The Securities and Exchange Commission recently approved its Regulation Best Interest standard for brokers. The best-interest standard replaces the stricter Obama-era fiduciary standard rule for broker-dealers who manage retirement accounts. The industry may be cheered by this change. But people looking for professional investment advice are losers.
Brokers, often paid on commission, have long adhered to the so-called suitability standard. When making recommendations, brokers should consider the age, goals and tolerance for risk of their client. The suitability standard also calls for disclosing potential conflicts of interest to clients.
Financial advisers who adhere to the fiduciary standard must put the client's interest first, eliminate conflicts of interest and promote transparency. The Labor Department during the Obama administration issued a rule that said brokers and advisers who manage retirement accounts must follow the fiduciary rule. The shift in obligations was a welcome step.
A recent study into annuity sales illustrates that standards matter. The study by researchers at Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago looked at annuity sales from a large company between 2008 and 2015. They compared the experience of different states with different regulatory standards. The fiduciary standard changed the composition of products bought by clients. For example, the share of sales of variable annuities — a high-fee product — fell by about 9 percentage points while lower cost fixed and fixed-indexed annuities increased.
The Trump Administration moved against the fiduciary standard and the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that the Labor Department had overreached in rewriting the rules. The SEC then came up with its best interests standard for brokers. While the bar is higher on broker recommendations than the previous suitability gauge, the standard is weaker than the requirement to act as fiduciary.
What should people do who are looking for financial advice on managing their retirement money? The answer is simple: Choose to work with a fee-only financial adviser legally bound to be a fiduciary.
Once you learn that the professional is bound by the fiduciary standard, you still need to learn how they are paid and their approach to managing money. Nevertheless, the fiduciary standard is a simple first baseline: Work with a professional legally bound to put interests first. You have worked hard for your money.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for "Marketplace" and a commentator for Minnesota Public Radio.