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REG Watch: DOL Fiduciary Rule 2024

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Primary Blog/Departmnt of Labor/REG Watch: DOL Fiduciary Rule 2024
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REG Watch: DOL Fiduciary Rule 2024

On October 31, 2023, the Department of Labor (DOL) introduced revisions to the definition of "investment advice" under ERISA, signaling a significant departure from the established definition set in 1975. Previous endeavors by the DOL to modify this definition had faced obstacles, notably in 2018 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned a prior attempt at modification. This led to a return to the original 1975 rule as the standard for delineating investment advice.

The Biden administration has expressed concerns regarding loopholes in the current fiduciary definition, which could result in unnecessary fees for individuals saving for retirement. In response, the DOL has put forth proposals to enhance ERISA fiduciary responsibilities. These proposals seek to elevate advisors to a higher standard, prioritizing the retirement account of the individual over the financial interests of investment professionals.

Alongside redefining the fiduciary definition, the DOL has proposed alterations to existing prohibited transaction exemptions relied upon by investment professionals. These changes would establish standardized relief conditions for investment advice and potentially broaden the scope of those considered ERISA fiduciaries. The objective of the DOL is to ensure that investment decisions for retirement plans adhere to the protective guidelines of ERISA fiduciaries.

The proposed revisions would redefine the parameters of an investment advice fiduciary, focusing on providing advice or recommendations to retirement investors for compensation. The new criteria aim to pivot the focus from serving the plan to serving the retirement investor, removing the necessity for regular advice provision to the plan, and emphasizing the fiduciary nature of investment recommendations.

While these modifications could expand the pool of individuals classified as investment advice fiduciaries, concerns and advocacy from the industry regarding potential market impacts have surfaced. The DOL has received extensive feedback on the proposed rules, with speculations about challenges under the Administrative Procedures Act. The timeline for finalizing the rules has also raised uncertainties, considering potential changes under a new administration in 2025.

Charles Schwab has urged the Labor Department to retract its fiduciary rule proposal, contending that Labor is embarking on a misguided path similar to its failed 2016 rulemaking.

In a letter dated January 2, Peter Morgan, Schwab’s general counsel and managing director, expressed that Labor's plan is unnecessary and flawed from a legal and policy standpoint, destined to meet a fate akin to its 2016 predecessor.

Morgan emphasized several reasons why Schwab believes Labor's plan is doomed. He argued that the new proposal's redefinition of an investment-advice fiduciary is essentially a repetition of the 2016 Rule, encompassing circumstances where there is no trust or confidence relationship.

Morgan stressed that the term "fiduciary" is unambiguous and should not extend to broker-dealers and other financial professionals offering one-time advice. The proposed definition's broad scope, according to Morgan, is a critical flaw.

Despite potential hurdles and criticisms, the DOL is progressing with finalizing the regulations, with an expected release in the near future. Congressional scrutiny and potential actions to hinder the advancement of the proposed rules have been acknowledged, indicating a complex landscape for implementing these regulatory changes.

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