Financial Reform Freedom?

The Senate sweats this week over the self imposed July 4th deadline for President Obama to sign the Financial Reform Overhaul Bill. The bill is reported to be over 2,000 pages, and reaches into every corner of the financial industry from credit card transactions to advisors.

The bill ventures into some areas that legislation has previously left alone. In many ways, the financial system needs some changes. However, for the most part, the Independence Day bill is more confusing than freedom-promoting.

Business Models

You may have guessed it, but banks will be receiving many new regulations. Economists believe that the increased costs to employ these new regulations will increase the cost of credit to the individual and small business, will drive out smaller banks from the market and exclude many of those who are less creditworthy from receiving credit. Those costs could be acceptable if the bill is effective, but it is largely unclear as to whether it will be. The Senate is somewhat split over the bill as a solution to these issues.

The financial industry landscape is a diverse one, ranging from financial advisors serving individual clients, hedge funds serving unique wealthy investors, and interest groups, venture capitalists and broker-dealers creating the transactions on the stock exchanges. Also to consider are the myriad of other functions and business models like investment banks, market makers and mutual fund-type companies functioning in a wide range of capacities to help the financial sector run.

It seems that some of these business models will have to endure higher taxes and higher audit and regulation fees where there was previously only some oversight.

The Individual

One area where this bill truly gets it right is looking at the standard of care given to the individual investor. After all, isn’t that what it should be all about? The entire bill came into existence so that America and Americans would avoid another major financial collapse and to plug the holes up in the system.

Currently, depending on whom the individual investor goes to for portfolio management, they could have an advisor who is compensated from the products them sell, and is regulated by how the advisor sells them. For example, a broker must only sell a product (like a mutual fund or annuity) to someone who is suitable for the product. There are many philosophies on what this means, but basically it comes down to the question of if a reasonable person would invest with this product.  If the answer is yes, then the investor is considered suitable.

In contrast to the above situation, an individual investor may go to an advisor regulated not by what they sell, but by the advice they give. As such, these advisors are unable to receive any kickbacks from the service they provide. They must give the client their best advice, and act in the best interest of that person. This role is similar to a defense attorney and it is called fiduciary. Registered Investment Advisors have a fiduciary standard of care to clients. Brokers have a suitability standard of care to clients.

Currently, brokers are not required by law to give their best advice. Registered Investment Advisors are.

Why is this an issue?

In 1855, William Travers, a New York businessman, was in Rhode Island and saw a long line of yachts and was informed stockbrokers owned them all.  This led him to ask his famous question, “Where are all their clients’ yachts?”

We have created an industry and a culture inside the stockbroker industry of double-mindedness when serving clients in how the advisor is compensated.

New words like fee-only have come up to express the way Registered Investment Advisors are paid, by a plain, transparent fee, only. They cannot accept payment from mutual funds for selling the product and receive no benefit from not giving the best advice possible.

Last year, in the early talks of the Financial Reform Bill, the problem was raised that people just cannot tell the difference between fiduciary advisors or Registered Investment Advisors and Brokers. Both had a similar “Advisor” type title and from research,  it was determined that these people are all perceived the same by investors.

In The Bill

The bill appears to give the SEC the ability to begin to regulate brokerages in a much stricter way and would allow them to be brought under the fiduciary standard.  Small advisories under $100 million in assets would be regulated by each state. This would greatly increase the level of protection individual clients would receive, as the SEC, who currently regulates those size firms, does not properly look at firms that small in size.

Reform seems to be coming this 4th of July and though not giving investors more freedom, some protection seems to be on its way, slowly.  Investors do have options available to get fee-only advice, where kickbacks and product sales do not exist, but they will have to know what they are looking for:  an independent, fee-only, Registered Investment Advisor.

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