If college savings and 529 plans are not yet perceived as being as natural together as Abbot and Costello or Scotch and soda, they should be–the tax advantages of 529s are hugely significant. But there’s been some confusion over which regulatory agency oversees 529s–and why–and what the regulations are. To remedy that confusion and give notice to interested parties in such vital advisor-client areas as 529-plan advertising, sales practices, and suitability, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board on May 22 issued detailed guidelines applying to the broker/dealers and others that sell these increasingly popular plans. (See http://ww1.msrb.org/msrb1/whatsnew/MFS-FairPracticeNotice–5-02.htm)
As John Baker, a securities lawyer with Stradley Ronon Stevens and Young in Washington, D.C., puts it, “When you have a popular product that is a subject of a lot of advertising, then the fact that it’s essentially unregulated becomes much more striking.”
Alexandria, Virginia-based MSRB was established by Congress in 1975 to regulate securities firms and banks involved in underwriting, trading, and selling municipal securities; i.e., bonds and notes issued by states, cities, and counties to help finance public projects. While many a hard-strapped family would consider the magnitude of college expenses worthy of public project status, some in financial services believe it odd that the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board bears responsibility for 529 regulation, and not the Securities and Exchange Commission or the National Association of Securities Dealers, which regulate mutual funds.
Christopher Taylor, MSRB’s executive director, explains that the decision regarding where 529 regulation belongs was made by the SEC and the NASD when 529s began their ascent to prominence four years ago. At that time, 529s were deemed securities issued by state and local governments, and the task of regulating them was given to the MSRB. “In effect, what we had to do was immediately start adjusting our rules to accommodate this new type of security,” says Taylor. “For the most part we’ve tried philosophically to stay in concert with what was going on in the [mutual] fund area. And [with the new guidelines] I think we’ve done that, with a relatively small number of exceptions, which really are based on the difference between [a 529 plan] being a municipal security and an investment company security.”