Thursday, May 19, 2011

Strong Words from EBSA Regarding 408(b)(2) Compliance

Fil Williams of the DOL's EBSA recently stated at the Mid-Atlantic Benefit Conference on May 5, 2011: “…for those employers to whom the new Section 408(b)(2) rules do apply, responsible plan fiduciaries ultimately will be obligated to terminate contracts or arrangements with service providers that do not comply.”

Even though the DOL has aready postponed the final 408(b)(2) regulations once, they are scheduled to become effective January 1, 2012. This along with the new participant disclosure regulation (effective in November 2011) will make for a busy Thanksgiving, end of year, for retirement plan services providers.

An associate of ours at Unified Trust, Pete Swisher, recently published a column in the ASPPA Summit Newsletter addressing the regulations and six ways to prepare your practice by November. It is available by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

ERISA Trumps everything…..

In the latest edition of Investment News Weekly, they published an article called ‘401(k) rights trumped by ERISA', linked here

This was an unusual article to see published in a general information publication like Investment News, unusual in that it deals with a highly specific legal ruling dealing with Participant, Spousal and Named Beneficiary rights in a death situation.

The gist of the article is that the participant named his three children as beneficiaries to his 401(k) Plan in the event of his death. He did so properly using a beneficiary form and did so after the passing of his first wife, so spousal consent was unnecessary at the time the form was completed. Flash forward some time later and he remarries, doesn’t update the form, and six weeks later passes away. The new wife (now a widow) is now in a legal battle as to who has rights to the 401(k) assets. The children say they do as they were named on the form, the spouse says she does because she never waived her rights to the assets. The court sided with the spouse and based on the facts/circumstances listed in the article seems to be the appropriate decision.

The important takeaway here is that ERISA (which is our rule book) trumps everything! It may have been the deceased participant’s wishes to award the assets to his children, but it doesn’t matter. The rules state that a spousal waiver must occur otherwise the wishes of the participant are irrelevant. It doesn’t stipulate in this rule as to whether or not the participant was, in fact, married when he/she filled out the form!

Often I’m asked by financial advisors where/how they can add value and earn their fee. This question is often posed in the context that my firm acts as a Discretionary Trustee and we make 100% of the Investment Decisions for plans which is often an area that financial advisors provide service.

This is a great example of how an advisor can add value to a plan. It isn't sexy, but it is very effective. If the advisor stays front and center with the participants of the plans that they are serving and understands the rules of the game, than they can ensure current and complete forms, that intentions are being followed and situations like the one above, however uncommon, don’t occur. This article can be a great sample of a scenario that can be presented to Plan Sponsors as to where/how advisors value is earned and there are a million other small ways like this that are part of the service.

By the way, aiding in this manner is not a fiduciary act, so for those Registered Reps out there who aren’t permitted to act as fiduciaries, there is still a way to build a value proposition and not provide fiduciary services directly yourselves.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Coming Soon.....Participant Fee Disclosure!!!! Get your helmets on....

What exactly is it that get’s Retirement Plan Professionals, advisors and service providers alike, so worried about when it comes to Fee Disclosure? That’s a bit rhetorical, as I suspect the answer is mostly obvious for those who read this blog. In the last year or two, the anxiety level regarding fee disclosure has been quite apparent. As a clarifying point for those who are unaware, there are TWO sets of fee disclosure rules. The implementation date of one of these, commonly referred to as the 408(b)(2) fee disclosure rules, has been postponed to 01/01/12 (at the time of this writing), and perhaps will be again. The other set of rules are the new rules under ERISA §404(a)(5), commonly referred to as ‘Participant Disclosure’. These rules are going to be effective for the 4th Qtr. of 2011, right around the corner. Surprisingly and confusing to me, even though these are the more difficult set of rules, these seem to be the one’s that fewer practitioners are worried about.

The 408(b)(2) rules are getting a lot more industry attention, perhaps this is due to how much the industry has historically done to disguise fees, that it is going to be incredibly difficult to accurately show clients how to follow the money trail. Perhaps it is because this is the rule that makes Broker/Dealers and Insurance Company’s a little squirmy due to that little requirement where the service providers have to declare if their acting as a fiduciary or not. Whatever the reason is, the practical reality is that some difficult discussions (and maybe decisions) will happen between service providers and clients. But this is a difficult business, and I believe that ultimately most of the good practitioners will get through it with most of their client relationships intact.

However, participant disclosure……that’s a whole other scenario, and it’s happening first!!!! This article, by David McCann from CFO Magazine does a good job of thousand footing the situation.

I, and most practitioners I know believe that the majority of participants have no idea what the retirement plan costs are and many think that they are getting a free benefit, that they pay nothing for their 401(k). This is a systemic issue. Most 401(k) mouse traps in the market, historically, have been designed to disguise fees from the participants. The group annuities (and Collective Funds) unitize the investments and thus are embedding fees into the unit prices. Many mutual fund platforms are often registered rep distributed, and their compensation is in the expense ratio, but also built into share prices, not to mention implicit revenue sharing arrangements. Even environments where the fees are deducted as line item expenses from participant accounts will often not be explicitly disclosed. For the participant to discover these charges, they will have to search for these deductions online in the form of a customized transaction report.

As a result, the new participant disclosure rules will 100% create a HUGE amount of phone calls, complaints to everyone and anyone associated with creating and managing their plan. Frankly, I think, it will cause a large quantity of plans, big and small, to search out new providers. For proactive practitioners, this is absolutely an opportunity. Advisors who aren’t in front of this are going to have to back pedal as the business owners and CFOs start getting questioned by staff. As Mr. McCann says in his article……..consider yourself warned!