Pamela Yip: Proposed 'fiduciary duty' rule for retirement advisers is a good step

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

April 27, 2015

The Obama administrationís proposed rule to provide better consumer protection for retirement savings is a welcome move.

It will benefit consumers, many of whom canít distinguish among the different types of financial advisers, much less tell whether an adviser is putting their interests first.

The proposed rule, recently announced by U.S. Department of Labor, would require stockbrokers and other advisers to act in their customersí best interests when handling their retirement money. This is called "fiduciary duty."

Today, only registered investment advisers are legally required to adhere to the fiduciary standard.

Currently, brokers operate under the "suitability rule," which requires them to make investment recommendations based on a belief that a transaction or strategy is "suitable for the customer."

Thatís determined by evaluating such factors as an investorís age, other investments, financial situation and needs, risk tolerance, tax status, investment goals and experience.

Critics of the suitability rule said itís a weaker standard that allows for conflicts of interest and high-fee products that eat away at returns over time.

"Selecting and managing IRA investments can be a challenging and time-consuming task, frequently one of the most complex financial decisions in a personís life, and many Americans turn to professional advisers for assistance," according to a February report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

"However, financial advisers are often compensated through fees and commissions that depend on their clientsí actions," the report said. "Such fee structures generate acute conflicts of interest: The best recommendation for the saver may not be the best recommendation for the adviserís bottom line."

Conflicted advice leads to lower investment returns, the council said.

"Savers receiving conflicted advice earn returns roughly 1 percentage point lower each year," it said.

In total, conflicted advice costs investors about $17 billion a year, the economic advisers said.

"We see everyday what happens when those in and near retirement lose vast sums of money as a result of conflicted advice," said Joseph C. Peiffer, president of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, a group of lawyers who represent investors in securities cases.

"Too many investors lose their hard-earned retirement savings because their brokers sell investment products that pay a large commission but are not in the best interests of their clients," Peiffer said. "This is a system that is broken and must be fixed."

Kenneth E. Bentsen Jr., chief executive of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said his group is reviewing the proposed rule to "ensure it protects investor choice and doesnít unnecessarily reduce access to education or raise costs, particularly for low- and middle-income savers."

The association said adoption of the fiduciary standard would "limit retirement choices, prevent consumers from choosing the financial products and advice that fit their personal needs within their price range, and will ultimately make saving for retirement harder for working families."

Ask an average investor whether his or her financial adviser adheres to the fiduciary standard or the suitability standard and most likely you would get a blank stare.

The current rules on retirement and nonretirement investing "are so complex, and thereís a lot that falls through the cracks," said Kathleen M. McBride, founder of FiduciaryPath, a New York firm that does fiduciary audits and consulting. "Thatís allowed a lot of harm to come to investors."

Thatís why it would serve investors well if one uniform standard were adopted for all financial service professionals.