THE BLOG

Does Your Broker Make You Broker?

07/10/2013 05:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

Do you believe that your stockbroker should put your interests first -- ahead of his or her need to earn commissions or sell products?

Of course you do! And you probably believe that this is exactly the standard your broker is held to, putting your best interests first.

But you may be surprised that this behavior is not required of stockbrokers. Their standard of responsibility only requires that they make "suitable" investment recommendations for their clients.

Brokers and other financial salespeople do not have to follow the Fiduciary Standards required of Registered Investment Advisors. Those six fiduciary standards require the advisor to:

•Serve the client's best interest
•Act in utmost good faith
•Act prudently -- with the care, skill and judgment of a professional
•Avoid conflicts of interest
• Disclose all material facts
•Control investment expenses

(Note: An in-depth discussion of the Fiduciary Standard can be found at the website of the group advocating for the SEC to require brokers to meet these standards. Among the many advocates involved with this non-profit group is the legendary John Bogle, former chairman of Vanguard.)

Brokerage Customers Misinformed

You're not alone if you're shocked that a broker does not need to meet these requirements. A study commissioned by the SEC in 2008 revealed that 63 percent of focus group participants believed that brokers "are required by law to act in the client's best interest." A 2010 survey of investors by InfoGroup revealed 76 percent of investors believe brokers are fiduciaries; 60 percent believe insurance sales people are fiduciaries.

In other words, the public is clearly unaware that the brokers they choose to give them advice on investing may primarily be concerned with their own paychecks, and not their clients' prosperity!

You'd think the SEC would want to do something about this -- having commissioned the earlier study revealing the misperceptions. Instead, the SEC -- beholden to the brokerage and insurance industry -- is dragging its feet on requiring brokers to adhere to the fiduciary standard. The latest dodge is asking the SEC staff to perform a "cost-benefit" analysis of requiring the fiduciary standard!

When you consider that so many people buy investment products from salespeople -- whether stockbrokers, insurance agents, or even the salespeople sitting in their banks and selling investments under the aegis, if not the depository rules, of the bank -- then you realize the huge cost of the potential conflicts. How can you weigh this toll on consumers against the cost of requiring firms to put clients' interests first?

Brokers, Insurers Stall Fiduciary Standard

The brokerage industry pays lip service to the idea of adding customer protections. But behind the scenes, financial services executives are waging a stalling war on any new requirements.

It's not hard to understand why: Training and monitoring the thousands of financial salespeople who would be affected would be an expensive process. Plus, many of the most profitable products sold would become far less attractive if the salespeople were required to fully (and prominently) disclose all the fees, costs and commissions. And then there would be the potential legal costs of defending the sale of such products if investors could see brokers for not meeting the fiduciary standards.

They've even managed to spin the entire issue to say they are the ones protecting consumers -- because investment costs would rise for individual investors if brokers were forced to meet this standard!

Ironically, they're saying that clients would be greatly harmed if brokers were required to put their clients' interests first!

The SEC is delaying any action until two new commissioners are appointed. Then the process will start over again.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is the one agency of the government that is designated to protect investors. Now they have woefully and publicly fallen down on the job -- bending under the pressures of the industry they are supposed to regulate on behalf of investors.

If you are as outraged by this situation as I am, it is not too late to submit your comment to the SEC here

It's one thing for uninformed consumers to be misled by their supposed financial advisors, but quite another to be fleeced by the government agencies designed to protect them. And that's The Savage Truth!