Business Costs & Regulation

A Higher Standard for Brokers -- But Not Yet

Like investment advisers, they'll have to put the best interest of clients first.

Eventually, no matter where you get your investment advice, you'll be getting it from someone required to put your interests first. Legally speaking, that might not now be the case under a murky double standard (see Whose Advice Can You Trust?).

One standard exists for registered investment advisers, who are compelled to act in the best interests of their customers and who are overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission. A different standard allows brokers who give their clients advice to recommend merely what's suitable or appropriate for the investor -- even if another choice might be better or cheaper. Think of, say, two annuities or mutual funds. Both of them may meet your needs, but one will cost you more because it pays the broker a big commission. (Brokers are monitored by Finra, the industry's self-regulatory body.)

A 208-page study, which was required under last year's financial-reform law and released by the SEC in January, concludes that a uniform fiduciary standard should be "no less stringent than [the one] currently applied to investment advisers." That's the good news. The disappointing news is that it will take months before regulators set out the rules defining this fiduciary standard. We probably won't know what they are until year-end.

For now, it's clear that it will still be kosher for a broker to recommend, say, a fund that levies a sales fee or is part of a proprietary lineup of in-house products. The broker will just need to disclose those things. And, presumably, the menu of products that firms offer will have to be big enough to allow brokers who do give advice to act in a client's best interest.

How the rules will be enforced is the subject of another SEC study and more debate. The SEC, Finra or a new regulator will examine advisers and enforce the rules. Right now, the SEC inspects the advisers it oversees only about once every 11 years, on average.

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