The DOL’s RFI and the Recommendation of Annuities

This is my 55th article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.

The Department of Labor’s Request for Information (RFI) on the fiduciary rule and exemptions does a good job of focusing on the key issues for advisers and their financial institutions (e.g., broker-dealers and RIA firms). That is, the questions in the RFI cover most of the issues that prove to be compliance problems for our clients, in the sense that the requirements were difficult to satisfy or expensive to implement.

In addition, the RFI also highlights an issue for independent insurance agents, which is that, in the exemptions scheduled to apply on January 1, 2018, the sale of fixed indexed annuities to qualified accounts (e.g., plans and IRAs) is transferred from Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24 to the Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE). That creates a difficult situation, because independent insurance agents will not be able to sell fixed indexed annuities under BICE, because BICE requires that a financial institution supervise the sale. I believe the DOL thought that insurance companies would serve as the supervisory entities (and, in a manner of speaking, as co-fiduciaries) for independent insurance agents who were appointed as agents for the insurance companies. However, insurance companies were not willing to do that. As a result, independent insurance agents will effectively be precluded from selling fixed indexed annuities. (Note that a number of insurance intermediaries have applied to the DOL for “financial institution” status under BICE. However, the DOL has not issued final guidance for the applicants.)

Fortunately for those agents, the 84-24 exemption was amended for the transition period to put fixed indexed annuities, along with variable annuities and fixed rate annuities, under the exemptive relief of 84-24. However, the final 84-24 exemption continues to say that fixed indexed annuities are not included in 84-24, but instead must be sold under BICE.

Because of those issues, the Department of Labor asked, in Question 17 of the RFI:

If the Department provided an exemption for insurance intermediaries to serve as Financial Institutions under the BIC Exemption, would this facilitate advice regarding all types of annuities? Would it facilitate advice to expand the scope of PTE 84–24 to cover all types of annuities after the end of the transition period on January 1, 2018? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of these two exemption approaches (i.e., expanding the definition of Financial Institution or expanding the types of annuities covered under PTE 84–24)? To what extent would the ongoing availability of PTE 84–24 for specified annuity products, such as fixed indexed annuities, give these products a competitive advantage vis-a`-vis other products covered only by the BIC Exemption, such as mutual fund shares?

In effect, the DOL is asking questions about two alternatives. The first is whether “insurance intermediaries,” such as IMOs, should be allowed to serve as “financial institutions,” which would allow independent insurance agents to use the Best Interest Contract Exemption. Based on our representation of a number of IMOs and BGAs, many of those types of organizations would be willing to serve in the financial institution role, if that was available. If properly done, that solution would work.

The second question is whether to continue to include fixed indexed annuities, along with fixed rate and variable annuities, under the 84-24 exemption. In that case, independent insurance agents would not need a financial institution to supervise their activities. At the present time, the 84-24 rules are more restrictive on compensation and require greater disclosure of compensation than BICE. So, while that alternative is less burdensome in terms of the need for a financial institution, it is more demanding in terms of compensation disclosures.

It is likely that one or both of those solutions will be permitted when the rules are revised by the current leadership at the DOL. While the financial institution alternative is more burdensome and involves greater regulation, it could be favored by the DOL because of the financial institutions’ supervision of the independent insurance agents. On the other hand, if the DOL favors less regulation and burden, the 84-24 exemption will be expanded to include all forms of annuities. Only time will tell.

The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.