The Department of Labor Friday completed rules through which investment advisors such as insurance agents can provide advice to beneficiaries of self-directed retirement plans such as 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts.
The new rules quickly drew immediate fire from Democrats in Congress, who called them a last minute “payback to Wall Street” by the Bush administration as it leaves town.
The final rule provides general guidance on the requirements for advisors who provide investment guidance to individuals participating in a retirement plan, as well as requirements for disclosures by fiduciaries.
The regulation also includes a model form to assist advisers in satisfying the rule’s fee disclosure requirement. In addition, it includes a class exemption expanding the availability of investment advice for plan participants, including use of computerized programs.
The agency acted only 5 months after it proposed rules designed to tell advisors how to comply with provisions of the 2005 Pension Modernization Act.
“We are disappointed that the Bush administration moved forward to enact a new regulation that will make it harder for workers to receive fair and honest advice when making key financial decisions about their futures,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., a ranking member of the committee.
“With just a few hours to go, the Bush administration is still scrambling to give Wall Street a last-minute payback,” they said.
The new regulation would allow financial services companies “to reap windfall profits at the expense of workers and tips the scales towards special interests by opening the door to conflicts of interest among the very consultants purporting to offer unbiased investment advice,” they argued.
But Bradford Campbell, the outgoing assistant secretary of the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, defended the timing. Campbell, whose office spent several years working on the final rule, said that the department “took extraordinary steps to engage a broad spectrum of participants, employers, plan fiduciaries and others throughout the rulemaking process.”
The final rule increases plan participants’ access to investment advice “without compromising the critical protections for plan participants and beneficiaries,” he said.
The National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisers had worked to ensure that its members would be protected through any such action while the bill was being drafted by Congress in 2004 and 2005, as well as through the comment process.
The regulations implement language in the 2006 Pension Modernization Act, which authorized a safe harbor from the prohibited transaction provision of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The rule says that one of the ways in which investment advice may be given under the exemption is through the use of a computer model certified as unbiased. The other exempted method is through an adviser compensated on a “level-fee” basis. Several other requirements also must be satisfied, including disclosure of fees the adviser receives from the retirement plan.
The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.