If the most popular personal finance personality in the United States had a chance to save Americans billions of dollars a year, would he? Apparently not.
On Monday, Dave Ramsey came out against a rule being reviewed by the Obama administration that would require financial advisors to act in the best interest of their clients who are saving for retirement. The fiduciary rule, as it is known, was proposed last year and would apply to 401(K)s and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).
Ramsey -- a personal finance guru who has written six New York Times bestsellers and has a talk-radio show that draws over 8 million listeners, behind only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity -- said in a tweet that the rule would keep a wide swath of the population from getting personal investing advice.
Current law allows financial advisors to work on commission when they advise savers about retirement accounts. Advisors are also allowed to earn money from mutual fund companies for steering clients to specific funds, even if those funds are not in the client’s best interest.
Such conflicted advice costs retirement savers $17 billion a year in poor investment performance and unnecessary fees, according to a White House estimate. Financial research firm Morningstar puts the cost to retirement savers slightly higher, at $19 billion.
The finance industry has continually argued that the fiduciary rule would restrict access to information from advisors and raise costs for customers. But it's important to remember that the only advice the rule would restrict is potentially conflicted advice. In addition, the advisor of a commission account has an incentive to push the client to buy and sell often, which often drives up the cost for the saver -- the fiduciary rule would restrict advisors from telling clients to buy just to generate commissions.
So why is Dave Ramsey, who preaches a financial code based on cost-cutting and ethical behavior, standing up for a business model that costs Americans billions of dollars a year?
It might be because he makes money steering his listeners and readers to a network of financial advisors, called endorsed local providers, who can work on commission, said Helaine Olen, a personal finance author who writes an advice column for Slate.
“Ramsey’s entire business model is that he claims you can get 12 percent returns in the market, and he has a network of endorsed local providers who pay him for referrals,” Olen told The Huffington Post.
Since Ramsey doesn’t disclose his company’s financial details, it’s hard to know exactly how much money is at stake for him, but Olen thinks the fiduciary rule might take a toll on Ramsey's referral business, and it certainly will not be good for endorsed providers who work on commission.
Ramsey's office did not respond to requests for comment.
While Olen notes that “not everyone who works on commission is doing something with bad intent,” the current system has created a "standard where everybody is on their own and people have to figure out if they are getting advice that is in their best interest. And that’s sort of absurd, right?”
In the past, Ramsey has used his syndicated advice column to tell followers to quit jobs that require them to sell financial products they don’t believe in. A reader once asked if she should keep a part-time job that required her to push credit cards on customers. (Ramsey abhors debt and the questioner shared that view.)
Ramsey’s advice: Quit, “for the sake of your own integrity.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Ramsey's radio show airs weekly. It airs five days a week.