I thought of the word “shame” when news emerged that Republicans in Congress were launching an effort to delay and perhaps kill portions of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, which is scheduled to begin implementation on April 10. (Earlier this month, President Donald Trump ordered the Labor Department to review the rule but did not ask the department to “delay implementation,” according to Fortune.com.) The potential about-face is a slap in the face to anyone who cares about investor protections.
Let’s step back and review the meaning and significance of “fiduciary,” or what I like to call “the F-word.” Based on the Latin word for trust, it describes a person, typically a financial or legal professional, who manages another’s affairs with the ethical obligation to put the client’s interests first.
A consumer might assume that any relationship with a broker or financial planner implies a fiduciary duty on the part of the professional. After all, if the consumer is seeking advice about her own money, her interest must come before that of the adviser’s company, right?
That is the fiduciary standard. However, the majority of the financial services industry has been held to a lower standard known as “suitability.” The bar for suitability is lower; it means that any financial product that sold had to be appropriate for the client, although not necessarily in her best interest. The problem is that most investors have been unaware of the different standards that have applied for all of these years.
Of course, when asked by the CFP Board, a professional group representing certified financial planners, nine out of 10 Americans agreed that when they receive financial guidance, the person providing the advice should put the consumers’ interests ahead of his own and should have to tell consumers upfront about any conflicts of interest that could potentially influence that advice.
That higher bar is due to come into effect for financial professionals who service retirement savers.
When the Labor Department announced the rule last year, the big financial firms spent millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers in an effort to kill it. Yet somehow those crybaby companies managed to prepare for the implementation of fiduciary rule by adding different choices for investors and/or by beefing up their staff numbers. As the Financial Planning Coalition, another professional group, had anticipated when the rule was being considered, “Empirical research and the coalition’s practical experience confirm that middle-income investors will retain ready access to professional financial advice under a fiduciary standard of conduct.”
And now, with the industry resigned and ready — and just months to go before implementation, if the government takes the position that the fiduciary standard is not important — then ask yourself this question: If a broker or salesman doesn’t want to put you first, why should you work with him?
Here’s what you can do: Vote with your business and punish any firm that does not adhere to the fiduciary standard. There are tens of thousands of financial professionals ready to help you, including those with the certification of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (CFP); CPA personal financial specialists (CPA-PFS); members of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA); those who have earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation; and about 70 percent of the members of the Financial Planning Association (FPA). You can also work with a robo-adviser, a far better alternative than a conflicted salesman who is pushing a more expensive investment product than you need.
Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.