Recordkeepers Preparing for New Fiduciary Era

Even if the DOL fiduciary rule is halted, working in clients' best interest is a "no-brainer," says Joe Ready of Wells Fargo.

Joe Ready, head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust, sat down recently with PLANSPONSOR to discuss the firm’s expectations, opportunities and challenges amid the transition to a Trump presidency and a Republican-controlled Congress.

Ready suggested in no uncertain terms that Wells Fargo is “moving full steam ahead” on its effort to comply with the new Department of Labor (DOL) fiduciary standards—even while he agreed that it is very plausible that the rulemaking could be halted or delayed prior to the first deadlines in April.

“The rule could be halted or it could come down right on schedule,” he muses. “We are staying the course on the plans we’ve announced so far and we will continue to do things in the best interest of the clients. It’s a no-brainer, from that perspective.”

Whatever its formal fiduciary status has been in the past, Ready says Wells Fargo (and other firms, too) have always worked hard to serve the best interest of clients.  But in the new fiduciary environment, Ready says Wells Fargo will “be even more disciplined and consistent in its approach with retirement accounts, leveraging the firm’s formal retirement account standards.” This includes frequent client contact, advice that aligns with a client’s verified investment objective and risk tolerance (or documentation if the investments aren’t aligned), and a documented annual review.

“There’s no doubt that it has been a big industry effort to get into shape on fiduciary oversight,” Ready adds. “It’s all driven around the focus on serving the best interest of employees and customers. Using this as a guide post, we feel very confident that we can navigate whatever policies are eventually implemented in Washington.”

NEXT: A possible intent of DOL rule?

Ready expects Wells Fargo and other providers to continue their focus on improving the ability of workplace defined contribution savings plans to serve as retirement income vehicles—not just accounts for accumulation.

“Some things clearly need to change if we’re going to see people stop rolling out of plans into IRAs, as the DOL seems to want,” Ready observes. “That’s often what is expected as the norm today, to roll into an IRA. People have assumed that’s in fact why the DOL fiduciary rule seeks to bring IRAs under its oversight.”

Ready suggests Wells Fargo’s objectives for 2017 have not changed much given the election outcome.

“If I’ve learned one thing in my career, it is that policy is going to ebb and flow,” Ready notes. “I’ve told my team it’s key to understand the short term changes, but we can’t keep our heads in the sand. We have to have a broader and deeper vision about helping our clients on their long-term journey.”

Ready says he believes that the 401(k) savings vehicle and other workplace plans are among the most cost effective and broad based ways people can save for retirement today.

“If designed and administered correctly, these plans can drive our workforce to a healthier retirement, and so from that perspective they must be promoted in Washington,” Ready concludes. “We are still calling for anything the government can do to improve access to prudent workplace plans. I’m a big fan of open multiple employer plans, which could go a long way to solve some of the access issues we hear about. Taxation is the same; in our research we always see that people value the tax-deferral opportunities available today. No question that it drives behavior. The new Congress and administration must be thoughtful on this stuff to avoid unintended consequences.”