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The Line Between Education and Fiduciary Advice

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Does the industry have a clear definition of what the Department of Labor (DOL) would consider investment education (not advice) in a 401(k) plan so that a financial advisor would not have to follow the requirements of Prohibited Transaction Exemption (PTE) 2020-02?

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare.  We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with an advisor in Minnesota is representative of a common question related to investment education.

Highlights of Recommendations

The DOL believes it provides a clear roadmap for determining when financial advisors are, and are not, investment advice fiduciaries under Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) in PTE 2020-02 [1] and Interpretive Bulletin (IB) 96-1.  [2]

“Oldie but goodie” DOL IB 96–1 identifies four categories (or “safe harbors”) of investment-related educational materials that advisors or others can provide to plan participants and beneficiaries without being considered to have provided fiduciary investment advice: 1) Plan information, 2) General Financial and Investment Information, 3) Asset Allocation Models and 4) Interactive Investment Materials.

Plan Information

Information about the benefits of plan participation, the benefits of increasing plan contributions, the impact of preretirement withdrawals on retirement income, the terms of the plan, the operation of the plan, or descriptions of investment alternatives under the plan would not constitute investment advice.

General Financial and Investment Information

General financial and investment concepts, such as risk and return, diversification, dollar cost averaging, compounded return, and tax-deferred investment; historic differences in rates of return between different asset classes (e.g., equities, bonds, or cash) based on standard market indices; effects of inflation; estimating future retirement income needs; determining investment time horizons; and assessing risk tolerance would not constitute investment advice.

Asset Allocation Models

Examples would include pie charts, graphs, or case studies that provide a participant or beneficiary with asset allocation portfolios of hypothetical individuals with different time horizons and risk profiles.  Such models must satisfy the following requirements.

  1. The models must be based on generally accepted investment theories that take into account the historic returns of different asset classes (e.g., equities, bonds, or cash) over define periods of time.
  2. All material facts and assumptions on which such models are based (e.g., retirement ages, life expectancies, income levels, financial resources, replacement income ratios, inflation rates, and rates of return) must accompany the models.
  3. To the extent that an asset allocation model identifies any specific investment alternative available under the plan, the model must be accompanied by a statement that
    • Indicates that other investment alternatives having similar risk and return characteristics may be available under the plan;
    • Identifies where information on those investment alternatives may be obtained; and
    • Discloses that, when applying particular asset allocation models to their individual situations, participants or beneficiaries should consider their other assets, income, and investments (e.g., equity in a home, IRA investments, savings accounts, and interests in other qualified and non-qualified plans) in addition to their interests in the plan.

Interactive Investment Materials

Examples in this category could include, but are not limited to, questionnaires, worksheets, software, and similar materials that provide a participant or beneficiary the means to estimate future retirement income needs and assess the impact of different asset allocations on retirement income.

Such materials must

  1. Be based on generally accepted investment theories that take into account the historic returns of different asset classes (e.g., equities, bonds, or cash) over defined periods of time;
  2. Contain an objective correlation between the asset allocations generated by the materials and the information and data supplied by the participant or beneficiary;
  3. Include all material facts and assumptions (e.g., retirement ages, life expectancies, income levels, financial resources, replacement income ratios, inflation rates, and rates of return) that may affect a participant’s or beneficiary’s assessment of the different asset allocations (Note: These facts and assumptions could be specified by the participant or beneficiary);
  4. (To the extent they include an asset allocation generated using any specific investment alternatives available under the plan), include a statement indicating other investment alternatives having similar risk and return characteristics may be available under the plan and where information on those investment alternatives may be obtained; and
  5. Take into account or are accompanied by a statement indicating that, in applying particular asset allocations to their individual situations, participants or beneficiaries should consider their other assets, income, and investments (e.g., equity in a home, IRA investments, savings accounts, and interests in other qualified and nonqualified plans) in addition to their interests in the plan.

While the provision of investment education is not a fiduciary act, the designation of a person or entity to provide investment educational services to plan participants and beneficiaries is a fiduciary act. Therefore, persons making this designation must act prudently and solely in the interest of the plan participants and beneficiaries.

Conclusion

The DOL provides examples of investment education in IB 96-1 that, when delivered, would not be considered investment advice, thereby helping the educator to avoid fiduciary liability for the information. However, the act of selecting the individual or entity to provide investment education to 401(k) plan participants and beneficiaries is a fiduciary act, subject to the standards of loyalty and prudence.