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What your financial adviser’s not saying

Amy Scott Aug 31, 2009

What your financial adviser’s not saying

Amy Scott Aug 31, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Not too far below health care on the legislative agenda when Congress gets back to work next week will be coming up with new rules for how Wall Street does business. A lot of the discussion so far has been about protecting consumers from potential wrongs they don’t even know about.

Forget the bigger problems of toxic assets and collateralized debt obligations for a second. What if your financial adviser’s selling you an investment that he or his firm stand to profit from? From New York, Marketplace’s Amy Scott has more.

AMY SCOTT: I’m going to use one of those jargony finance words we at Marketplace generally try to avoid. Fiduciary.

BARBARA ROPER: A fiduciary duty is the responsibility to act in the best interests of your clients.

That’s Barbara Roper. She’s director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America.

Roper says there are basically two kinds of people you can go to for financial advice. You can go to a registered investment adviser. Or a registered broker-dealer. One big difference? Investment advisers are required by law to put your interests ahead of their own. Broker dealers are not.

Roper says they have to sell you products that are suitable but not necessarily in your best interest.

ROPER: Broker-dealers give extensive investment advice, but they’re regulated as sales people and have not been subject to a fiduciary duty. However, they call themselves financial advisers, they offer advisory services, they market themselves based on the advice offered. And this, of course, creates a great deal of consumer confusion.

I’ll say. The Obama administration wants to cut through that confusion by applying the same fiduciary duty to anyone who gives investment advice.

The broker-dealer industry has fought the idea for years. Critics say brokers make a lot of money selling their firm’s own products when a competitor’s might be better or cheaper for you.

But since the financial crisis, the industry’s changed its position. Ira Hammerman is general counsel to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or SIFMA. That’s the brokerage industry’s main trade group. He admits there are flaws in the system.

IRA HAMMERMAN: We owe investors clarity, and we do not have clarity today. So what we would like to see is a new federal standard, a high standard, and one that offers consistent protection to investors across the land.

But what exactly will that standard be? That’s where the fight is shaping up.

Consumer advocate Barbara Roper says the brokerage industry doesn’t want a real fiduciary standard but a watered down “fiduciary lite.” She says SIFMA supports a standard that only applies when brokers give financial advice, not when they actually sell whatever mutual fund or other product they advise you to buy.

ROPER: An approach that would be poorly understood by investors, and an invitation to abuse.

Roper says, for example, a broker would be held to a fiduciary standard when advising you to buy a growth stock mutual fund. But when it came time to sell the product, he might be inclined to push the one that earned him a higher commission.

The Obama administration has proposed that the SEC look into these sorts of conflicts, and ban forms of compensation that may be harmful to investors.

Dale Brown is CEO of the Financial Services Institute, a group representing broker-dealers and financial advisers. He, and pretty much everyone I talked to, says it’s impossible to rid the advice industry of conflicts.

DALE BROWN: What’s important, I believe, is not that there are conflicts of interest, there are. But it’s how are those conflicts disclosed and managed so that the investor gets the advice and help and service that they need.

Brown says there’s nothing wrong with the commission-based business model. He says it makes advice accessible to people who might not be able to afford an adviser who charges a fee.

Andy Rosenfield is CEO of Guggenheim Investment Advisers, a firm that markets itself as conflict-free. He says even when conflicts are disclosed, investors don’t always read the disclosure or understand it.

ANDY ROSENFIELD: When I get a prescription from a doctor, it comes with a five-page printed sort of insert that you unfold, I seldom read it. On the other hand if the prescription says on the face, “Don’t be in the sun,” you understand.

The investing equivalent might be a simple notice saying: “This broker receives compensation from a third party.” That would be one way of letting investors decide whether the advice benefits them, or their broker.

In New York, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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