Financial Institution’s website (but not outright to the client), incorporating the Best Interests Contract into existing advisory and new account agreements (rather than as a separate fiduciary agreement), and not adopting a “restricted asset list” and instead keeping the door open to everything from controversial illiquid products like non-traded REITs, high-commission products like some variable and equity-indexed annuities, and companies that implement their own proprietary products as the “recommendation” at the end of every financial plan.
However, it appears that in reality the DoL fiduciary rule concessions were a brilliantly executed strategy of conceding to the financial services industry the exact parts that didn’t actually matter in the long run (while still reducing the risk of a legal challenge), yet keeping the key components that mattered the most: a requirement for Financial Institutions to adopt policies and procedures to mitigate material conflicts of interest and eliminate incentives that could compromise the objectivity of their advisors (or risk losing their Best Interests Contract Exemption and cause all their advisory compensation to be a Prohibited Transaction), and a second requirement that clients can no longer be forced to waive 100% of their legal rights and accept mandatory arbitration, instead stipulating that while an individual client dispute may be required to go to arbitration, consumers must retain the right to pursue a class action lawsuit against a Financial Institution that fails to honor its aggregate fiduciary obligations.
In essence, then, financial services product companies claimed that they can offer often illiquid and opaque, commission-based, and sometimes even proprietary products to consumers, while also receiving revenue-sharing agreements, and simultaneously still act in the client’s best interests as a fiduciary. And so the Department of Labor’s response became: “Fine. If and when consumers disagree, you’ll have a chance to prove it to the judge when the time comes.” In other words, while the DoL fiduciary rule didn’t outright regulate what Wall Street can and cannot do, it did change the legal standard by which all of Wall Street’s actions will be judged, and ensure that eventually the courts will have the opportunity to rule on these fiduciary conflicts. And in the long run, that will be a world of difference.
In the meantime, though, the clock is ticking for the onset of an incredibly far-reaching new fiduciary rule, and one that will impact not just broker-dealers, but RIAs as well (albeit to a lesser extent), insurance companies and annuity marketing organizations that sell variable and equity-indexed annuities, and more. The key provisions of the rule will take effect on April 10, 2017, with a transition period through January 1, 2018, by which time the last of the detailed disclosure and other policies and procedures must be put in place.
In this article, we provide an in-depth look at the keystone of the new fiduciary rule as it pertains to advisors working with individual retirement accounts: the new “Best Interests Contract Exemption”, which most broker-dealers and insurance companies will rely upon in their future attempts to provide conflicted advice to IRAs for commission compensation, and the creation of the new “Level Fee Fiduciary” safe harbor, that may (and I strongly suspect, will) eventually become the standard by which all retirement advice is delivered.
Of course, the biggest caveat is that all the new fiduciary rules apply only to retirement accounts, and not any form of taxable investment account or other investment purchased with after-tax dollars… which means the new DoL fiduciary rule will likely ultimately drive the SEC to step up on its fiduciary rule as well, as it’s clearly untenable in the long run for advice to retirement accounts to be held to a fiduciary standard, while everything else remains the domain of suitability and caveat emptor!