What’s a financial advisor to do? On March 15, 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chamber of Commerce of the U.S. v. U.S. Dep’t. of Labor, No. 17-10238, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6472 (5th Cir. Mar. 15, 2018) vacated – thereby invalidating – a series of seven rules (which we collectively refer to in this post as the “fiduciary rule”) issued in April 2016 by the Department of Labor (DOL). The fiduciary rule vastly expanded the reach of the ERISA fiduciary standards that apply to individuals and entities providing investment advice. This post first explains the state of the law prior to the fiduciary rule; it then discusses the impact of the rule on the arguments that the Court grappled with; and it concludes by handicapping the options available to regulated financial advisors and institutions as they endeavor to respond.
In April of this year, the Department of Labor issued a suite of rules (i) expanding the class of persons and entities who are fiduciaries for purposes of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code; (ii) providing two new prohibited transaction exemptions (or PTEs); and (iii) amending a handful of existing PTEs to conform to the new regulatory regime. (For a list of, and links to, the suite of final rules, please see our post of April 11, 2016.) The fiduciary definition, exemptions and amendments, and their respective preambles, occupy in total almost 1,000 pages of the Federal Register. Collectively, these items enact a sea-change in the regulation of investment advice provided to ERISA-covered retirement plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). When the Department promulgated these rules, it promised to provide subsequent guidance—including Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)—in response to questions that would inevitably arise.
Speaking at a trade association meeting in Boston at the end of October, a senior Department of Labor official reported that the Department was hard at work on its first set of FAQs. He said that the FAQs would reinforce some of the rule’s basic concepts that questioners seemed to struggle with and add some gloss to particular aspects of the rule that the Department felt needed additional attention. His predictions proved accurate. In this post we provide a sampling of some of the highlights of the recently issued FAQs. We have chosen three topics that fall under the heading of “basic concepts,” and three topics that elucidate particular aspects of these rules. There is, of course, a measure of editorial discretion at work in our selection to topics. Other practitioners might choose differently based on their particular needs and interests. For anyone who works with or needs to comply with these rules, we recommend reading the FAQs in their entirety.