In April 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released a regulatory package that established a new standard for fiduciary investment advice. Under the Fiduciary Rule, investment recommendation given to an employee benefit plan or an individual retirement account (IRA) is considered fiduciary investment advice and therefore must be in the “best interest” of the investor.
As a result, financial advisers who provide investment advice under the new standard now face limits on receiving commission-based compensation. Considering that 50% of U.S. financial assets is held in retirement accounts, the impact of the rule is significantly affecting insurers, broker dealers and investment managers.
The DOL has long been concerned that people rolling over assets from an employer-sponsored pension plan to an IRA are not being well-advised and, as a result, are investing in products that are not most suitable for their needs or are unnecessarily expensive. Central to the DOL concern is what it perceives to be a lack of transparency around the standard under which an adviser is providing advice and how he/she is compensated. This is not surprising because advisers operate under multiple standards, with a majority of asset flows falling under a “suitability” rather than fiduciary standard.
To address these concerns, the DOL expanded the definition of the term “investment advice” under ERISA, thereby imposing fiduciary status under both ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code on firms and advisers who provide investment advice under this expanded standard. A fiduciary is subject to the duties of prudence and loyalty and is prohibited from acting for his/her own interests or in a manner adverse to those of the ERISA plan or IRA. Accordingly, fiduciary status will have a fundamental impact on adviser compensation, as advisers who are fiduciaries may not use their authority to affect or increase their own compensation in connection with transactions involving an ERISA plan or IRA.
See also: Does DOL Ruling Require a Plan C?
A catalyst of widespread organizational change
The DOL Rule is causing significant changes to the insurance industry that go well beyond compliance. While the industry needs to be prepared for the June 2017 applicability date, delayed from the original April date, the rule (even if delayed again) is also a catalyst for more meaningful change for both insurance manufacturers and distributors. In many cases, these changes have been contemplated for some time.
Compensation – For starters, to mitigate any conflicts of interest resulting from distribution compensation, insurers should inventory current compensation and understand the impact of changing models to various distribution channels. The industry has been focusing on the issue of compensation for some time, anyway (e.g., moving to commissions for annuities), and the DOL rule provides further impetus for change. This change will not be easy, not least because the industry has a variety of products and uses different distribution models. To facilitate the transition to the new environment, carriers and distributors will need to understand the current hierarchy and how it might change.
- What is the distribution channel? Is the distributor a fiduciary? If so, what exception or exemption is the distributor using?
- How will changing the hierarchy affect agents’ livelihood?
- Do you risk losing agents to a carrier that will pay “conflicted” compensation?
- How do you factor in outside compensation (e.g., marketing fees and allowances, 12-B1 fees)?
- Depending on the product shelf, there will be different types of conflicts.
- Determine which transactions are prohibited. Determining “red” and “green” transactions should be relatively easy, but determining “yellow” ones will be much more difficult, especially because the rule is fairly ambiguous in this regard.
- Understand each other’s point of view. Distributors will create rules for types of compensation they will allow in their systems. Although they are currently uncertain about how they will have to adapt, carriers will have to change their compensation structures and communicate them to distributors.
Carriers and distributors will also need to safeguard against personal and organizational conflicts of interest.
- How do we pay our workforce and others?
- What is non-cash compensation?
- How do we provide incentives to agents to sell products and sell certain product classes over others?
- What is the difference between suitability and fiduciary?
- Inventory products and create a tool to identify potential conflicts. This will be a complex undertaking, but it will enable carriers to determine who and how much carriers pay and why, as well as if conflicts are permissible or need to be disclosed.
- Perform a compensation impact analysis; assess the performance of distribution compensation as it currently exists and what seems likely in the future. This should include an assessment of the future model’s effect on revenue, profitability, market position, channel attractiveness and overall company performance.
- As part of a change management strategy, ensure that there is regular, clear and informative communication – both internally and externally – on impending change.
Changes in agent training
Once the fiduciary rule is in effect, agents will need to be advisers first and sellers second. Even though many insurers, especially ones with captive sales forces, have already tightened sales practices in recent years, this does represent a genuine cultural shift and a novel convergence between compliance and sales and distribution. As a result, agents will need more training on their fiduciary role – all the way down to call center scripts – and, with rationalized product lines, most likely less product training than in the past.
Some carriers are experiencing impacts they didn’t foresee. Because of their increasing need to respond to fiduciaries’ requests, they’re having to adopt their distributors’ policies and procedures (including access data requests) and change their product portfolios, share classes and fee structures. If they don’t do this, they risk losing shelf space to insurers that do.
Product rationalization – The DOL rule is intensifying carriers’ and distributors’ focus on product rationalization. Smaller product portfolios and resulting streamlined distribution models will facilitate carrier understanding of its product suite and compliance risks when providing “best interest” advice to consumers, reduce training required for agents and help the industry reduce costs and increase scale. For example, with annuities:
- There are many providers offering many similar products, and oftentimes riders emulate characteristics of other carriers’ products that companies can’t build themselves. The rule provides the industry further incentives to address the inherent inefficiency in this state of affairs.
- When determining which products to sell, financial strength is going to be a key product rationalization consideration for distributors because compensation will be more normalized with fewer products. When product portfolios shrink, lower-rated carriers’ products aren’t going to receive shelf space, especially if distributors can’t clearly demonstrate their benefits to customers. As a result of portfolio rationalization and likely decreases in commissions, both carrier and distributor consolidation is likely to increase.
- Moreover, this isn’t just a business decision but also a compliance one; distributors will have monitoring policy procedures to confirm adherence to this policy. Accordingly, distributors will have to establish a product selection methodology for each segment that accounts for appropriateness and applicability.
However, regardless of product, the challenges of rationalization also represent an opportunity for insurers to have more profitable product portfolios because they can focus on what they’re best at. They also should be able to create products that are less capital-intensive and, with a level fee/different fee structure, potentially profitable in earlier years. In addition, rationalization can help solve the challenge of a shrinking captive and independent agent workforce; fewer and more transparent products should reduce the need to replace many of the agents who are at or near retirement age. Because of the ability to inexpensively manage small accounts and automatically comply with fiduciary standards, as well as the potential to increase scale as needed, robo-advisers should become an even more popular way for insurers to sell products.
Data and technology – Moreover, the DOL rule makes capturing and maintaining new types of data a high priority for carriers and distributors. Agents will need to track, from the time contact is made with a client, how they acted in his/her best interest, and this record – which should be readily available to customers – will demonstrate that agents are being compliant (i.e., defensibility), as well as facilitate monitoring. Automating data capture, which should be especially effective via the robo-adviser channel, is the easiest way to ensure data is repeatable and transparent (again, defensible). This requires automating certain process to maintain compliance and be competitive in the future. Most of the industry has been aware of the need for technological changes, namely process automation, for some time – and many have been making them – but the DOL rule serves as yet another catalyst, especially for those companies that have been slow to act.
See also: Stepping Over Dollars to Pick Up Pennies
Facilitating effective compliance
Distribution traditionally has had little to no involvement in regulatory compliance, and the DOL rule represents a new challenge for most organizations. We recommend that compliance should:
- Oversee distribution;
- Provide quarterly “health checks” to the board of directors in to review compliance on a quarterly basis;
- Maintain a traceability matrix that outlines key strategic and operational decisions related to rule requirements and thereby provides the company defensible documentation to minimize and mitigate losses.
Implications: Far beyond compliance
As a result:
- The industry is likely to increase its already growing investments in and use of digital and online channels, including robo-advice.
- Some insurers are divesting their broker-dealers; as a result, we expect to see consolidation among smaller insurance broker-dealers, independent broker-dealers and regional brokerages over the next three years.
- The DOL’s move to increase transparency and eliminate conflicts of interest is helping drive convergence of regulation toward a broad fiduciary standard. Whether or not the SEC proposes to cover non-retirement accounts given the mandate for a federal uniform fiduciary standard under the Dodd-Frank Act, some fiduciary agents have already started to consider extending the DOL standard to an increased scope of accounts to avoid potentially awkward double standards for investors who hold both retirement and non-retirement accounts.
Regardless of political developments, we believe the rule’s core framework will remain intact. The industry has already made significant progress toward complying with it, and there is general recognition of the importance of removing conflicts of interest between financial advisers and retirement investors. As a result, financial advisers and firms should continue their work to meet the rule’s requirements.