WASHINGTON -- As the dust begins to settle after the Department of Labor issued its hotly contested fiduciary regulation, one of the key officials who led the rulemaking initiative says that he anticipates issuing clarifying guidance on an ongoing basis as industry feedback trickles back on how the rules are working in practice.
“This is a major undertaking and that we need to be mindful of what impact it's having as people are implementing it,” said Timothy Hauser, a deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department, on Tuesday at a policy forum hosted by the Investment Company Institute. “We need to have the courage to make changes and to be responsive as problems emerge. And I can assure you we have every intent of doing so."
The ICI is a trade group that has been sharply critical of the rulemaking process.
Read more: Industry reacts to fiduciary rule
Rule opponents have argued that many firms would be more likely to abandon middle-income clients planning for retirement, rather than submit to the contractual provisions relating to best-interest advice. But Hauser noted that the department made changes as it redrafted the final rule, in a bid to make the provisions less burdensome.
FURTHER TWEAKS TO RULE
Hauser took pains to explain that that process is still ongoing, insisting that he will entertain further tweaks to the rule and will publish clarifying guidance, likely in a question-and-answer format on a "rolling basis."
QuoteThe reason we undertook this in the first place was our belief that there was a significant problem in this marketplace.
"We did our level best, really, to try to find the legitimate concerns and objections people had to what we were doing and try to be responsive," Hauser said. "We'll continue to do that as we move forward."
At the same time, Hauser offered a strong defense of the rule and the underlying rationale for the department's effort to crack down on conflicted advice in the retirement sector.
"The basic idea, first and foremost, is that we want advice to be in the customer's interest rather than in the interest of the adviser," he said. "The basis for this project — the reason we undertook this in the first place — was our belief that there was a significant problem in this marketplace."
The department's solution: update its rules under the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act to extend fiduciary obligations to financial professionals working with retirement savers and plans, a threshold that is generally met when an adviser makes an investment recommendation and in turn receives compensation, Hauser said.
Hauser acknowledged that the ERISA statute has a "strong default position against conflicts of interest," but pointed out that the new rule explicitly permits conflicts such as commissions and proprietary products, provided that advisers offer up-front disclosures and aver in a binding contract that they will act in their clients' best interests.
QuoteOur primary efforts are not going to be about finding people to sue.
That so-called best interest contract exemption has been one of the chief complaints of industry critics. But Hauser was quick to remind his audience that the rule will have minimal impact on advisers who offer advice that is free of conflicts.
"[T]there's nothing in the natural order of things that requires people to receive conflicted compensation streams as a condition of giving advice," he said. "However, we also don't outlaw conflicted compensation streams. The firm can continue to get commissions, it can get 12b-1 fees, it can get revenue sharing, it can get the variety of third-party payments."
Hauser continued: "But there's a quid pro quo for that. There's a basic deal that you need to strike with your customer, by and large, if you want to do that, and the deal is simple. You have to make a commitment to the customer that you're going to act in their best interest, and it needs to be enforceable."
NOT FOR PUNITIVE ENFORCEMENT
Hauser also said the DoL is not looking at the rule as a vehicle for a punitive enforcement policy. Instead, he said that the department is hoping to serve as a resource for affected firms and to work with them in a collaborative spirit as they implement the new rules.
"Our primary efforts are not going to be about finding people to sue, it's going to be about helping people to comply," he said. "Any problems you're wrestling with, issues you're trying to deal with, operational issues you're confronting — we'd love to hear from you, we'd love to be able to give advice. I would much rather get advice out early rather than have you build entire systems only to have us say, 'Nah, we don't think that complies.' I think it's in all our interest to make this work."