Broken Brokerages: Finance Luminaries Join Fight Over Uniform Fiduciary Standard

Paul Volcker. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

“The trouble is that brokers are screaming, ‘Trust me, trust me, you don’t have to bother your little head. I’ll take care of you, I’ll manage your securities and give you financial planning for you and your children and everybody else,’ Tamar Frankel, a law professor at Boston University told us. “‘Trust me, give me discretion to decide what to do with [your] money.’ If that’s not fiduciary, then what is?”

Ms. Frankel was on the phone to discuss the most important consumer issue you’ve probably never heard of. For more than half a century, the financial professionals who offer investing advice have fallen into two broad categories. Broker-dealers charge commissions on the securities they trade on behalf of clients. Investment advisers charge fees, typically as a percentage of assets under management. There’s another crucial difference. Investment advisers must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission and have a fiduciary duty to act in their clients’ best interests. Brokers, meanwhile, are self-regulated and operate by the standard of “suitability.”

“The brokers say they have a rule, and the rule is, they must give you suitable investment advice,” Ms. Frankel said. “I use my expertise to give you something that you can use, that’s suitable for you. But suitability doesn’t mean cheapest. It may be suitable, but you can go next door and get it at half price.”

The DoddFrank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 called for the SEC to study the possibility of governing the two groups under one regulatory regime. But two years after Congress passed the law, the process has stalled. Worse, as far as Ms.Frankel is concerned, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, or SIFMA, as the securities industry lobbying group is known, has put forward a vision of the rule that she said would turn the definition of the fiduciary standard on its head.

She isn’t alone. Wednesday, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, Nobel-prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman and Vanguard Group founder John Bogle joined Ms. Frankel and eight other academics, investors and former regulators signed a declaration in support of a uniform standard that would require broker-dealers and investment advisers to act in their clients’ best interests. Their beef? “The fact is that brokers who are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are not required by law to put their clients first,” the statement read in part.

Or as co-signer Burton Malkiel, author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, told The Observer: “If you’re a securities broker, you’re going to want to sell the things where you make the most money, where your commission is greatest. For me, that’s the opposite of how it should be. Investment advice should have the fiduciary duty that the customer comes first.”

Broken Brokerages: Finance Luminaries Join Fight Over Uniform Fiduciary Standard