You probably have at least a minimal expectation that financial regulators in Washington are looking out for you. And you’d be wrong — and a lot poorer in retirement as a result of that misplaced trust.
While the fight continues to enact clearly written and fair rules of engagement for investors, stock broker fraud cases are spilling into the headlines nearly daily. It’s as if the brokers see the writing on the wall and are bent on extracting every penny they can before long-delayed fiduciary rules are approved.
For instance, The New York Times reports that JPMorgan has been named by the Securities and Exchange Commission in a case that alleges that clients of the giant stock broker were pushed into costly, underperforming funds owned by the bank.
Why do that? Well, because it keeps money in the pockets of the bankers. It’s a classic case of failure of the so-called “suitability standard.”
According to the rules by which stock brokers play now, they are able and clearly willing to put clients into investments that are more costly than necessary, even when cheaper effective options are available. There is no legal reason for them to disclose the existence of better choices.
They need only to demonstrate that the funds chosen on behalf of their clients are “suitable” and their work is done. No putting grandma into a 100% Mongolian penny stock fund, for sure, but if you must choose between two large-cap stock funds and one of them happens to be expensive and owned by your employer, go for it.
Under a fiduciary standard, currently being considered by the Department of Labor, brokers would have to explain the options a client has and be required to point out the cheaper alternative and to disclose in plain English any and all conflicts of interest.
In the JPMorgan case, the conflicts were “pervasive,” according to the S.E.C. The bank argues that the conflicts were few, unintentional and simply lapses in oversight. Brokers at JPMorgan, however, told the Times of pressure from higher-ups to promote their own funds.
Under a fiduciary system, such a plain conflict of interest would be illegal. Rather than wait for a whistleblower or hiding behind “we didn’t mean it” excuse-making, those same higher-ups would know that such actions are illegal and a significant risk for a major bank to assume.
That’s not to say it wouldn’t happen. But if it did, clients would have a strong legal case to make against the stock broker and his or her employer. Banks likely would exercise more care in how they promote their products, and retirement savers would speak to their financial advisors knowing where they stand in clear terms.
It sounds simple and it is simple. The fact that Wall Street and the major stock brokers have been fighting a fiduciary rule tooth-and-nail should tell you something.
They really don’t want to be held accountable for results. And that’s what retirement investors need most — accountability and results.