A Sigh of Relief from Plan Sponsors over the New Fiduciary Standard By: Frank Nessel

Since the Department of Labor’s revised fiduciary standard was released earlier this year, I’ve met with many plan sponsors, and I can sense a palpable level of anxiety. What do the 1,000-plus pages of the new DOL fiduciary rule mean for them?

Well, not much. You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief when I deliver this news.

So, here’s the CliffsNotes summary of the rule’s impact on plan sponsors:

Much Ado about Nothing

The proposed regulation previously issued by the DOL would have imposed restrictions on the education and communication provided to retirement plan participants. Vanguard and other industry leaders raised concerns that some of the provisions were unnecessarily restrictive, and the DOL apparently listened.

The final version of the fiduciary regulation unveiled in April has little direct impact on most plan sponsors if plan assets are more than $50 million. (For plans with less than $50 million, it’s a bit more complicated. Vanguard will provide more information about the impact on small plans at a future date.)

Unlike earlier versions of the regulation, most activities and communications by plan sponsors will not be considered fiduciary in nature. You can continue to do what you normally do—communicate with participants about where they might want to invest, discuss with your investment committee their responsibilities, and so on—without becoming a plan fiduciary. Advice services such as managed accounts, Financial Engines, and others were already fiduciary in nature, so there’s no change there.

Education Stays the Same

Prior versions of the fiduciary regulation would have resulted in some educational materials being considered advice, subjecting the writer to fiduciary standards. This likely would have meant scaling back on those services or providing less helpful participant education materials.

That’s no longer the case under the final regulation. Plan sponsors should expect to receive educational services and content as before without any change.

Possible Ramifications for Participants and Service Providers

This is not to say there will be no changes whatsoever. We’re still deciphering all the ramifications of the 1,000-plus pages.

There’s a possibility that service providers’ call centers and presenters at participant meetings may fall under the fiduciary standard if they go beyond simply listing pros and cons of plan distributions, rollovers, or other participant actions. If that’s the case, services at call centers may have to be limited. Or, some calls may have to be redirected to specialists. But we’re still researching this.

More to Come

Besides the new fiduciary rule having little impact on plan sponsors, the other good news is that it does not go into effect until April 2017—there’s still time to figure out all the possible ramifications and to make changes as needed.

Our team of legal experts will continue to study the new regulation, and we’ll explain in more detail its impact on you as we get closer to the implementation date. For now, have peace of mind knowing that any changes will be more at the margins rather than a fundamental transformation in the plan sponsor’s role.

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

Frank Nessel is a Senior Consultant at The Vanguard Group.

©The Vanguard Group, Inc., used with permission.


*On 4/4/2017 The Department of Labor has delayed the implementation of the fiduciary rule by 60 days.

Frank Nessel

Frank Nessel is a senior consultant in Vanguard Strategic Retirement Consulting, where he oversees technical services. Mr. Nessel is responsible for assisting Vanguard’s institutional clients with the interpretation and application of compliance requirements that relate to their qualified retirement...

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