Thursday, April 13, 2017

June 9th: Strict Fiduciary Obligations to Arise?

April 13, 2017

THE ADOPTION OF THE DoL's "DEFINITION OF FIDUCIARY" AND "IMPARTIAL CONDUCT STANDARDS" - NOW EFFECTIVE JUNE 9, 2017 - LARGER IMPACTS ON FINANCIAL SERVICES THAN MANY MIGHT IMAGINE.

It was a somewhat surprising, and yet brilliant, move, the U.S. Department of Labor ("DoL") last week announced its 60-day delay of the applicability date of its "Conflict of Interest Rule" and related prohibited transaction exemptions (PTEs). The DoL delayed until Jan. 1, 2018 the many specific disclosure and certain other requirements of the rule and PTEs. However, and most importantly, the DoL stated that the new "definition of fiduciary" rule would go into effect, along with the Impartial Conduct Standards, on June 9, 2017.

In other words, fiduciary duties will apply, starting June 9, 2017, to nearly all ERISA-covered qualified plan accounts [401(k) accounts, and others], as well as to IRAs (of all types) and HSAs.

Note that this is a fairly strict fiduciary standard. The Impartial Conduct Standards impose, through elegant language, a "best interests" fiduciary standard of conduct. And it's a bona fide standard. No waivers permitted of core fiduciary duties. Conflicts of interest (at the firm level, not the adviser level) might exist, but the client cannot be harmed by the presence of such a conflict.

Moreover, the Impartial Conduct Standards incorporate the prudent investor rule (PIR). And the PIR has two tough requirements (among others): (1) that fiduciaries avoid idiosyncratic risk (i.e., diversifiable risk); and (2) that fiduciaries not waste client assets (i.e., if a mutual fund or ETF has a higher fee than a similar fund or ETF, then you need to justify it. As I've explained previously, the Impartial Conduct Standards are so tough, you need to avoid gray areas. And that means avoiding the receipt of additional compensation received when recommending one product over another, unless fee offsets occur.

Lastly, despite the delay of the more specific rules requiring acknowledgment of fiduciary status in the contract, along with disclosure requirements and other provisions, as I've written previously the Impartial Contract Terms become implied terms of every contract between a fiduciary and a plan sponsor, plan participant or IRA owner, effective June 9, 2017. (That is, unless the account is, and remains, grandfathered.) In other words, the Impartial Conduct Standards are effective on June 9th, and they "mean business"! (Note, this is not an "implied contract"; rather, it is an implied term in an express contract. Just to be clear.)

There is an exception, however. For "level-fee fiduciaries" the Impartial Conduct Standards only appear to apply during the IRA rollover process, but not thereafter. When the IRA rollover process (which, logically, might include implementation of the new portfolio if the portfolio design (or allocation, or products) was discussed prior to the IRA rollover, as most likely occurs) ends, and when non-rollover activities begin, is uncertain at the present time. Still, due diligence is required (by everyone, regardless of whether they are a level-fee fiduciary) during the IRA rollover process, and the tough Impartial Conduct Standards apply.

WHAT ABOUT ALL OF THOSE OTHER SPECIFIC RULES THAT ARE DELAYED UNTIL JANUARY 1, 2018?

First, firms may comply with them. For example, firms could choose to comply with BICE, or they may use 84-24 for fixed annuities (and, at least until Jan. 1, 2018) fixed indexed annuities.

Second, firms don't have to use these exemptions. They don't have to have all of the compliance procedures in place, the disclosures done in contracts and web sites and otherwise, and possess various express contract language.

But - here's the key - the imposition of fiduciary status, with the Impartial Conduct Standards, carries with it the duty to avoid conflicts of interest. And unavoided conflicts of interest must be properly managed. Not only must the conflict of interest be affirmatively disclosed, but the adviser bears the burden of ensuring client understanding of both the conflict of interest and its implications. Thereafter the informed consent of the client must be received by the adviser. (And, here's the rub - no client is ever likely to provide informed consent to be harmed. And since the academic research is compelling that higher product fees lead to lower returns, all other things being equal, avoiding higher cost products becomes paramount.) Even then, the transaction must be substantively fair to the client.

So, any conflict of interest will trigger the need to undertake disclosures and proper management of the conflict, anyway. In other words, if a firm chooses not to utilize BICE, a firm will find that it still has to come up with disclosures and processes to effectively manage conflicts of interest. So, in essence, not much has changed.

Wow.

At its core, fiduciary duties are principles-based standards. And these principles are eloquently stated in the 237 words that comprise the Impartial Conduct Standards. And, these principles are imposed upon advisers effective June 9, 2017, as they become implied terms of existing contracts (except as grandfathered) and all new contracts between firms and the clients.

What about all of those other provisions - contract terms, disclosures, etc. I submit that most of these specific requirements found in BICE, PTE 84-24, or the other PTEs, don't really matter all that much. Any specific rules adopted just illuminate the fiduciary principles that already exist. Even in the absence of specific disclosure and contractual requirements, the fiduciary standard as applied by the principles-based approach (as set forth in the Impartial Conduct Standards) is extremely strong. In fact, it may even be stronger.

Quite frankly, I hope that BICE is not adopted, nor the new PTE 84-24. Instead, just adopt this principles-based approach, as exemplified in the Impartial Conduct Standards. (A few specific rules may need to be adopted, but nothing like the extensive requirements set forth in BICE.)

WILL THE RULE ACTUALLY BECOME EFFECTIVE ON JUNE 9TH?

There are some eight weeks left, at the time of this writing, until June 9th.

It is possible that the DoL will gain new leadership, and under that leadership that the DoL will seek a new delay (for the definition of fiduciary, and the impartial conduct standards) past June 9th. However, to do so would violate the Administrative Procedures Act. It is just not possible to do a thorough economic analysis (which needs to counter the prior economic analysis undertaken) by June 9th. And, without such occurring, any attempt to substantially delay or to rescind the DOL fiduciary rule would likely be met by a challenge in court.

Also, as others have observed, judges don't like government agencies that do 180-degree turns in their rule-making, simply because a new Administration takes office. (Still, a delay past June 9th is possible, and no doubt broker-dealer and insurance company lobbyists are hard at work to make that happen.)

I've been saying, ever since Trump was elected President, that the DOL Rule was likely dead. Yet, here we are in mid-April, and its core provisions remain eight weeks away from becoming effective. I don't mind, as I would love it if my earlier prognostications are proved wrong.

Other challenges remain. New legislation is being introduced in Congress to stop the DoL. While certain to pass the U.S. House of Representatives, passage in the U.S. Senate is unlikely - provided the Democratic Senators continue to unite together. (Not always a certain thing, especially when Wall Street's money and influence are brought to bear.)

WHAT SHOULD FIRMS AND ADVISERS DO NOW?

First, all firms (whether level-fee or not) should adopt policies and procedures regarding rollovers from ERISA-covered qualified retirement plans and IRAs. Again, please refer to my prior post for insights into what is required. Even if the DoL changes course, other regulators (SEC, states) are stepping up their scrutiny in this area.

Second, broker-dealer firms and insurance marketing organizations should go ahead and implement all of their compliance policies and procedures and plans. If you are going to utilize BICE, or PTE 84-24, or another PTE, by all means go ahead and implement, by June 9th. (You could design new policies and procedures to just apply the Impartial Conduct Standards, without complying with all of the specific, delayed-until-1/1/18 requirements of the PTEs. But then you would likely just be re-doing your procedures again, less than 7 months later.)

Of course, you could wait awhile. To see if the DoL under new leadership (likely to be confirmed by the Senate within the next few weeks) changes course prior to June 9th. Or you might wait to see if the U.S. Congress is able to pass legislation that stops "fiduciary" in its track. How long you can wait depends on how long it takes to implement policies and procedures, implement the systems you require, education your staff, etc. For most firms, they can't wait much longer.

Third, advisers whose firms choose to utilize BICE should be wary, and they may desire to consider a move to a firm that embraces a truer fiduciary environment. Advisers in firms that choose to use the PTEs will likely be placed in a situation where their economic interests are not aligned with those of their firm. Firms may see the additional revenue streams that come from conflicts of interest as too tempting; any claims brought (and they will be brought, at least by some fraction of clients) will just be subjected to negotiation, arbitration and some losses to the firms. But, absent the availability of class-action claims, compensation provided to those individual clients who actually pursue claims will just be a "cost of doing business." Any damage to a firm's reputation is easily fixed.

Because of this (and for other reasons), some large firms (e.g., Merrill Lynch) are choosing to not utilize BICE, and instead will move to adopt level-fee compensation for IRA accounts; this is not only good for consumers, but also good for the long-term health of the firm and of its advisers.

When combined with the use of low-cost mutual funds or ETFs, structured by experienced portfolio managers following evidence-based investing practices, it is likely that this approach will lead to far less claims by clients against their advisers and firms. In other words, much less liability, and much less reputational risk for the adviser. Advisers' reputations are not easily fixed, and marks on the advisers U-4 are likely to stay there for decades to come.

Quite frankly, if I were in a broker-dealer firm that wanted to use BICE, I would find another firm.

There is just too much risk to you (the individual adviser), and to your reputation, in using BICE. Proper adherence to BICE does not really provide any real benefit to you (compared to just providing level fee advice) - but it can cause you a lot of headaches.

I predict that a shakeout will occur. Advisers who don't desire to fully embrace the fiduciary standard will shift to firms that use BICE, and they will choose to assume the reputational and fiscal risks that accompany such a choice.

But the most excellent, ethical advisers will (more slowly) move away from firms that use BICE. For these advisers will realize that old writ, "A man cannot serve two masters," has a lot of truth to it.

When (such as under BICE) firms can receive greater compensation if their advisers recommend one product over another (even though the adviser receives no greater compensation as a result), over time such firms will ask their advisers to venture into the "gray." And, as a result, individual advisers will be brought into arbitrations, and have their U-4 dinged. Not fun. No conducive to having a long-term and successful career as a financial adviser.

RAMIFICATIONS OF THIS NEW FIDUCIARY ERA.

Absent another change of direction by the DoL prior to June 9, 2017, a new era is upon us.

At least for IRA accounts, salespeople will become fiduciaries. Instead of pushing products, they will be required to step into the shoes of the client, with all the required expertise expected, and to select the best products in the marketplace for their clients.
  • Some will be able to make this transition. Others, stuck in a "sales mentality," will not. The latter will eventually leave firms that seek a proper transition away from the sell-side and to the buy-side.
Broker-dealer firms will continue to diverge in their approaches to the rule.
  • Some with weak leadership and poor foresight will chose to use the PTEs (including BICE), as they continue to seek revenue-sharing and other arrangements. But, the harsh reality is that additional third-party compensation, to recommend one product over another, will just result in liability.
  • Firms with strong leadership will realize that the fiduciary tide has turned, and they will choose to work to adopt level-fee compensation and a true fiduciary culture. It will take massive efforts to do this correctly.
Advisers will increasingly shift from one firm to another. Many of the older advisers, who want to try to remain as salespeople and who don't want to become true fiduciaries, will migrate to firms that will utilize BICE and the other PTEs. Those firms will welcome such advisers. But it's a devil's bargain - for both the firm and the adviser. It will trigger an inevitable decline in morale at the firms, as claims begin to be asserted for improper management of conflicts of interest. Even journalists in the consumer space will take note - and begin telling their readers to avoid firms that utilize BICE and the other PTEs.

Then, new advisers in firms that request the advisers to use BICE and the other PTEs, rather than level compensation, will eventually wise up and depart for a purer fiduciary pasture. They will move to broker-dealer firms (dual registrants, such as Merrill Lynch) that adopt level-fee compensation. Such firms are protecting their own good will, and the reputations of their advisers. In other instances, advisers will join RIA firms, eschewing the historical "sales culture" of wirehouses altogether in favor of a more client-centric, true fiduciary business model.
  • Independent B/Ds that don't adopt a true fiduciary culture will also see an exodus.
  • BDs affiliated with insurance companies will likely see the first major exodus. Fiduciaries don't want to be pressured to sell expensive products (including cash value life insurance that most consumers don't need).
Asset managers (i.e., product manufacturers) will undergo massive changes. Fees will fall (as indeed they already have, though more in coming). Advisers will scrutinize more intensely the apparent low-cost index funds and ETFs for "hidden fees" - such as diversion of securities lending revenue, higher-than-appropriate payments to affiliated service providers, and payment of soft dollars. This will lead to another shakeout among asset managers. Only those asset managers that quickly and truly lower their "total fees and costs" and, in the process, gain market share, will survive.

LOSERS.

Every broker-dealer firm and dual registrant that does not adopt a level-fee approach, eschewing the use of BICE and the other PTEs. Over time, since the economic interests of the fir and the adviser are not aligned, the good advisers will flee such firms.

Advisers who don't move to become true fiduciaries. Their days are numbered. Sure, they'll hang around for a dozen or so years. But eventually they will be out of the business.

Insurance companies. Most won't have the products that fiduciaries are able to recommend. (A few will thrive, but just a few low-cost providers.) Time to sell stock in many of these companies!

  • Want to sell high-cost variable annuities, whose 3% to 4% total annual fees and costs make the "guarantees" offered somewhat illusory? Fiduciaries know that the cost-benefit analysis leads, 99% of the time, to a "just say no" answer. High-cost VAs will disappear.
  • Want to sell fixed indexed annuities, and fixed annuities, from low-rated insurance companies (in terms of their financial strength)? Fiduciaries can't do this. Fixed annuities from low-rated insurance companies will see their sales decline. (See further discussion of EIAs, below.)
  • Want to recommend cash value life insurance as an "income tax free" vehicle for retirement savings? Fiduciaries can't do this (except when asset protection reasons exist, and there is no better alternative to meet the asset protection need). Cash value life insurance sales, which have already declined by 50% over the past decade, will continue to decline.
Higher-cost mutual fund complexes. When you create an army of expert fiduciary advisers to scrutinize products, only the best will survive.

Variable annuities? The high-cost ones, which often possess 3% to 4% (or more) annual fees, won't survive. Lower-cost ones will survive.

Equity-indexed annuities (EIAs)? Most won't survive. Anytime a fiduciary recommends the purchase of a fixed annuity from an insurance company with low financial strength, the fiduciary's judgment will be (rightfully) questioned. And, many claims will be brought against advisers recommending EIAs because the actual returns seen will often be far less than the returns that are illustrated (a fact a good fiduciary would know, and disclose, prior to recommending the product). Insurance company control over the level of profits it makes (via control over participation rates and caps, and by other means) will also be questioned.
  • [It is possible that good EIAs might appear in the marketplace - designed with transparency in mind and with low cost structures and from insurance companies with very high financial strength ratings. (If you know of any in the marketplace, drop me a line!)]
Revenue sharing, including 12b-1 fees? They will disappear, over time. Within a few years, the marketplace will be transformed into a "level compensation" environment. Rather than keep track of "fee offsets" (a difficult and expensive system to adopt and maintain), firms will become revenue-sharing-free and commission-free. The marketplace will put an end to 12b-1 fees, payment for shelf space, soft dollar compensation and other forms of revenue sharing - long before the SEC acts in this area.

Proprietary product recommendations? Eventually, they will largely disappear. You just can't represent the seller (your firm, or its affiliate, producing and selling an product) and the buyer (the client) at the same time. Eventually the investment community will come to realize this. Proprietary products will be shed by BD firms - a movement that began over a decade ago will accelerate.

Principal trading? Same result. It will be difficult in most instances for a fiduciary to justify a principal trade, unless they can prove that it is in the client's best interests. Let's be frank - principal trades make BD firms more money than agency trades. And it can lead to the dumping of securities. And other practices adverse to clients' interests. Except in a few cases (such as in a few states, where limited dealers of muni bonds exist), BD firms will migrate more to serving in an agency role, rather than as a principal. Perhaps the long-awaited split of brokerage away from dealers (that FINRA, f/k/a NASD, boasted that it was able to negate, in the 1940's) will finally occur. Again, from marketplace pressures, not due to explicit regulation. (This will take time.)

FINRA. It's opposition to the application of fiduciary duties to fee-based accounts in 2005, and its stated opposition to the DoL fiduciary rule (in favor of a new "best interests" standard that is anything but), will come back to haunt them. More and more Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress will question why FINRA even exists, given its opposition to raising standards of conduct, as evidenced by its actions over many decades. Increasing calls will occur for market conduct regulation to be stripped from FINRA, and given to a combination of the SEC and the states, or perhaps to a new professional regulatory organization (new formed, or adapted from an existing professional organization).

WINNERS:

Large and small business owners (i.e., plan sponsors). They will be served by fiduciaries. In class-action litigation, they won't be left hanging out to dry, while their "retirement counselors" hide behind the shield of "suitability." Also, 401(k) product fees will continue to plummet, as fiduciary advisers rush to ensure participant funds are not "wasted."

401(k) plans. More small businesses will offer them, once their fears of liability are diminished, through the receipt of fiduciary advice from advisors that can be held accountable if things go wrong.

Plan participants and IRA account owners? Huge winners. Individual client portfolios will be (largely) managed under the dictates of the prudent investor rule. Lower fees and costs result. Less risk will be assumed by individual investors in many instances. And greater portfolio returns, especially over the long term, will flow to the individual investors. As a result, our fellow U.S. citizens will amass greater amounts for their retirement needs, and during retirement their nest eggs will be managed far better.

Lower-fee fiduciary advisers will gain market share. Including robo-advisers (although challenges exist for the "pure" robo in terms of providing the necessary advice without human intervention). Better yet will be the "hybrid" advisers - where personal contact is offered at the onset of the client relationship, and periodically thereafter. Individual advisers will team up with robo-advisor solutions, to more efficiently serve clients.

But, fears of the requirements of "reasonable compensation" are overblown. Generally, courts don't like to delve into this issue, and will permit the marketplace to set fees. We'll still see AUM fees of 1% and greater, especially when financial planning and life planning services are provided as part of such fee.

Lower-cost mutual fund and ETF providers will see large market share gains. But only the best will survive. Any attempts to "hide" fees (through excessive sharing of securities lending revenue, high payments to affiliate, payment of soft dollars) will eventually be unveiled by the army of expert fiduciaries.

Winners will likely be Dimensional Funds Advisors (DFA) and Vanguard. DFA offers compelling offerings with its core equity funds, providing high levels of exposure to several factors for relatively low cost. DFA also has excellent tax-efficient funds, and tax-efficient stock mutual funds will become necessary in taxable accounts as the fiduciary duties spread. But, over time, DFA will be challenged by the emergence of more multi-factor funds and ETFs; continued innovation by DFA may, however, keep them ahead of the rest of the pack.

Vanguard has a number of very-low-cost funds and ETFs, although it lacks offerings in some key asset classes. And it lacks broad market fund with multi-factor tilts, designed to minimize transaction costs and to promote tax efficiencies. If Vanguard can expand its offerings more intelligently than it has in the past, it could become even larger.

Some low-cost, but not always exceptionally low-cost, fund complexes will survive, at least for a while. TIAA-CREF and Fidelity come to mind. Over time, they will need to continue to lower their fees, to adequately compete. Otherwise their market share will slowly decline.

The possible elimination of 403(b) plans during tax reform [in favor of just having 401(k) plans] could also serve as an impediment to TIAA-CREF, to some degree. During any changeover many formerly 403(b) plans will likely re-examine their choice of investment adviser.

Some of the lower-cost ETF providers will survive, but others will fall by the wayside. It all depends on which ones become the low-cost leaders, achieve full transparency on fees and costs, and survive the waves of extensive due diligence that will be coming. Again, asset managers that aggressively cut fees and costs (not just the annual expense ratio, but also transaction and opportunity costs and diversion of revenue sharing dollars), and who go for market share, will likely be the survivors.

Many Discount Brokers/Custodians. TD Ameritrade, Schwab, Fidelity, and others will continue to grow as more and more independent RIAs and independent BDs require custodial services. Some challenges exist, but as RIA firms and independent BDs continue to gain market share, then these custodians will continue to benefit. Especially if they, themselves, eschew conflicts of interest in their practices.

Under the Impartial Conduct Standards, some practices of mutual fund complexes and custodians - such as providing "free" educational conferences (even if the participants pay their own travel costs) - will need to be altered. Don't be surprised to see all custodians start charging fixed fees for conference attendance, and even annual fees for access to trading software, rebalancing software, and research. Small RIAs will bear the brunt of such fees, and it will increase the cost of entry into this investment advisory profession.

The U.S. Economy and U.S. Corporate Profits. A huge win. Greater accumulation of capital results, accelerating over time. This lowers the cost of capital for U.S. companies, and provides the fuel for U.S. economic growth.

Professional Associations, Generally? Too soon to tell. But, generally, as the members of FPA, AICPA/PFP division, NAPFA, CFA Institute, and CFP Board converge around common standards (such as the fiduciary standard), these organizations begin to look more and more the same. And, as conference sponsorship revenues fall (especially as high-cost product providers evaporate), financial pressures may be brought upon them to merge, or at least become more closely aligned. Some organizations may share common technology (web-based software) platforms, for example, to save fees, costs and staffing expenses.

Certified Financial Planner(tm) Certification? A clear winner. The way you distinguish yourself, in a fiduciary era where everyone is using low-cost products, is to offer financial planning. And providing financial planning in different ways, to fit the desires of different clients, will become necessary.

An embrace of life planning with further add to the CFP(r)'s value proposition, and will stem the rise of "artificial intelligence" to provide financial planning advice.

Also, the Certified Financial Planner(tm) certification has become the most recognized among consumers (although much work remains in that area); I don't see any other designation being close to challenging the CFP mark, in terms of consumer awareness.

Newly Minted CFPs. Firms' demand for newly minted CFPs will soar. College undergraduate programs may well see the number of graduates rise, especially as a larger number of "good jobs" and internships become available as firms shift toward fiduciary business models. Problems continue in attracting minorities and women to the field, but efforts will continue to be made.

There are significant differences in the level of education provided in some college programs, versus many of the certificate programs that "teach to the CFP exam." These distinctions will become more widely known, and firms may begin to recruit more heavily from top-tier university programs that teach all aspects of financial planning and investments, including client relationship management skills and foundational knowledge as to the use of various software.

For example, the depth of the corporate finance / investments background that Financial Planning Track graduates of Western Kentucky University receive, along with training in networking and ongoing enhancement of interpersonal skills, will set these graduates apart. If demand increases for our graduates from firms practicing under the fiduciary standard, then WKU will be willing to expand its programs to increase its number of graduates.

Other institutions will become known for producing graduates with an emphasis on financial counseling, or who also possess strong business education, or for more in-depth practice management knowledge. The CFP Board will continue to evolve its student learning objectives, however, thereby providing a core common course of study that binds all of the university programs together.

Chartered Financial Analyst designation? The CFA is most respected designation, within the larger financial services industry. But will it further shed its security analysis roots, and embrace more comprehensive education and testing around "wealth management" (i.e., financial planning plus investment portfolio management)? Will it survive the passive investment research onslaught? Don't get me wrong - we'll always have securities analysts (for without them, the market would not be as efficient as it is now). And we'll need investment bankers (although I predict investment banking fees will diminish over time, especially for equities). The question is how many securities analysts will be hired, in the future, as technology continues to displace workers in this area and as the number of actively managed portfolios decline.

CPA/PFS designation? Likely a boost, over time. Simply because, as trust in financial advisors becomes more widespread among consumers, the demand for all financial planning services will rise. The question is whether the CPA/PFS becomes aligned with the CFP(r) designation, in some fashion. The CFP has greater brand recognition (as a financial planning designation). But the CPA designation is perhaps the most highly trusted by consumers, and the required tax and financial planning knowledge to become a CPA/PFS continues to make it one of the few premier designations available today. A closer alignment between CFP and CPA/PFS could be undertaken, if visionaries exist along with those who can make it happen.

TRANSFORMATIONAL. 

That's what the June 9th date promises.

But only if the DoL's Definition of Fiduciary and Impartial Conduct Standards are actually implemented on that date. Eight weeks is a short time, but it is also a long time - in terms of what could happen in Washington to derail the new June 9th applicability date for the core, important parts of the DoL rules.

Let's hope that June 9th arrives with the application of the broader definition of fiduciary and with the application of the Impartial Conduct Standards. For on that day, the financial planning and investment advisory emerging profession(s) will take a huge step forward toward laying further foundations for a true profession someday.

Ron A. Rhoades, JD, CFP(r) serves as Director of Western Kentucky University's Financial Planning Program. He is also a tax and estate planning adviser, a Certified Financial Planner, and a registered investment adviser. He frequently consults to firms on the application of the fiduciary standard of conduct, and he is a frequent speaker on fiduciary standards generally as well as investment due diligence.

This blog is written on his own behalf, and does not represent the views of any institution, firm or organization with whom he may be associated.

For questions, comments, suggestions, and inquiries, Please contact Ron via e-mail: ron.rhoades@wku.edu.













Sunday, April 9, 2017

June 9, 2017: Many IRA Account Contracts Include Impartial Contract Standards as an "Implied Term"

The U.S. Department of Labor's extended of the "applicability date" to June 9, 2017 for the imposition of the Impartial Conduct Standards to ERISA-covered retirement plans and to IRA accounts, and the DOL's application of the expanded definition of "fiduciary" effective on June 9, 2017.

Yet, many other provisions of the rules were delayed until Jan. 1, 2018. These include the written statement of fiduciary status, as well as a written commitment to adhere to the Impartial Conduct Standards.

However, as I discuss in this post, the absence of a express term in the contract that the Impartial Conduct Standards are to be adhered to does not means that the parties to the contract cannot enforce the Impartial Conduct Standards. Rather, the Impartial Conduct Standards become implied terms of every new IRA account agreement (or IRA annuity contract) entered into on or after June 9, 2017, and become applicable to existing IRA account agreements when transactions are undertaken that remove the arrangement from grandfathered status.

In other words, the Impartial Conduct Standards are likely enforceable by the customer for new IRA transactions (to the extent not grandfathered), through a breach of contract action, as if the financial services provider had expressly placed in writing its commitment to adhere to the Impartial Conduct Standards.

Permit me to summarize the law in this area, and then to apply it to the DOL's Conflict of Interest and other rules, as they now stand to be implemented on June 9, 2017. (For purposes of brevity and clarity, I omit the numerous court citations that would typically be found in a law review article that might address these issues.)

American courts have traditionally taken the view that competent parties may make contracts on their own terms, provided such contracts are neither illegal nor contrary to public policy, and in the absence of fraud, mistake, or duress a party who has entered into such a contract is bound thereby. The paramount public policy is that freedom to contract is not to be interfered with lightly.

Yet, under principles of contract construction, implied terms are very often held to exist within an express contract. While most often seen in Uniform Commercial Code Article 2 ("sale of goods") cases, the principle is derived from common law. In fact, under common law the general principle exists that a contract is the sum of its express terms and its implied terms.

The great majority of state and federal courts (but not all courts, at least not in all instances) accept the common law rule that courts in construing contracts may incorporate relevant, unmentioned laws as implied contract terms. Hence, it is a general principle that statutes in existence at the time a contract is executed are deemed, in the absence of contractual language to the contrary, part of the contract as though they were expressly incorporated therein. In other words, statutes become implied terms in an express contract. The parties to a contract are presumed to know the law applicable to their relationship.

And an action brought to enforce an implied term is an action that arises under the contract. The fact that the source of the implied term is a statute rather than an inference from what the parties said or from the circumstances of the contract makes no difference.

Naturally, not only the requirements of statutes themselves find their way into contracts as implied terms, but also requirements imposed by regulations enacted under the authority of a statute. In either instance - actual statute or regulation - the legal requirements imposed are implied into the contract. In essence, contracts incorporate the relevant legal requirements, whether or not they are referred to in the contract itself.

Hence, it appears that the terms of the DOL's Conflict of Interest Rule and related exemptions, and in particular the Impartial Conduct Standards with an applicability date of June 9, 2017, will likely find themselves to be implied terms in a contract. In other words, for any IRA account agreement entered into on or after June 9, 2017 - whether it be in the form of a brokerage account application, insurance or annuity contract, or investment adviser-client agreement - it appears that the Impartial Conduct Standards are likely an implied term of that contract, and enforceable by the customer in a breach of contract action. The Implied Contract Standards, despite the DOL dropping the requirement that they be explicitly referred to in the contract, are nevertheless "read into" such IRA account agreements.

While courts have been at times reluctant to imply into contracts the terms of any statute or regulation, in the current instance it is clear, from the language of the DOL's recent pronouncement (the "Delay Rule") that the DOL clearly intends that the Impartial Conduct Standards apply to all new IRA accounts. It appears more than equitable that courts will imply the Impartial Conduct Standards, not only because the DOL clearly intends that they apply, but also given the overwhelming knowledge within the financial services industry of the current DOL rule-making process and its impact.

Can financial services firm disavow the application of the Impartial Conduct Standards, as an implied term of the contract? It is true that the express terms of a contract generally overrule the implied terms. However, it is a general legal principle that contracts must be subject to existing, relevant laws, and that private parties may not abrogate or override laws enacted from public concern. The general rule is that one whose rights are subject to state restriction cannot remove them from the power of the government by making a contract about them. This would seem to be especially true since the DOL's 2016 regulations contain a provision that effectively prohibits the parties from disclaiming away their core duties arising under the Impartial Conduct Standards, and prohibits seeking client waivers of those duties.

It should be noted that the inclusion of the Impartial Conduct Standards as an implied term of the parties' contract is not about the creation of a new cause of action. The courts that have considered the DOL's Conflict of Interest Rule and the Best Interests Contract Exemption have all, to date, rejected the argument that a new cause of action is created by the DOL rules, when they expressly require incorporation of the Impartial Conduct Standards into the contract. Rather, the Impartial Conduct Standards are just that - they establish terms of the contract that constrain the actions of a party. In other words, they establish standards for performance of the contract. A claim brought by a party is still a contractual claim, whether the Impartial Conduct Standards are expressly a part of the contractual terms or an implied term of the parties' agreement.

Of course, as with nearly any application of common law principles, the conclusions stated above are subject to challenge. But I believe that the probability of success, in the event of a judicial challenge, clearly favors the conclusion that the Impartial Conduct Standards are implied terms of nearly all new IRA account agreements, effective June 9, 2017.

Accordingly, I urge all insurance companies, insurance marketing organizations, broker-dealers, and registered investment advisers to continue their implementation of their compliance policies and procedures, for adherence to the Impartial Conduct Standards.




Saturday, April 1, 2017

I Am Absolutely Stunned by Trump Tweets This A.M. Regarding SEC Nominees, Fiduciary, DOL


Dear Reader:
Please be aware - this post was done on APRIL 1ST, and it was an April Fool's Joke.
THESE TWEETS ARE NOT REAL!
Thank you.

April 1, 2017

In his classic early morning Tweet style, President Trump surprised the financial services community with these tweets this morning:

    Withdrawing nomination of SEC Chair. GREAT GUY but ties too close to HUGE Wall Street firms. Will nominate SEC Commissioners that represent THE PEOPLE! 
    04:39 AM - 01 Apr 2017


    Dodd Frank to be repealed. But will require financial advisors to act in BEST INTERESTS of their customers. 
    04:52 AM - 01 Apr 2017

Then, a few hours later, Trump surprised again:


    DOL best interest rule to be studied. My SUPPORTERS want it. Will find way to MAKE IT WORK for THE PEOPLE.
    07:46 AM - 01 Apr 2017

Needless to say, this writer is just absolutely STUNNED by these developments. I profess that I don't know what may come from this possible change of direction.

Will the President lead, instead of just blindly following the Wall Street insiders he surrounded himself with?

Will President Trump actually fulfill his campaign promises to look after the interests of, as he states, "the people" -  and not the monied interests in Washington, D.C.?

Will the President instruct the DOL to go ahead and implement its "Conflict of Interest" (Fiduciary) Rules?

Alas, then I awoke from my morning slumber, and realized that my dream was amiss. Such a wild fantasy could only happen on April Fools Day.

All my best. - Ron