AS WE ALL KNOW, brokers are supposed to work for their clients. If a new proposal finally works its way through Congress, that actually could be the law.
Though most investors don’t realize it, most brokers currently don’t have what’s known as a fiduciary duty—a term that essentially means an adviser must act in the best interest of his client. So instead of, say, having to offer the best fund or annuity, brokers can offer a product that hasn’t performed as well, as long as it’s “suitable” for the client. Still, a survey by research firm Rand Corp. found 42 percent of investors think brokers are already required by law to act in their clients’ best interest. “Consumers are understandably confused,” says Dan Barry, director of government relations at the Financial Planning Association, which represents financial planners and supports tighter regulation of brokers.
But it’s amazing what a market crash can do to force some clarity. With consumer groups and politicians still calling for financial reform, Congress is considering some bills redefining the game. Just how to do that is up in the air. Many consumer advocates think brokers should have to follow the same fiduciary standard as investment advisers—and always put customers first. But Ken Bentsen, executive vice president of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the brokerage industry’s trade group, says the proposal to hold brokers to the same fiduciary standard as investment advisers doesn’t recognize the unique role of brokers, who in addition to providing investment advice often do other things, such as underwriting new stocks and bonds. His group prefers a proposal that calls for rewriting fiduciary standards for both brokers and advisers.
Investors can already claim some victories. The industry’s self-regulatory group, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, recently expanded an online service that allows the public to check broker disciplinary records that were previously unavailable. This followed changes making it tougher to dismiss complaints during arbitration hearings as well as the extension of a pilot program that lets investors choose panels made up entirely of public arbitrators. Now the next move is up to Congress.