Here's a question: Is the broker who advises you on your retirement account on your side?
The answer is at the heart of the debate over the proposed Department of Labor fiduciary rules. Applying a fiduciary standard means the broker must put his customer's interests ahead of his own. This is different from now, when nothing stops a broker from selling you what earns him the highest commissions, even if it may not be the greatest investment for your retirement plan.
The impetus for the impending change comes from the Securities and Exchange Commission's Study on Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers, which was required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. We will learn precisely what the Labor Department plan when it releases the proposal on Wednesday.
At stake are $17 billion in annual fees that the financial industry overcharges for advice on retirement-saving plans, according to the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. Compound those fees over the next 30 years, and those costs amount to trillions of dollars that are subtracted from investment returns, which in turn will be reflected in shortfalls for millions of future retirees. The White House’s concerns are that these costs might very well fall onto the backs of taxpayers.
The fiduciary rules for financial advisors are simple and easy to follow. Best of all for investors, conflict-free advisors are much less expensive. As Bloomberg Gadfly's Nir Kaissar observed about the fiduciary standard, "What could be simpler or less objectionable?" The answer seems to depend upon which side of that $17 billion you are on: paying it or receiving it.
That is a big deal, for as we learn from Economics 101, incentives matter. Without any regulatory restrictions, advisors all too often end up selling whatever earns them the most. The whole business is a gnarly mess of overpriced products and compromised advice, without a lot of transparency.
My colleague Tony Isola, a former teacher who has spent much of his career advising other educators about their finances, notes that he sees this every day: “Annuities in IRA accounts with high internal costs and onerously long surrender charges” as well as “recommendations for products such as proprietary mutual funds with hefty trailers and high expense ratios.” His expectation is that the new fiduciary rules will prevent those products from finding their way into retirement accounts.
Other countries have looked at the issue and they came up with even stricter rules. The U.K. put a hard cap on retirement-plan fees. The U.S. hasn't gone to that extreeme, as far as we know, but we will find out Wednesday what the precise rules are. It is widely expected to require that:
• All fees be transparent.
• Any conflicts of interest be disclosed.