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New U.S. Labor Rule Requires "Quality" Investment Advice For Employees

Ah, the 401(k). That Wall Street-inspired ball of confusion for employees everywhere. How does it work? Can you explain what a Lipper average is again? Why are you guys doing this to me? So you're saying I'll never be able to retire, right? And is someone making a huge commission off my confusion?

Never fear, because the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration is stepping in to handle the last question. It's just published a new, final rule that requires employee access to "quality fiduciary investment advice." Basically, this means getting rid of a few potential conflicts of interest such as investment advisers pushing stocks and funds that aren't in employees' best interest. Not to sound naive or anything, but we didn't have these rules already? According to the official U.S. DOL press release:
The prohibited transaction rules in ERISA and the IRC generally prevent a fiduciary investment adviser from recommending plan investment options if the adviser receives additional fees from the investment providers. Although these rules protect participants from conflicts of interest, ERISA provides exemptions from the rules in appropriate circumstances and permits the department to grant exemptions that have participant-protective conditions. The new regulation implements an exemption that Congress enacted as part of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 to improve participant access to fiduciary investment advice, which contains certain safeguards and conditions to prevent investment advisers from providing biased advice that is not in a participant's best interest.

To qualify for the exemption in the final regulation, investment advice must be given through the use of a computer model that is certified as unbiased by an independent expert or through an adviser compensated on a "level-fee" basis, meaning that the fees do not vary based on investments selected. Both types of arrangements must also satisfy several other conditions, including the disclosure of the adviser's fees and an annual audit of the arrangement for compliance with the regulation.

Okay. Why does it sound like they're closing one loop hole while creating a few more somehow? But that's government, it's Tuesday morning, and I need more coffee before I check my 401(k) and weep until lunch.

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