Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Year, New Fiduciary Standard?

It has been about six months since the passing of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law—and that means the results from the many studies commissioned by the Act will begin to be released. Dodd-Frank specifically required the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into regulatory standards and oversight gaps between investment advisors and brokers. Last week, the SEC released the results of its study on Section 913 and 914 dealing with the fiduciary duty issue and stricter investment-adviser examinations, respectively.

The issue of whether to impose a uniform fiduciary standard has been met with both fierce support and opposition. Currently, advisers are held to a fiduciary standard that requires them to act in the best interest of their clients, while brokers are only required to offer suitable products to retail customers. The problem with the dual standard arises where brokers offer advice and sell investment products—blurring the lines for retail investors and making it hard to tell when they are receiving sound investment advice or just a sales pitch.

However, last Friday, the SEC handed over its staff study to Congress recommending a uniform fiduciary standard. The study, if implemented as is, would hold brokers to the same fiduciary level as investment advisers under the Advisers Act when brokers are providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail investors. Therefore, under this study, brokers would only be held to a higher fiduciary duty when acting like an investment advisor.

Justification for a uniform standard stems from the issue of retail investors being unable to distinguish between a broker and an investment advisor. According to the SEC, if consumers are receiving investment advice, regardless of the source—broker or advisor—retail consumers should be protected uniformly. Accordingly, such a standard would achieve that goal. The SEC study also states that it attempted to balance retail investors’ need for protection with their ability to have access to various investment products. Because the standard only applied to brokers when giving investment advice, the SEC takes the position that a wide array of products will continue to still be available.

Further, in an attempt to close oversight gaps and keep implementation costs “to a minimum,” the SEC study also “recommends that when broker-dealers and investment advisers are performing the same or substantially similar functions” the regulatory protections should be “harmonized”, but the study lacks specific details on how to achieve this “harmonization.”

Ultimately, however, the staff study suggests additional research and analysis into this area before any implementation. Additionally, there is no statutory deadline for any follow-up rulemaking pursuant to this study, so it seems unlikely that much will be done without further research and analysis. SEC Commissioners Kathleen Casey and Troy Paredes share this view in their Statement Regarding Study on Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers and emphasized the need for further research before any uniform fiduciary standard rulemaking begins.

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