May 20, 2016

Analyzing the Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule

The revised Department of Labor (DOL) fiduciary rule (Rule) was published in its final form in the Federal Register and can be accessed by clicking this link. Although effective starting June 7th, 2016 the DOL has granted time for affected service providers of retirement plans to adjust to fiduciary status and partial compliance is not required until April 10, 2017 with full compliance required by January 1, 2018.

The focus here is determining if fiduciary status applies to your firm based on the advice provided to retirement plans or participants, what exemptions may apply, and what steps must be taken to maintain compliance.

Definition of Fiduciary

Under the Rule a fiduciary will now include a person providing investment advice regarding money or property within the plan for a fee or other compensation, directly or indirectly, to a plan, plan participant or beneficiary, IRA or IRA owner. Investment advice relevant to this definition include the following:

  1. A recommendation as to the advisability of acquiring, holding, disposing of, or exchanging, securities or other investment property, or a recommendation as to how securities or other investment property should be invested after the securities or other investment property are rolled over, transferred, or distributed from the plan or IRA;
  2. A recommendation as to the management of securities or other investment property, including, among other things, recommendations on investment policies or strategies, portfolio composition, selection of other persons to provide investment advice or investment management services, selection of investment account arrangements (e.g., brokerage versus advisory); or recommendations with respect to rollovers, transfers, or distributions from a plan or IRA, including whether, in what amount, in what form, and to what destination such a rollover, transfer, or distribution should be made; and
  3. The investment advice is made, directly or indirectly (through an affiliate), by a person who:
    1. Represents or acknowledges that it is acting as a fiduciary within the meaning of the ERISA or the IRS Code;
    2. Renders the advice pursuant to a written or verbal agreement, arrangement, or understanding that the advice is based on the particular needs of the advice recipient; or
    3. Directs the advice to a specific advice recipient or recipients regarding the advisability of a particular investment or management decision with respect to securities or other investment property of the plan or IRA.

The definition goes on to explain what constitutes a “recommendation” and what may be excluded from that definition, such as providing certain services or information regarding the plan or IRA, such as marketing or making available to a plan fiduciary a platform or similar mechanism where the plan fiduciary may select or monitor investment alternatives; identifying investment alternatives that meet objective criteria specified by the plan fiduciary; providing objective financial data and comparisons with independent benchmarks to the plan fiduciary.

The definition also clarifies that an advisor is not a fiduciary when providing advice to an independent person who is a fiduciary of a plan or IRA, if that fiduciary is a bank, insurance carrier, registered investment adviser, broker-dealer, or other person that holds or has assets under management of at least $50 million. This means the old definition has been expanded to focus on advice given to IRA owners and people rolling over their employer sponsored plan (e.g., 401(k) account) into an IRA. Finally, education and general marketing materials that a reasonable person would not view as investment recommendations are not included in the definition of retirement investment advice, so advisors may continue to provide general materials on retirement saving without triggering fiduciary duties.

As a fiduciary, an advisor must adhere to a “best interest” standard for a client, rather than a “suitability” standard for an investment product. Therefore, an advisor cannot receive fees that could be seen as creating conflicts of interest (i.e. commission or revenue-sharing), unless a qualified exemption applies.

Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE) and Impartial Conduct Standards

This exemption, published at this link, provides relief for compensation, such as commissions and revenue sharing, that an advisor and the advisor’s employing firm might receive in connection with investment advice to retail retirement investors. The BICE requires financial institutions and advisors to acknowledge fiduciary status for itself and its advisors, adhere to basic standards of impartial conduct by giving prudent advice in the client’s best interest, avoid misleading statements, and receive only reasonable compensation. Additionally, financial institutions must adopt policies and procedures reasonably designed to mitigate any harmful impact of conflicts of interest, disclose basic information about their conflicts of interest and the cost of their advice. Level Fee fiduciaries are subject to more streamlined conditions.

Principal Transactions Exemption

The other main exemption from the Rule is the Principal Transactions Exemption, published at this link, which permits advisors to sell or purchase certain debt securities and other investments out of their own inventories to or from plans and IRA owners. The exemption applies even though this transaction results in payment to the advisor. However, similar to the BIC exemption, the advisor must adhere to Impartial Conduct Standards and disclose to the client any conflicts of interest in order to make use of the exemption.

How should a Chief Compliance Officer respond to the Rule?

In all cases, the advisor will want to retain documentation of compliance with this new rule, including contracts, policies, procedures, and disclosures, to support your Books & Record requirements. However, there are no additional record retention requirements for detailed data on inflows, outflows, holdings, and returns for retirement plan or IRA clients.

Chief Compliance Officers should review the information in their Form ADV Part 2A and client agreements to determine whether or not they are acting as a fiduciary based on the recommendations provided to clients regarding retirement plans, participants, beneficiaries or IRAs, and ensuring that their client agreements and ADV contains all disclosures required by the Rule regarding conflicts of interest and compensation arrangements, including a statement as to whether or not they are a fiduciary.

Although an RIA may not be compensated by a commission or revenue sharing, Form ADV requires disclosure to clients regarding potential conflicts and compensation arrangements. Hybrid advisors receiving commission compensation will want to ensure they are satisfying the BICE. Therefore as a best practice we recommend that even firms without commission or revenue sharing fees should provide notice to retirement clients that they are providing their services in the client's best interest to uphold their fiduciary duty and review and update disclosures of any potential conflict of interest. This will ensure that you are availing your firm of the BICE and creating a presumption of compliance with the Rule.

Contributors:
Brendan Furey
Michael Conlon

May 3, 2016

CCO Series: Top Regulatory Deficiencies for RIAs -- Books and Records

What you need to know

Registered investment advisors are required to maintain and preserve books and records in an easily accessible place for a period of not less than five years from the end of the fiscal year during which the last entry was made on such record, the first two years in an appropriate office of the investment advisor.1 We cover books and records compliance in more detail in a previous post.

Annually, the North American Securities Administrators Association (“NASAA”) issues a report about common deficiencies found in state coordinated investment adviser examinations.2 The most common books and records deficiencies described by NASAA are lack of documentation of “recommendations made or proposed and any advice given or proposed,”3 which will include 1) the advisor’s analysis of client suitability for an investment product and 2) when acting as a fiduciary why the advice is the client’s “best interest”.

Common Deficiency: Client Suitability Records

Examiners noted the lack of documentation about the suitability of an investment product and lack of documentation that the advice is the client’s “best interest”. The mantra of an examiner is that if it is not documented then it was not done. Since July of 2012 when the FINRA suitability obligations went into effect,4 a major focus of the examiner’s books and records review has been on whether suitability is being properly documented in the client profile.

Common Deficiency: Focus on Fiduciaries

In addition, with the new Department of Labor fiduciary rule being published on April 8th, and effective in April 2017, examiners will be focused on reviewing suitability and “best interest” documentation. With the new fiduciary rule advisors serving clients in qualified retirement plans and IRAs will need to document how the advice is in the client’s “best interest” similar to other ERISA clients. Also, in certain cases the advisor’s client agreement may need to satisfy a Best Interest Contract Exemption pursuant to the new rule.

How do we avoid these deficiencies?

To avoid these deficiencies at your firm AdvisorAssist recommends the best practices of:

  • Perform an annual review of the advisor’s books and records archive to ensure you are keeping the required documentation for the required duration.
  • Preparing and maintaining a comprehensive profile on each client. This profile should be created during the onboarding of the client, confirmed with the client annually and updated as any new accounts or new information is received from the client.
  • Ensure your books and records contains all necessary backup documentation in addition to the client profile as needed to support your investment recommendations or advice.
  • Create and maintain Best Interest Contracts as needed for DOL-regulated transactions involving retirement plans.
  • Document in the client profile why advice regarding rollovers and other major transactions are in client’s best interest. Stay up to date with Fiduciary Rule Changes by clicking this link.

1. See 17 CFR §275.204-2(e)(1). Link.
2. See North American Securities Administrators Association, “2015 Investment Adviser Coordinated Exams,”. Link.
3. See 17 CFR §275.204-2(a)(7). Link.
4. See FINRA Regulatory Notice 11-02. Link.

AdvisorAssist’s CCO Series: Regulatory Deficiencies for RIAs is a series of articles that will help your firm understand and avoid the most common compliance deficiencies found by regulators. Our goal is to help you increase your confidence that your firm remains “exam ready” as well as some practical steps to help Chief Compliance Officers address this topic.

Contributors:
Brendan Furey
Michael Conlon

April 8, 2016

Department of Labor's Fiduciary Rule Change

The long-anticipated “fiduciary rule” update from the Department of Labor has been issued. AdvisorAssist is reviewing the contents of the rule change to determine what compliance impact it would have to our clients, if any.

As the effective date for the rule’s applicability is no earlier than April 2017 we are taking the time to thoroughly and completely analyze the rule change to ensure further guidance is complete and accurate.

The rule change was published on the Federal Register detailing these final rules from the Department of Labor is available here.    A summary of the rule change starts on page 8.

Stay tuned for additional information as we get closer to April 2017 and January 1, 2018 implementation dates.

Contributors:
Brendan Furey
Michael Conlon

November 23, 2015

Don't forget about your annual renewal fees!

We have officially entered the annual renewal season for 2016! As we prepare for the holidays, don't forget that you must submit payment for your firm's annual renewal fees. Failure to do so by the stated deadline will result in the termination of your RIA's registration.  You should have already received an email from FINRA in regards to your Preliminary Statement.  Your preparations should be underway now as the deadline for payments is December 18, 2015.  What do you need to do?  


Complete a thorough review of your current registration status.  Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
  • Based on your client growth, have you exceeded the de minimus threshold in additional state(s)?  
  • Are you currently registered in any states where you are now under the de minimus threshold?
  • Are your IARs properly registered?  Key Reminder: For SEC firms, some states do not require IAR registration if there is no place of business or under the de minimus threshold. 
  • Once you have confirmed your applicable registrations, make sure to validate the fees calculated by FINRA and transfer funds into your Renewal Account (IARD system). 
If you are not an AdvisorAssist Compliance Client and are seeking assistance with the Annual Renewal process, please contact us at:  sales@advisorassist.com.

For more information, please see the IARD Renewal Program page:  http://www.iard.com/renewals.asp

October 30, 2015

CCO Series (2015) - Client Suitability

As a fiduciary, an RIA firm is required to make investment decisions in the best interests of its clients. When making decisions regarding the investment options for accounts an RIA firm needs to be able to defend such decisions as being reasonably suitable to the goals and needs of its beneficial owners. Regulators will seek to ensure that decisions made by the firm during the course of providing its services primarily benefit the client and are suitable for a particular account's objectives. Documentation that define a fund's investment objectives or a model portfolio strategy will be compared against the trading history and the decisions made for clients to validate whether or not the firm is making suitable investment decisions when providing its services.

RIA Client Suitability In a Nutshell

Client suitability starts with information about how the RIA firm's investment managers will provide its advisory services and the information about the client or fund that will be relied upon to guide those decisions. For a typical retail RIA situation, this may include your client profile, risk tolerance questionnaire, investment policy statement (IPS), or client notes capturing similar information. For structured investment products this may include the operating agreements, offering documents, and similar information about the funds, parties and entities involved. As these documents are executed, modified, updated or amended the advisor should keep and maintain this additional documentation for their firm's books and records.

Risks related to strategies used by an RIA firm must be disclosed to clients through Form ADV. Specifically in Form ADV Part 2A, the Disclosure Brochure, Item 8 Methods of Analysis, Investment Strategies and Risk of Loss should contain information regarding how the firm's investment management services will be applied to the client's accounts and the potential losses that can occur due to the way the firm will invest the client's assets. It is important for firms to review these disclosures and ensure they accurately reflect the firm's investment methods and cover the risks related to the firm's advisory services.

Confirming Suitability

After collecting a client's information, having them sign an advisory agreement and providing a copy of your ADV and other new client paperwork, suitability becomes a compliance matter for the relationship as you move to digest the information and start making investment decisions for the client's account(s). While your documentation may tell the client to notify your firm of any changes to their profile, goals or objectives, every RIA firm still has an obligation to reach out to the client and confirm the information you have is still accurate and that ultimately to confirm your current understanding of what is suitable for that client.

Confirming suitability can take the shape of having the client complete a new risk questionnaire, sign a new IPS, or to have a meeting with the client where you discuss the management of their account and address suitability matters. Documenting this confirmation is critical to the firm's books and records for compliance purposes on this topic, and can take the form of client notes indicating suitability was discussed and the results of that discussion, or the updated formal documents such as the questionnaire or IPS. For fund managers, this activity means ensuring that the decisions being made for the fund are reasonably accomplishing the objectives of the fund as described in its documentation and ensuring that due diligence documentation is retained for various non-public investments. By having this documentation in your firm's books and records you can demonstrate that your firm has upheld their fiduciary duty when making investment decisions for its various clients.

Through the Regulator's Eyes

Regulators expect RIA firms to maintain documentation on each advisory client to support the investment decisions made for their account(s). During an examination, regulators will typically ask firms to provide their risk questionnaires or similar documents used to obtain information about their clients, and will also request information about trades in client accounts, and will reconcile the two to ensure that decisions made for clients are suitable and that there is a rational basis between the documentation, analysis and investments. Further, regulators will review the information in your firm's disclosure brochure to reconcile to the types of investments to ensure that the strategies and risks are properly and fully disclosed to clients.

CCO Best Practices

  • Review new client documentation templates to ensure it captures what you need to make decisions for their account(s).
  • Verify that suitability documentation is on file for each client.
  • Review client trading history to ensure decisions made are suitable for that client.
  • Confirm suitability with each client at least annually to ensure decisions are still in their best interest.
  • Review Form ADV to ensure the investment strategies, methods of analysis and risks of loss reflect current investment decisions, products and practices.
  • Be wary of clients raising suitability questions or concerns as they can quickly turn into complaints about investment decisions made in their account(s).

The AdvisorAssist CCO Series is a collection of blog posts that cover each of the elements of your RIA's compliance program. Each post will provide an overview of one compliance topic, including our insights on how regulators view each topic as well as some practical steps to help Chief Compliance Officers address this topic. As always, we would welcome your comments and thoughts.

Michael Conlon