The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants you to believe it is looking out for the little guy in its fight against new government regulation of the retirement investment advice industry.

But that is a facade — as one consumer advocacy group found out when it checked the chamber’s claims of grass-roots support for its battle to stop the U.S. Department of Labor’s new “best interest” standard for retirement advice.

This fight is really about something else — $19 billion in potential lost revenue now controlled by stockbrokerage, life insurance and other companies that do not want to make drastic changes in their business models.

That is the amount of money up for grabs, according to Morningstar, in the wake of the new Labor Department rule. The so-called fiduciary standard requires any adviser working with retirement accounts to avoid conflicts and act in the best interest of clients in the products they recommend.

The final rules were released in April following years of study and input from the financial services industry and others. They are set to be phased in next year.

But opponents of the fiduciary rule continue their resistance. President Obama this month vetoed legislation approved by Congress in April to overturn the rule. Opponents also are pressing their case in court, filing lawsuits challenging the Labor Department’s power to impose the rule and calling it unworkable.

Applying spin

For public consumption, opponents of the rule spin their campaigns as friendly to small investors, and to small businesses. They have argued that the rule will force the industry to stop offering “advice” to small account holders. But what these retirement savers often receive is not advice at all. It is selling.

The second argument is that the rule will hurt small business — an especially odd point given that small employers and their workers often are sold on the most expensive, least competitive retirement plans and actually stand to gain from higher standards.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a key backer of the legislative and court fights, launched a public campaign themed “Fix the Rule.” It purportedly showcases 25 small-businesspeople speaking out against the rule.

But the campaign appears to be more AstroTurf than grass roots. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that is fighting the chamber on the fiduciary issue, attempted to contact all of the small-business owners quoted (skipping those who actually are chamber lobbyists around the country).

One leader of a Chicago nonprofit told Public Citizen he did not have a view on the rule and asked what he needed to do to get himself removed from the website (he has since been removed). One small-business owner told the watchdog group he favors an even tougher rule. Eight people listed actually are officials at local chambers of commerce or lobbyists, according to the group.

A U.S. Chamber spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on the findings. She did reiterate the chamber’s arguments about the fiduciary rule’s impact on investors and small businesses, adding: “Given that Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch has made it their mission to misinform the public regarding the Chamber’s work, it is no surprise that they continue to mislead on an issue that will negatively impact businesses.”

It may help to look at what this fight really is about. A recent Morningstar report assessing winners and losers from the Labor Department rule finds that it will affect $3 trillion of assets held by wealth management clients, and the aforementioned $19 billion of revenue to wealth management firms.

The biggest battleground will be the market for rollovers at the point of workers’ retirement of 401(k) assets to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Any advice from an adviser to do a rollover will have to be demonstrably in the client’s best interest — and Morningstar estimates that $200 billion in IRA rollover money will be affected annually.

The big losers will be life insurance companies peddling expensive variable annuity and fixed-index annuities, and money management firms specializing in actively managed accounts. Also on the losing end of the stick will be alternative asset managers or products such as nontraded real estate investment trusts and derivatives.

The ongoing rear-guard fight against the rule is especially unfortunate because the need for real, holistic planning services has never been greater. Some apparently recognize that, and are quietly preparing for the new fiduciary world.

“Just a few months ago, we were hearing from a lot of companies that they were fighting it, and not preparing for it,” said Tricia Rothschild, head of global adviser and wealth management solutions at Morningstar. “But all that energy has shifted in the last two months. The firms we work with are very much focused on what they need to do to meet the new requirements.”

 

Mark Miller is a Reuters columnist.