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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Tension Between Personal Responsibility and Paternalism - and the Issue of Fiduciary Standards

Throughout American society there exists a tension between two fundamental sets of beliefs. On one side is the staunch believe that freedom of contract is fundamental, that persons should take responsibility for their own actions, and if persons act stupidly (and enter "dumb bargains") then so be it.

On the other side is the belief that there are certain things so important to our society, such as the retirement security of our fellow Americans, that individuals with a great disparity in knowledge compared to the purveyors of products they deal with should possess a trusted guide, and that government should enforce this by specifying that such guides should act in a paternalistic manner (i.e., keeping best interests of the client foremost).

Both sides often ignore the fact that there is room for both. Not everyone needs nor wants a trusted advisor. Yet, those who desire a trusted advisor (which I suspect is the vast majority of Americans) want an advisor who truly stands in the shoes of the client, at all times. And they desire to be able to "judge a book by its cover" - i.e., when someone uses a title which denotes a relationship of trust and confidence, they want to be able to have confidence that such person is acting in their best interests.

Yet, due to failings in our government, the role of the trusted advisor versus the product salesperson has blurred.  Those who deal at arms-length (in which caveat emptor is the standard of protection, augmented to some degree by certain required disclosures) have moved into "trust-based selling," in essence disguising themselves as trusted advisors. Despite early warnings from the SEC and FINRA (f/k/a NASD), as evidenced by statements made in 1941 and 1963, salespeople hold themselves out as trusted advisors, yet then deny fiduciary status.

There are many economic interests who desire to continue this morass of confusion (from the standpoint of the consumer). These interests do not desire to accept the higher standard of conduct of a fiduciary. They are fearful of a profession, for with it comes professional-level compensation, a move toward hundreds if not thousands of professional practices, and a move away from the distribution systems of today with their substantial extraction of rents. In essence, the broker-dealer business model of today, an anachronism, is challenged at its very core by these developments.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have flooded into Washington, DC, in recent years, and tens of millions of dollars more each year, as Wall Street firms and insurance companies attempt to wield their influence to prevent the evolution toward a fiduciary model.

At a minimum, Wall Street and the insurance companies seek to prevent common-sense measures which would permit consumers to clearly detect the type of relationship (arms-length, or fiduciary in which they find themselves. They desire to continue their practice of "trust-based selling" - an oxymoron. Wall Street's broker-dealers, investment banks, and the insurance companies desire to perpetuate the great deception of consumers today. To paraphrase Prof. Angel and others, "To hold oneself out as a trusted financial advisor, without accepting the duties which flow from fiduciary status, amounts to fraud."

Far more devious, however, is Wall Street's greater aim -  its desire (via FINRA, aided by SIFMA and FSI and the many broker-dealer firms who are members of these organizations) to take over and kill the independent fiduciary investment advisory profession. While FINRA has recently indicated that its "SRO over RIAs" ambitions is not its key legislative priority today, there is no doubt that it continues to lay the groundwork for another run at Congress in the future.

The battle lines have been drawn. These battles exist, however, along several fronts - DOL/EBSA, SEC possible rule imposing fiduciary standards on brokers who provide personalized investment advice, the regulation and oversight of RIAs, state legislatures and state securities regulators and even in the courts (where state common law fiduciary standards are applied to relationships based upon trust and confidence).

As these battles continue, independent investment advisers and consumer groups must continue to explain the truth of the situation in which consumers find themselves today ... mass confusion, caused in significant part by deceptive marketing practices which regulators (SEC, FINRA) have refused to clamp down upon. Continued education of the SEC Commissioners, their staff, and members of Congress and their staffs is required, especially given the high degree of turnover in D.C.

While this is a challenge, it is also an opportunity. It is the opportunity to correct the misleading sales practices which deceive too many Americans. It is the opportunity to more clearly and correctly draw the line between arms-length investment and insurance product sales and trusted investment advice. It is the opportunity to restore the trust of individual Americans in the providers of investment and financial advice. And it is the opportunity to formalize a profession of true, fiduciary financial and investment advisors.

To my colleagues already engaged in this effort, continue to persevere. To my colleagues who desire to get involved, do so - but with the understanding that these battles will not quickly be won.

Our fellow Americans should be able to tell a product salesperson from a trusted advisor. For those Americans who desire an advisor to act on their behalf, these Americans deserve a profession of trusted financial and investment advisors.

Indeed, America itself deserves all of the benefits - increased savings, greater investment in the capital markets, lowered cost of capital for firms, and greater economic growth - such a development would foretell.

Keep up the good fight. Thank you.

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