Friday, June 19, 2009

A Fiduciary Standard Watered Down

There is no doubt that the fiduciary standard for anyone who renders investment advice would be a good thing. However, in the Obama Administration's White Paper, on page 72 to be exact, there is a statement that concerns me greatly. It reads:

prohibiting certain conflicts of interests and sales practices that are contrary to the interests of investors.

You can read it here:

What bothers me is the word "certain" in that statement. My interpretation, based on my experience, would mean that selling from broker/dealer inventory would be one of the conflicts of interest that they are referring to. Broker dealers currently are allowed to buy stocks of various companies and keep them in inventory. They typically buy companies that are widely held. When their customers want to buy that same stock, then the broker/dealers sell them the stock from their inventory. The broker/dealer may have bought the stock at a lower price and sold it from inventory to the client at a higher price. If they do not have the stock at a lower price, then they let the customer buy it outside of their inventory. The do not normally sell their inventory positions at a loss. It is easier for them to let the client buy it from the exchanges. Obviously, they stand to make more money by selling from inventory.

I believe that broker/dealers would gladly give up selling from inventory for the ability to be a fiduciary under the forthcoming watered down rules. What we will see, in regard to the fiduciary standard, is that broker/dealers and their FINRA registered representatives will be able to continue doing business as usual. They will only have to disclose their conflicts of interest, then they can continue selling commission based products instead of fee only investment advice in a client's best interest.

The tactic being pushed to the media from Mary Shapiro, SEC Chairman is that broker/dealers and investment adviser's services are "substantially identical" as far as the public is concerned.

See this article from Financial Planning's web site for comments from Mary Shapiro:

This could not be further from the truth. Besides, the fact that the consumer is not able to distinguish between a FINRA registered representative and an investment adviser is because of the "solely incidential" rule. The solely incidental rule, sometimes called the "Merrill Lynch" rule is the rule that opened the flood gates allowing FINRA registered representatives the ability to wear two hats. When they want to sell products, they slide the brokerage agreement in front of the client, all the while neglecting to mention any conflicts of interest. By wearing the FINRA hat, they do not have to disclose conflicts of interest. They can also wear the hat of an investment adviser. This is why they are known as dually registered (wearing the more profitable FINRA hat at the time of the transaction, of course.)

You rarely see a dually registered FINRA sales person as a 100% fee only investment adviser. They have to hit their sales quotas to keep their offices. Most FINRA broker/dealers have as their sales quotas upwards of $250,000 in revenue per year and higher. If you do the math, then you will see that in order to produce $250,000 in revenue as a 100% fee only advisor for the FINRA broker/dealer, then this means that this FINRA registered representative would have to bring in net new assets each and every year of $16,666,666.67. This is using 1.5% as the annual fee for the calculation. ($16,666,666.67 x 1.5% = $250,000.) Let me assure you, very few FINRA registered representatives can do this each and every year. I can promise you that FINRA broker/dealers are not going to lower their yearly sales quotas.

As a result, my educated guess is that we will see a watered down fiduciary standard that allows FINRA registered representatives to still wear two hats and still "pretend" to do things in a client's best interest. It will be even worse if FINRA itself is allowed to be the regulator of registered investment advisers. That would be the nail in the coffin for consumers of financial services. Wasn't the goal here to protect consumers?

You can read more about it in my book, Keep Your Assets. Take My Advice.