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As rules and fees change, is it time to move your money?

Charles Schwab is one of the brokerages lowering

Charles Schwab is one of the brokerages lowering fees for some exchange-traded funds. Photo Credit: BLOOMBERG / David Paul Morris

Has the political season got you down? Here’s an imperfect antidote to the vituperative presidential campaign scrum: Over the past month, large investment companies such as BlackRock and Charles Schwab announced they are cutting fees on some of their largest exchange traded funds, or ETFs. (As a reminder, ETFs are listed on an exchange, can be traded intraday like an individual stock and must be held in a brokerage account. Companies usually charge a nominal commission to execute either a buy or sell order for an ETF.)

Considering that these funds were already cheap, what prompted the recent move?

These companies are likely trying to make a play for retirement investors who may be exiting their brokers in the coming year as a result of the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary standard rule. That rule will require financial professionals to put the investor’s needs first and also to disclose and manage any conflicts of interest. After the rule goes into effect in April 2017, some products that were previously sold in retirement accounts may no longer be available.

The new rule comes with an asterisk: the best interest contract exemption, or BICE. If companies do want to continue certain product sales or compensation agreements that don’t exactly fit into the fiduciary mold, they can do so as long as they follow certain requirements. Those requirements may be a bit too onerous for some firms. Recently, the Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch unit announced that after April 10, 2017, retirement investors will no longer have the option of paying a commission for trades. Instead, those customers will have to find another brokerage firm to hold those assets.

This shift is precisely what spooked the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the lobbying arm of the financial world. When the Labor Department announced its rule changes, SIFMA argued that, rather than assuming the risk of maintaining these accounts, many companies would choose to limit investors’ choices, raise minimums or force customers into an asset under management (known in the industry as AUM) model of compensation. For some investors, those alternatives may be more expensive than simply holding what they already own in a commission-based account.

But for all of the teeth-gnashing from the industry about the rule hurting small investors, there is an easy solution for those who do not want to make any changes to their current retirement account structure: Simply move the account to any online self-directed brokerage account.

Not surprisingly, Merrill Lynch would like its clients to slide those retirement assets into its online brokerage arm, Merrill Edge. But that’s where the new BlackRock and Schwab fee reductions could be compelling. As more companies announce changes in the way they handle retirement accounts, billions and perhaps trillions of dollars could be on the move. These are the very assets that were once considered “sticky” by the industry; investors were content to “stick” with their more expensive companies because transferring was seen as a pain in the neck.

But if you have to move your account anyway, you may finally focus on what you own and how much it costs to own it. These are the so-called backdoor payments and hidden fees, which the President’s Council of Economic Advisers has said cost retirement savers up to $17 billion a year in excess fees and adverse performance. The process may lead you to conclude that there are far cheaper options available to you, either in the discount brokerage world or with a robo-adviser, both of which have embraced the fiduciary standard.

Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.


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