When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?
That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term "fiduciary standard." Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.
The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.
The president's decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.
"The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation," said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.
Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.
"Most people don't know the difference," said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.
The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President's Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.
The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.
The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account's value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.
What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants' best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.
The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their "advisers" ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.
The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.
How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.
Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.