A much-anticipated study released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office concluded that financial planners are regulated enough and don't need additional layers of regulation.
The GAO report is the first of a trio of government agency studies set for release this week that address some of the fundamental ways the financial advisor industry operates. All three of the six-month studies--one by the GAO and two by the Securities and Exchange Commission--were mandated last summer by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
Section 919C of the Dodd-Frank bill required the GAO to study how financial planners are regulated, the effectiveness of the regulation, and pros and cons of alternative regulatory approaches.
In its report, the GAO said that existing statutes and regulations appear to cover the great majority of financial planning services, and individual financial planners nearly always fall under one or more regulatory regimes, depending on their activities. It also said that better enforcement of existing laws could strengthen oversight efforts.
"While no single law governs the broad array of activities in which financial planners may engage, given available information, it does not appear that an additional layer of regulation specific to financial planners is warranted at this time," according to the study.
Members of the Financial Planning Coalition--a group comprised of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Financial Planning Association and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors--have been advocating that financial planners be regulated as a distinct profession with fiduciary responsibility overseen by an oversight board under the auspices of the SEC.
"The GAO is saying financial planners are covered by the Investment Advisers Act and some other laws, and we don't disagree with that," says Dan Barry, the FPA's chief lobbyist in Washington, D.C. "It's kind of a patchwork of regulations, and our point is there's no single regulator touching upon all of a financial planner's activities" that go beyond investment advice and include a client's total financial health.
The GAO study recognizes that consumers don't always know when people holding themselves out as financial planners are required to serve in the client's best interest. To address this, the agency recommends that other agencies do their part to help clarify the confusion. In short, it calls for more studies.
Namely, it suggests the National Association of Insurance Commissioners work with state insurance regulators to assess consumers' understanding of the standards of care regarding the sale of insurance products such as annuities.
The GAO also recommends the SEC work with various federal and state regulators to boost financial literacy among investors so they can better navigate the alphabet soup designations held by people holding themselves out as financial planners, as well as to "better understand the extent of problems specifically involving financial planners and financial planning services, and take actions to address any problems that are identified."
Despite such nebulous conclusions, some advisors think the GAO study has helped set the tone for future action.
Ron Rhoades, an advisor who sits on the Financial Planning Coalition leadership council, called the GAO report one in a "series of stepping stones" toward making financial planning a profession.
Although the report stopped short of saying financial planning should be regulated as a profession, it did find that consumers are unclear as to when a financial planner is required to act in their best interest, said Rhoades, co-founder of Hernando, Fla.-based Joseph Capital Management LLC. The other important finding, he said, is consumers' confusion over titles in financial planning and the securities industry in general.
"In many respects I thought the report was very good," he said. "It confirmed consumer confusion exists and there is no regulation of financial planners, unlike with many other professionals, such as hair dressers."
Given that it was given only six months to conduct the study by Congress, Rhoades feels it was unrealistic to expect the GAO to make a more definitive recommendation. "I really don't expect action in Congress on this report, at least not anytime soon," he said. "But I do think it will have some influence on regulators."