The DOL Fiduciary Rule, Seller's Exception and Independent Fiduciaries

How does a service provider determine whether it is making a recommendation to "independent fiduciaries of plans and IRAs with financial expertise?" This is a key question that could determine whether an organization or individual is tagged as an ERISA fiduciary and subject to added liability as a result.

According to "Chart Illustrating Changes From Department of Labor's 2015 Conflict Of Interest Proposal To Final," one of several modifications includes the following: "Providing an expanded seller's exception for recommendations to independent fiduciaries of plans and IRAs with financial expertise and plan fiduciaries with at least $50 million in assets under management is not fiduciary advice."

As always with legal issues, I defer to knowledgeable attorneys to parse this language. However, given an implementation deadline, compliance professionals of firms that sell to ERISA plans and IRA owners no doubt want to clarify definitions and concepts such as "independence" and "financial expertise."

One attorney with whom I spoke suggested the intent is to lower the chance of a conflict such as when a fiduciary receives compensation for a vendor or product he helped put in place. Another attorney put forth the notion that fiduciaries of a "larger" plan (in this case, a trust with assets above $50 million) could be seen as more "sophisticated" and "informed." I'm not convinced that the ambiguity of the final language can be dispatched without addressing a series of questions, some of which are listed below.

  • Is a consulting firm that seeks an exception and wants to sell its delegated investment management or Outsourced Chief Investment Officer ("OCIO") services thereby prohibited from pitching any of its own proprietary products and using them if it wins a contract?
  • When a C-level executive such as a Chief Financial Officer sits on a plan investment committee, who will assess whether her decisions are made solely in the interest of plan participants and not to plump up a bonus tied to a particular decision or outcome?
  • Can a seller avoid fiduciary classification if the client is a plan or IRA with assets less than $50 million but managed by knowledgeable fiduciaries?
  • Might a seller fail to procure an exception if it is later shown that a plan or IRA with more than $50 million in assets is "large" but managed by fiduciaries who do not possess financial expertise?
  • How do sellers intend to determine whether "financial expertise" exists and can they do so without insulting potential buyers?
  • How will existing "know your customer" guidelines change to accommodate the notion of "financial expertise?"
  • How do regulators intend to determine whether "financial expertise" exists?
  • If there are multiple fiduciaries and some possess "financial expertise" but others do not, is the seller at risk for losing the exception or not obtaining it in the first place unless it can verify that all in-house fiduciaries are competent?
  • If a plan fiduciary or IRA owner or manager changes, does the seller need to assess "financial expertise" for the replacements? Does the U.S. Department of Labor need to do likewise? 
  • On what basis is the $50 million determined? At a point in time or as a rolling average? Are assets to be based on market value or book value or something else? Will regulators review Form 5500 numbers to determine if the $50 million test has been met?

If anyone knows of an article or webinar that addresses these issues, please kindly email contact@fiduciaryleadership.com. I would like to share resources about "independence" and "financial expertise" with readers of Pension Risk Matters.

Note: Interested persons can click to download "Pension risk, governance and CFO liability" by Dr. Susan Mangiero (Journal of Corporate Treasury Management). The phone number listed on the article is not current. 

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