investment advisers as fiduciaries: a new Labor Department proposal

The Labor Department proposed new rules today that would require that brokers or financial planners or other professionals giving advice to individuals on their retirement savings act as fiduciaries.

what a fiduciary is

Being a fiduciary means being legally bound to give advice that’s best for the client, without regard for any benefits the adviser might get for recommending one investment over another.

Strangely, in my view, the fiduciary standard is not the rule advisers work under now.  Rather, advisers are only required to recommend products that are “suitable” for customers, meaning they fit the client’s goals, financial circumstances and risk tolerances.

The difference?

Another way of saying the same thing, the fiduciary is required to do what’s best for the client; under the old standard the adviser has simply got to avoid products that damage the customer.

For example:

A broker/planner has two general equity fund offerings:

–Fund A has a long history of strong investment management, consistently beating the S&P 500, and charges low fees

–Fund B has weak managers and an equally long record of sub-par investment performance, consistently losing to the S&P.  It also charges fees that are double the size of Fund A’s.  However, Fund B offers higher commissions to brokers who sell its product, plus trips to weekend informational seminars at resort locations to those who sell the most of it.

Under current rules, a broker/planner is permitted to recommend B over A, even though B is only better for the broker, and will presumably be considerably worse for the client.

costs are the smoking gun

Other than in hindsight, it may be hard to say whether manager X is better than manager Y.  And managers who consistently underperform are eventually culled, even in retail brokerage houses, where the emphasis is typically on strengthening the sales force, not the portfolio management team.

But I think it would be hard for a fiduciary to defend recommending one so-so product over another that costs half as much, and for selling which the fiduciary gets gifts, trips or a corner office and a secretary.

traditional brokers will be hurt the worst by these rules

That’s because they charge the most–partly to compensate highly-paid salesmen, partly to fund an expensive network of retail sales offices.

The traditional retail brokerage business has been dying a slow death since the advent of discount brokerage services in the 1970s.  Imposing a requirement that brokers do the best for their clients is another nail in the coffin.

for now, the rules only affect retirement savings accounts,

…not general savings/investments.  I presume this limitation is the result of fierce lobbying by financial advice providers opposed to the fiduciary standard.  But we may just be seeing the thin edge of the wedge.

Wall Street firms are running out of retail brokers

In the post-recession world, traditional brokerage/investment banking firms have become much more interested in the steady income that can come from providing financial advice to individuals.  This is partly due to the demise of proprietary trading, partly a new respect for recurring income.   But Wall Street is finding it hard to maintain its retail sales forces.

One would think that with the Baby Boom beginning to retire, and having 401ks and IRAs rather than traditional pensions to support them in their “golden” years, there would be a lot of demand from this quarter for professional investment advice.  Yet, brokerage firms are finding it hard to recruit salesmen.  The demographics of the big (or “full service,” as they’re called) brokerage forces themselves are also telling:  lots of over-fifties, few under-thirties.  Why is this?

In general:

1.  The internet has replaced financial services as the destination of choice for ambitious college graduates.

2.  Brokerage firms have traditionally been hostile toward women, thereby eliminating half the possible job candidates.

3.  Being a financial adviser is–something I kind of get, but kind of don’t–a relatively low status position, down there with used car salesman.


4.  People under the age of, say, fifty (maybe it’s sixty, though) would prefer to deal with a discount broker over the internet than face-to-face with a traditional brokerage salesman.  I have no short answer as to why, but they do–even when introduced to an honest, competent broker by their parents.  Of course, maybe that in itself is the kiss of death.

5.  Traditional brokerage firms have decimated their research departments as cost-cutting measures during the recession.  This eliminates the only reason I personally would consider a traditional broker.

6.  A broker typically gets a little less than half of the commission revenue he generates (see my post on how your broker gets paid for more detail).  The rest goes to the firm, which uses part of that to pay for offices, recordkeeping, and marketing…   For many years, however, firms like Fidelity, Charles Schwab or other, more low-profile companies have been willing to provide established brokers with back-office support for a small fraction of that amount.  I’m not current on today’s arrangements, but while I was working a broker could easily increase his “net” commission from 45% to 80% by switching to one of these firms.  Yes, he might have to provide his own office, but the headline is that he could increase his income by 78% with the move.


What’s new about this situation isn’t that it’s happening–this has been going on for well over a decade–but that traditional brokers are finally concerned.   Their retail business model is broken, however, and I don’t see it getting fixed any time soon.  My question is how Baby Boomers are going to get the financial advice they need to manager their money during retirement.