Among the more dismaying trends in Washington is for lawmakers to constantly proclaim how average Americans aren't saving enough for retirement and yet Washington does nothing when given the opportunity to improve retirement plans.
Case in point: The disgraceful stall over requiring anyone advising people with their retirement savings to adhere to the so-called fiduciary standard. A fiduciary must put a client's interest first.
Now, you would think that financial advisers would embrace the fiduciary standard, putting the client's interest first, eliminating conflicts of interest and promoting transparency in all dealings. You might think that, but the reality is different. Registered investment advisers must meet the fiduciary standard. Most everyone else, including stockbrokers and broker-dealers, are held to a less rigorous standard. Their advice must be "suitable" for clients, taking into account such factors as age and income. A fiduciary standard would require brokers and others to disclose conflicts of interest to potential clients.
Financial advisers hold enormous sway over the retirement savings of millions of workers. Some 63 percent of U.S. households — 77 million — report that they had employer-sponsored retirement plans, IRAs, or both in mid-2014. A White House Council of Economic Advisers study calculated that conflicted retirement advice earned savers roughly 1 percentage point less in returns each year. The economists also estimated that the aggregate annual cost of conflicted advice with IRAs is $17 billion. This is real money.
Here's what I find most disheartening about lobbyists for the suitability segments of the financial services industry trying to block or at least water down the fiduciary drive. A fiduciary standard is at best a minimal safeguard for the money that workers are setting aside for their elder years. The main effect of the rule change would be to better align industry practice and everyday saver expectations. Most people saving for their retirement and working with a financial adviser assume the professional is solely acting in the client's best interest.
A fiduciary standard is no guarantee of a professional's competence. But it's time for Washington to require that professionals advising people with their retirement savings act as fiduciaries. People work hard to save for retirement. They deserve nothing less.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, Marketplace, commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.