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Don't Believe Everything You Read About The DOL Rule


Kevin Norris, president of wealth management, Univest Bank and Trust Co., was featured in Financial Advisor Magazine

February 6, 2017
By Christopher Robbins, Financial Advisor

Here in early February, the financial advice business is a little like a James Bond martini—shaken, but not stirred.

After journalists initially misinterpreted a directive from President Donald Trump calling for greater scrutiny regarding a U.S. Department of Labor rule that would apply a more stringent fiduciary standard to advice given within retirement accounts, industry watchdogs started to take the executive order in stride.

“This is not a surprise,” said Charles Goldman, president & CEO of AssetMark, a consultant to financial planners and investment managers. “We expected the administration to delay the implementation of the rule and to review it. We believe that advisors should continue to prepare for the implementation of the rule.”

Yet it isn’t completely clear whether Trump’s order would eventually lead the DOL to delay or overturn the fiduciary rule. Instead, the executive order calls for the DOL to investigate the economic and industry impacts of the rule and of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, the banking law that empowered the DOL’s regulatory efforts.

The order, signed on Friday afternoon, contrasts with a draft leaked a day earlier that explicitly called for a 180-day moratorium on the rule’s enforcement. In response to the leaked draft, advisors woke Friday morning to headlines announcing the rule’s delay—or demise.

Angela Pecoraro, president and COO of Advicent, said advisors preparing for the DOL’s rule should stay the course.

“With the April 10 deadline near, many advisors have already invested a lot of time and money to be compliant with the Department of Labor fiduciary rule, as it stands,” said Pecoraro in comments via email on Friday. “The discussion of the fiduciary standard illuminated by the DOL rule is now something of which consumers are aware and will come to expect from financial professionals. It’s been a global trend to implement standards similar to the fiduciary rule and the financial industry has moved toward a more client-centric way of doing business as a whole.”

Advicent, a fintech software provider, has tilted many of its offerings in anticipation of the DOL’s rule, including the launch of a three-part “Compliance Blueprint” suite of tools to help advisors with additional workflows, data collection, documentation and reporting required by the regulation.

Advicent is one of many firms operating within the industry investing time and resources on the assumption that the rule would be implemented. Thus, it’s no surprise that many advisors and companies servicing them were alarmed by Friday morning headlines like “Trump to Direct DOL to Delay Fiduciary Rule” from ThinkAdvisor, “Trump delays rule giving savers greater protections” from CNBC and “DOL fiduciary rule delayed 180 days by Trump directive” from InvestmentNews. And yes, Financial Advisor also fell victim to the rush to break the news, sending an email blast declaring "Trump To Halt DOL Rule And Order Review Of Dodd-Frank."

Many industry analysts and commentators found themselves caught in the confusion, including Kurt Schacht, managing director of standards and advocacy for the CFA institute, who called for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to step in and draft a single fiduciary rule that would apply across the entire investment industry.

"With the demise of the DOL rule, we stress that one of the highest investor protection priorities for the new administration must be establishing a Uniform Fiduciary Duty for personal investment advice,” Schacht said in a statement. “It’s an opportunity for the incoming SEC leadership to address this once and for all in a much more comprehensive way.”

Cathy Weatherford, CEO of the Insured Retirement Institute, a consumer coalition representing insurers, asset managers, broker-dealers and other financial professionals, cheered what she anticipated would be the rule’s delay.

“We applaud the president’s leadership in calling for the DOL to put the rule on hold to give policymakers time to reevaluate the rule in order to protect consumers from these negative consequences,” Weatherford wrote in a statement.

Because its scope is limited to retirement accounts, the DOL is unable to create a rule applicable to all investment accounts —such authority is limited to the SEC.

Members of the financial industry who have lobbied in support of and in opposition to the DOL’s rulemaking were also caught up in Friday’s confusion. Kevin Norris, president of Souderton, Pa.-based Univest’s wealth management division, applauded the rule’s potential delay.

“Today’s decision by the Trump Administration to halt the order to implement the fiduciary rule is a win for both small investors and providers of investment advice to those investors,” wrote Norris. “The delay will benefit small investors as they will continue to be able to receive services from providers, which may not be available to them had the rule gone into effect. Many firms were considering account minimums to meet the requirements of the rule. It will also benefit providers as the delay will allow them more time to adequately prepare to meet the requirements of the rule.”

At the same time, Julian Rubenstein, CEO and president of Boca Raton, Fla.-based American Asset Management, lamented what he believed to be a “disastrous step in protecting investors’ interests” in comments released on Friday.

“The American investor needs protection from financial advisors who may not have their best interests at heart,” said Rubenstein. “This is like telling medical doctors not to practice the best medicine that they can.”

In the draft of the rule released by the DOL last year and still applicable as of April 10 of this year, financial advisors would be held to a stringent best-interest standard of advice for any recommendations given within retirement accounts, expanding rules which limit third-party commissions and require higher levels of conflict-of-interest disclosure from 401(k) plans to individual retirement accounts for the first time.

Though Trump’s executive order did not, as many anticipated, delay or overturn the rule, it does signal the administration’s desire to roll back financial regulations in a more meaningful way, said Jamie Hopkins, co-director of the Retirement Income Program at the American College of Financial Services.

“It is clear that the Trump Administration wants to clear the way for financial service firms and banks to operate with more freedom and without the regulative restraints that were set up since the last financial crisis in order to curtail the bad actors,” Hopkins said. “This could also mean trouble for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau moving forward as it was created in Dodd-Frank, and has suffered some serious legal setbacks as of late. If key parts of the rule are removed, the CFPB might no longer fit the regulatory framework of what is needed.”

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Investments offered by Girard Partners, a Univest Wealth Management Firm, are not FDIC insured, are not a deposit of or bank guaranteed, and are subject to risks, including loss of principal amount invested.
Univest Bank and Trust Co. is Member FDIC.

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