Thursday, June 18, 2009

Of course, they're behind you all the way. It's closer to your wallet.

I counted maybe eight references in President Obama's 89-page outline for regulatory reform to one of the most important questions consumers and investors need to ask. How well do you trust financial advisers?

We'd all like to believe that advisers always make recommendations with our best interests in mind. That's what many of them tell us they do, after all. Truth is, financial services providers have been using a double standard for more than a half century now, which President Obama's plan may or may not abolish.

Financial advisers who are regulated by the SEC or by state securities commissioners must apply what's called a fiduciary standard when they deal with our affairs. That means they are required to consider the client's interests above all others, including their own, when they work.

Brokers and others who are self-policed by independent industry groups such as the Financial Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, apply what's called a suitability standard, which increasingly is regarded as looser than the fiduciary standard.

Suitability standards require only that a recommended action be appropriate in your situation and whoever is making that recommendation isn't required to tell you, for example, that you can get the same thing cheaper or better from a competitor down street. Fiduciary standards require an adviser to tell you that too.

President Obama's recommendations Wednesday call for a "harmonization" of the two approaches to meet a more uniformly fiduciary standard. Financial planners groups, the brokerage industry, insurance providers and consumers' groups generally are clapping politely and elbowing each other for dibs on who specifically gets to write expected new rules.

Harmonizing may be difficult to pull off, Diahann Lassus, chairman of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, told Kitchentablenomics, because "fiduciary standards fundamentally are concerned with the providing of service while suitability primarily involves product distribution."

Both long time fiduciary advocate NAPFA and the larger national Financial Planning Association, a more recent convert, favor putting the Securities and Exchange Commission in charge of enforcing the standards.

But FINRA chairman and chief executive Rick Ketchum argues that his independent regulators would be a good choice too because, he claims, they have better track records than the federal agency handling consumer complaints.

I'm still agnostic on those arguments. But I still think our best tactic is to do some homework and ask all the questions we can think of to anyone who wants our business.

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