Advice to Advisors: The “Wholesaler” Exception
This is my 72nd article about interesting observations concerning the Department of Labor’s (DOL) fiduciary rule and exemptions. These articles also cover the DOL’s FAQs interpreting the regulation and exemptions and related developments in the securities laws.
In my Angles post #70, I discussed three issues for recordkeepers related to the fiduciary rule and exemptions. Angles #71 discussed the financial wellness programs developed by some recordkeepers. This article covers investment advice to advisors.
It is common knowledge that the recommendation of investments to a plan sponsor (that is, to a plan fiduciary such as a 401(k) committee) is fiduciary advice. However, it is less known that, under the new rules, investment recommendations made to fiduciary advisors is also considered fiduciary advice. And, since virtually every advisor to a plan, participant or IRA is now a fiduciary, that means that the presentation of sample investment line-ups to advisors can be fiduciary investment advice, resulting in a recordkeeper becoming a fiduciary. That is obviously problematic for the recordkeepers, but is also a problem for advisors and particularly for advisors who are not experienced in working with retirement plans.
Fortunately, though, there is at least a partial solution.
The fiduciary rules include an exception for fiduciary advice to “independent fiduciaries with financial expertise.” Simply stated, an independent fiduciary with financial expertise (or IFFE) is a broker-dealer, RIA, bank or trust company, or insurance company that is willing to serve as a fiduciary and who will, in that capacity, oversee the advisor who is providing fiduciary advice to a plan. This is sometimes refer to as the “wholesaler’s exception,” and it covers recommendations made by both recordkeepers’ wholesalers, and home office personnel.
Note that there is also an IFFE exception for advice to primary plan fiduciaries (e.g., plan committees) who oversee at least $50,000,000 in assets. However, that is a subject of another article.
The wholesaler’s exception permits recordkeepers to provide investment line-ups to fiduciary advisors, but not to plan sponsors. However, in a set of FAQs, the DOL noted that wholesaler recommendations could be made in the presence of a plan sponsor, so long as the fiduciary advisor was also at the meeting. So, the recordkeeper (and the wholesaler) can avoid fiduciary status by, for example, initially meeting with the advisor to discuss the investment line-up, and then making a presentation to the plan sponsor in the presence of the advisor (or, alternatively, having the advisor make the presentation, but with the wholesaler being able to provide comments and answer questions). It’s important to know, though, that it must be clear that the recommendations are being vetted by the fiduciary advisor so that, in a sense, the recommendations are technically fiduciary advice by the advisor and not by the recordkeeper/wholesaler. As a result, advisors should make sure that they approve of the recommendations either before they are presented or at the meeting.
In my experience, broker-dealers, RIAs, and banks and trust companies will ordinarily serve as fiduciaries for the advice given by their representatives and employees. As a result, recordkeepers and wholesalers will be able to provide investment advice to these representatives without becoming fiduciaries. However, insurance companies are generally not willing to serve as co-fiduciaries with their insurance agents, and that is particularly true of independent insurance agents and brokers. However, if the insurance agents are also registered representatives of a broker-dealer, that does not present a problem, since the broker-dealer can, from a fiduciary perspective, oversee advice about insurance products; as a result, the agents will have a financial institution to qualify as the IFFE.
As described above, where an insurance agent is only licensed to sell insurance, there will not usually be a financial institution that will serve as the IFFE. That presents a significant problem for the distribution of insurance products to plans, participants, and IRAs through independent insurance agents and brokers. While group annuity contracts can be recommended under Prohibited Transaction Exemption 84-24, and the agent or broker can receive a commission, a wholesaler cannot provide the independent agent or broker with a recommended line-up — without the wholesaler and the recordkeeper becoming fiduciaries.
If properly done, a possible solution would be for the independent insurance agent or broker to not make any recommendations about investments, but instead for the plan sponsor to utilize the services of a fiduciary on the platform, for example, a 3(21) or 3(38) platform fiduciary.
The IFFE exception will likely be embraced by the recordkeeper community. As a result, the common approach will be to provide investment line-ups to fiduciary advisors who are supervised by IFFEs. That does present an issue, though, for recordkeepers who sell directly to plan sponsors without the use of an advisor. My next article will discuss the RFP/RFI approach that can be used for that purpose.
POSTSCRIPT: This article does not discuss some of the requirements for satisfying the IFFE exception to the fiduciary definition. If an advisor or a firm intends to use that exception, it should only do so with legal guidance.
The views expressed in this article are the views of Fred Reish, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Drinker Biddle & Reath.