The government wants brokers and other financial professionals to act in their clients' best interest. That may sound like an obvious plus, but if you're a client, you might well be much happier keeping things exactly the way they are now.
Recently, the administration proposed new regulations that would impose what's known as a fiduciary responsibility on brokers. In requiring brokers to hold themselves up to that higher standard, the hope is that customers would be less likely to face conflicts of interest or to receive advice that benefits the broker more than the customer.
Helping customers sounds like a noble task. If you don't want or need help, however, regulations imposing a fiduciary duty on brokers could turn investing into a nightmare for you. Let me explain.
What fiduciary duty is
I have a lot of experience with what it means to have fiduciary responsibility. Before I started writing for the Fool, I worked as a trust officer for a mid-sized regional bank. In the bank's role as trustee, it had a full fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries of the trusts it managed. As compensation for the risk and effort involved in fulfilling that duty, however, the bank took fairly substantial fees that were based on the amount of assets under management. Depending on the size of the account, those fees often amounted to thousands of dollars annually.
To be fair, our clients got a lot of service in exchange for that fee. Beyond choosing appropriate investments, trust officers routinely handled everything from making health-care arrangements to signing clients up for Medicare and Social Security. If you wanted full-service treatment, opening a trust account could actually end up saving you money versus hiring other professionals on an hourly basis.
I'll go with self-serve, thanks
In contrast, discount brokers, along with those investment professionals who don't currently owe a fiduciary duty to their clients, offer a useful alternative to investors. If you're comfortable making your own decisions and simply want someone to execute your instructions efficiently and inexpensively, then the last thing you want is to have to deal with someone who is required by law to meet the fiduciary-duty standard. Imagine the following situations:
- You open a brokerage account and want to build a portfolio of small-cap stocks like Netflix
(NASDAQ:NFLX)and STEC (NASDAQ:STEC), which you believe will add some great performance to your investments. Your broker, not knowing that you have more traditional investments like the SPDR Trust (NYSE:SPY)S&P 500 index ETF in accounts with other institutions, doesn't allow you to make the trades because the broker can't confirm that those stocks are appropriate without obtaining a lot more information from you.
- You specifically go to a firm like Morgan Stanley
(NYSE:MS)or Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS)because you like their mutual funds. But their representatives can't sell those funds to you because doing so creates a conflict of interest.
I'll admit that these examples are a little bit silly, and in reality, you could get around them with a long series of legal disclaimers. But they illustrate a basic point: In order to meet a fiduciary-duty standard, brokers might have to do things a lot differently than they do now -- and clients could face a number of obstacles they don't have to deal with now. Moreover, clients would likely face higher costs as investment companies passed on the expenses of meeting these standards.
Freedom of choice
That's one reason why discount brokers like TD Ameritrade
Many ordinary investors are outraged at Wall Street and its excesses, and with good reason. Imposing a fiduciary standard on every single investment professional, however, isn't the best way to protect investors. The better alternative is to teach people to be aware of the industry's traps, allowing them to navigate on their own and make the right choices for themselves.
Do you want the protection of fiduciary duty, or will it just do more harm than good? Tell me what you think about it in the comment section below.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger hated driving through New Jersey recently because their gas stations don't let you pump your own gas. He owns shares of SPDR Trust. Netflix and Charles Schwab are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy always acts in your best interest.