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Now Is the Time for the Fiduciary Standard

By Dan Caplinger - Sep 4, 2013 at 10:25AM

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Don't let brokers give advice that's not in their clients' best interest.

When you work with a financial advisor, you want someone who will put your best interests first. Yet all too often, brokers and other advisors have to wrestle with other factors that affect their own financial interests, and the net result is that clients don't always get the treatment they deserve. Imposing a fiduciary standard on all investment professionals would ensure that you actually receive the unbiased advice that most customers already think they're getting.

The Institute for the Fiduciary Standard is a relatively young organization, formed two years ago to help further the cause of forcing investment professionals to follow key fiduciary duties. That cause is one that the Motley Fool has repeatedly advocated, and the Institute believes that now is a key time to move forward with the fiduciary standard, dubbing this month "Fiduciary September."

What a fiduciary standard means
To understand what the fiduciary standard means, you have to look at the fiduciary duties that some professionals already must follow. Fiduciaries must serve the client's best interests, acting in good faith and prudently with the knowledge and judgment of an investment professional. They must also avoid conflicts of interest and disclose any facts that are material to their relationship with their clients, and they need to work to rein in costs and avoid unnecessary expenses.

That might not sound all that controversial, but the brokerage industry doesn't agree. It points to its other business lines -- e.g., underwriting stock and bond offerings and giving companies strategic advice -- as potentially running afoul of the fiduciary standard. Moreover, some brokerage firms argue that only by having investment offerings with relatively high built-in costs can they afford to serve small customers with modest amounts to invest. They say that a fiduciary standard would force them to abandon millions of potential customers that they could otherwise serve under current, more lenient standards.

Why now is the time
The Institute says now is a key time for the fiduciary standard because two key proposals concerning the legal definition of "investment advice" are currently up for review. Both the SEC and the Department of Labor, which oversees regulations governing the handling of retirement accounts, are considering proposals that could potentially implement elements of the fiduciary standard on investment professionals advising clients.

Institute President Knut Rostad also points out that the public already has extremely negative views of the biggest financial companies in the country. He cites a Harris Poll from earlier this year that found that Goldman Sachs (GS 2.77%) had the second-worst reputation of the 60 "most-visible companies," while Bank of America (BAC 2.32%) came in third-worst. Rivals JPMorgan Chase (JPM 1.73%) and Citigroup (C 2.64%) were also among the six lowest-ranked companies in the poll. Given those opinions, public support for further regulation seems almost guaranteed.

Another reason why timing is critical is that turnover within the SEC has put two new commissioners and new chair Mary Jo White on the board of five. Given the Department of Labor's efforts to move forward and the clear interest in having the same regulatory framework apply both to retirement and nonretirement accounts, coordinating SEC and DoL efforts will be crucial.

Get the standard you deserve
Already, plenty of investment professionals work under a fiduciary standard, giving advice that's in the best interest of their clients without sacrificing their own livelihood. Expecting the fiduciary standard to become the industry standard for investment advice is not only reasonable, but crucial to ensure that unscrupulous professionals don't take advantage of unsuspecting clients for their own personal gain.

Tune in to for Dan's regular columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger.

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