brokers and standards of care: the SEC study

the report

Last Wednesday the SEC published the results of a study on the differing legal obligations of brokers and investment advisers to their clients.

The SEC’s bottom line:

–while customers are generally satisfied with the investment advice they receive, they don’t really know what standards of conduct their brokers or investment advisers are legally held to.  In addition, they sometimes mistakenly think brokers are required to perform to the same high standard as investment advisers.

–the standard of conduct for brokers should be raised to match that for investment advisers, “when providing investment advice about securities to retail customers.”

why the study?

One might think that it was driven by the realization that millions of Baby Boomers will be retiring in the US over the next decade or so.  The vast majority–government workers are the biggest exception–will not have the security of defined benefit pension plans backed by their former employers. Instead, they have the money they’ve saved in IRAs or 401ks, for which they will have investment responsibility, to support them in retirement.

That’s not the reason, though.  The SEC did the study because it was ordered to in the recently-passed Dodd-Frank Act.

broker or investment adviser:  what’s the difference?

in law…

Investment advisers are regulated by the Investment Advisers Act of 1940.

Broker-dealers are regulated under the anti-fraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Act of 1934.

Broker-dealers are specifically excluded from regulation under the Investment Advisers Act.

…and in practice

Investment advisers are fiduciaries.  In practical terms, this means three things:

–the adviser must do what’s best for the client

–the adviser must put the client’s interests ahead of his own, and

–the adviser has to make extensive disclosure of possible conflicts of interest.

Broker-dealers are not fiduciaries.  As a result,

–although brokers aren’t permitted to act in a way that harms their clients,

–they can recommend an investment that is less good than another but which provides a higher profit to the broker.

I’m not sure what the technical requirements for disclosure of conflicts of interest are for a broker.  My experience is that such disclosures are, at best, buried in the middle of large amounts of fine print and couched in language that only a specialist would understand. Goldman’s trading “huddles,” exposed in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, are a recent example of differential treatment of institutional clients, not retail, but it’s still a good illustration of the broker mindset.

The huddles are weekly meetings of analysts and traders that ended up generating ideas, some of which go against Goldman’s official stock recommendations.  These trading ideas are communicated only to a few of the firm’s highest revenue-generating clients.  The official recommendations aren’t changed, so most clients continue to be told the opposite story.  (I just looked at a recent Goldman research report.  This practice is described in paragraph 25 of 30 paragraphs of fine print, covering three pages of the report’s total length of seven.).

if brokers are required to become fiduciaries, what changes?

It may be an exaggeration to say that this would radically change the fundamentals of the retail brokerage industry…but, on second thought, that may not be so far from the truth.  For example,

quality of fund recommendations

1.  Some retail-oriented brokerage houses have their own in-house fund management groups.  In many cases, the records of such proprietary funds is mediocre at best.  Yet brokers are encouraged to sell these funds to clients.  In my view, the main factor–other than the underperformance clients experience–is their greater profitability of in-house funds to the firm. If brokers were fiduciaries, presumably they would have to point out that third-party funds have better track records, or to disclose their financial interest.

2.  Brokers might have to disclose that in general no-load funds sold by Vanguard or Fidelity are a better deal that the load funds brokers sell.

3.  When you go into a brokerage office to have an asset allocation analysis done, it may be that the mutual fund recommendations that the computer spits out come only from fund groups that have paid to have their names displayed to customers–or who have agreed to rebate to the brokerage a portion of the management fee earned on shares sold.  Fund groups that decline to pay get no exposure. In other words, the fund recommendations aren’t the objective assessment they appear to be.

A fiduciary couldn’t do this without clear disclosure.  Actually, I think a fiduciary who tried to do this would be run out of town.

4.  If an individual broker does enough business with a given fund group, he may qualify to bring himself and a guest to  an all expense-paid educational seminar (including nightly entertainment),  in, say, Las Vegas, or San Diego or Disneyworld.  Has any broker ever mentioned that possibility when recommending a fund to you?

quality of stock recommendations

5.  Institutional Investor magazine publishes a yearly ranking of brokerage house research and a list of All-American analysts in each industry.  If brokers were fiduciaries, I think they’d have to tell you if, as many have, they’ve laid off most of their experienced researchers during the recession.  So they have no ranked analysts anymore.  And the report you’ve just been handed recommending XYZ Corp as a “buy” was written by a replacement who only has six months experience, no formal training in securities analysis, and is learning to do research on the fly.

All of this would be a little like watching your meal being prepared in the kitchen of a restaurant that probably won’t pass health inspection.  Certainly, brokers don’t want to be forced to allow you this peek under the covers.

are any changes likely, based on the SEC findings?

I doubt it.  Opposition from “full service” brokerage houses would be too great.  It’s also interesting to note that, while the study was done by the staff of the SEC as Dodd-Frank mandated, its conclusions weren’t endorsed by the SEC.

But this did give me another chance to write about some of the less obvious practices of the retail brokerage industry.  So at least that’s something.

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