Federal regulators are moving to require that brokers provide their customers with detailed disclosures of their potential conflicts of interest when dispensing advice for retirement planning and other investments.
But critics say the Securities and Exchange Commission's new measure, supported by the financial industry, doesn't go far enough to protect retail investors against abuses. They say a stricter standard advanced under the Obama administration should apply to brokers.
The stricter fiduciary duty rule required all financial professionals — not just registered investment advisers — to act as trustees obligated to put their clients' interests before their own. It was targeted for watering-down by President Donald Trump in early 2017 and defeated in the courts by the industry.
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Americans increasingly seek financial advice to help them navigate an array of options for retirement, college savings and more.
Many financial pros provide investment advice, but not all of them are registered advisers who are legally required to put clients' interests above their own or to disclose potential conflicts of interest that could color their advice. Critics of the current system say investors lose billions of dollars a year because of advice from brokers with conflicts.
The change to be adopted by the SEC on Wednesday could affect how hundreds of billions of dollars in Americans' retirement and other investments are handled by brokers. Brokers sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds, annuities and other investments, which they may recommend to clients. They sometimes receive commissions for selling specific financial products.
As proposed over a year ago, the SEC "best interest" regulation would require brokers to tell clients how much they collect from recommending products. They would have to provide clients with a new short-form disclosure document with key facts about the broker-client relationship, including potential conflicts of interest.
SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has said the regulation is "a significant step" toward increasing investor protection while also "preserving investors' access to a range of products and services at a reasonable cost."
Brokers wouldn't be allowed to use the term "adviser" as part of their name or title in dealings with retail investors. They also would have to give clients details of their registration status with the SEC.
Critics point out that "best interest" isn't specifically defined.
"The regulations the agency is set to approve are a betrayal of the 'Mr. and Ms. 401(k)' investors (Clayton) pledged to protect when he undertook this rulemaking," the Consumer Federation of America and Americans for Financial Reform said in a joint statement. "The drain on people's hard-earned savings will continue."
Details of the final regulation, which follows an extensive public comment period for the proposal, weren't immediately known but it was expected to fall close to the proposed plan.
"What they've proposed is a big step forward over what we've got now," said James Angel, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business who's an expert on financial markets regulation.
Current regulations mandate brokers recommend only suitable investments to their clients — appropriate for their age, other demographic characteristics, tolerance for risk and investment goals. That's less stringent than the fiduciary standard.
A key question, Angel suggested, is whether the SEC regulation will prohibit some especially egregious practices, such as contests rewarding brokers who sell the most products with trips to Florida in the winter and other perks.
Most Main Street investors may not be knowledgeable about financial industry practices, like the fees they're charged for investment advice or the commissions collected by their brokers. The typical client "knows they're making money off him somehow and they're not sure how," Angel said.
That's something George Wheeler, a retired information tech professional in Colorado, had mused about his broker. "We were always wondering how much he was making and how he made his money. He was never clear about that. ... We were trusting that our broker was working in our best interest."
Wheeler and his wife, Rachel, say they also hadn't known that fees were so high on the annuities the broker put them into, for which he promised annual returns of 7% or 8%. In fact, they earned 3% to 4% over a span of about 10 years, usually well below the overall stock market, they said in a telephone interview. As a result, their investment account ended up pretty much where it had started.
"I would like to have retired sooner," said Rachel, who's leaving her job as a physical therapist at the end of this month.