Get What You Want From Your Broker

People are angry at Wall Street's shenanigans, and upset investors want to do whatever it takes to avoid a repeat of the excesses of the past decade. To address that, the Securities and Exchange Commission is considering rules to force stockbrokers to act in the best interest of their clients.

But rather than imposing a one-rule-fits-all approach to fiduciary duty, what the SEC should do is give customers the ultimate choice when it comes to deciding what relationship they want with their brokers.

Understanding the argument
In some ways, the entire debate about whether stockbrokers should have to put their customers' interests ahead of their own seems ludicrous. In just about every other area of commerce, customers are used to having to look out for themselves. When you're buying a car, you don't expect the salesperson to disclose how much profit they make if you pay the sticker price. Plumbers and electricians can charge whatever the market will bear for their services, and they can sell marked-up products from their own inventory without telling you that you could go buy them at your local hardware store for a fraction of the cost.

But the difference with brokers is in the nature of the business relationship. Just as people want a lawyer to be on their side no matter what they've done, many of us expect financial professionals to support us and our goals. We understand that those professionals have to get paid, and most of us are willing to give them fair compensation for their work. We just don't want to get hung out to dry simply so our brokers can earn a living.

Dealing with conflict
Hung out to dry is how many people feel right now, though. Regardless of the outcome of the fraud allegations against Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , what upset some people the most was the two-faced way in which the company could take one side of one transaction yet take the opposite side with other customers.

The reality, though, is that that's the nature of the financial business. Companies have multiple clients, and when they have different interests, it's impossible to serve everyone well. Ratings agencies Moody's (NYSE: MCO  ) and McGraw-Hill's (NYSE: MHP  ) Standard & Poor's had to deal with the conflict of getting paid by companies to providing ratings for their securities that the general public would use to make investing decisions. Brokers at Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) and other big investment banks, as well as their insurance counterparts, also have to figure out how to balance their employers' expectations for them to build sales against their duties to their clients. Even Bank of America's own Sallie Krawcheck has said that plain-English disclosures would go a long way toward making the broker-client relationship easier to understand.

Let the people decide
What few people have talked about, though, is that many investors don't want advice. Sure, discount brokers TD AMERITRADE (Nasdaq: AMTD  ) , E*TRADE Financial (Nasdaq: ETFC  ) , and Charles Schwab (NYSE: SCHW  ) talk about the resources and support they provide to investors. But just as many people go years without ever visiting a bank teller, discount brokerage customers can execute their own trades, do their own research, and create their own financial plans without any input whatsoever from the brokers they work with. And many clients wouldn't have it any other way -- especially if it forces them to fill out a bunch of needless paperwork and endure painful compliance-related procedures.

In the end, the solution won't stem from whether people want brokers to go beyond recommending "suitable" investments to obey a fiduciary duty to their clients. It'll come from a basic philosophical question: whether they want to pay their brokers to provide unbiased advice without any conflicts of interest. Those who want the highest standard of care from their brokers should be able to get that care, as long as they're willing to pay for it. But for those of us who happily see brokers simply as a means of executing investment strategies rather than as essential tools in actually crafting those strategies, the way things are now -- with low-cost commissions and a minimum of complications -- is pretty much ideal.

What are your views about brokers giving their clients a fiduciary standard? Weigh in by leaving a comment below!

Don't let a bad relationship with your broker sabotage your retirement savings. Click here to read the Fool's new special report, The 7 Secrets to Salvage Your Retirement Today.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't expect fiduciary duty from Wall Street pros. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Moody's is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Moody's and Charles Schwab are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Moody's. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy has a duty to you.


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  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2010, at 10:25 AM, mrwizard555 wrote:

    as you say, those that want a fiduciary relationship whould pay for it. by the same token, those that don't should be required to understand that they don't have it. betcha lots of folks think their broker would never steer them wrong, just to turn a buck.

    there also has to be a mechanism to enforce the fiduciary. way to easy for the broker to churn an account by saying "this is the best thing for you".

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2010, at 10:50 AM, lw67 wrote:

    Anyone who would pay 3 or 4 hundred dollars to buy shares of a stock need to have their heads examined. An investor should be able to pick 10 or 12 stocks out of the thousands offered to invest in and keep comm. paid to a min. The advise you get often is slanted to make a broker more money. Do your own dd and pick quality co. and you should be ok. How many times must you read about people giving their money to someone to management it and find they are close to broke or suffer a huge loss because that person is NOT interested in them but themselves. YOU FIGURE IT OUT.

  • Report this Comment On November 24, 2010, at 5:53 PM, DDHv wrote:

    Besides which, the fun is in the research - finding out about the different companies. The fact that my return is way ahead of SPY is frosting on the cake.

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