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!
Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.