A leaked White House memo calling for tighter regulation of financial advisors who recommend rollovers has the industry in an uproar. While the memo specifically targets FAs who urge clients to move money from company-sponsored retirement plans into IRAs, it also includes broad language apparently attacking advisors who don’t make such recommendations.
The authors — members of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers — explicitly support the Department of Labor’s five-year-old proposal to require anyone who advises on retirement accounts to be a fiduciary. So far, advocacy groups, including the Financial Services Institute, the National Association of Plan Advisors and Sifma, have kept such a rule at bay with aggressive lobbying. But the sharply worded memo suggests the Labor Dept. proposal may move to Washington’s front burner this year.
Bloomberg News obtained the memo late last week. It highlights the “disparate legal treatment of employment plans and IRAs,” noting that rules governing retirement plans haven’t changed substantially since ERISA created IRAs in 1975. And those rules are laced with conflicts of interest that cost consumers millions, the authors say. “With brokers advising on approximately $2.8 trillion of IRA assets — even more if employer retirement plan assets are included — the scope for harm to investors is large,” they write.
Citing academic research, the memo says “clear-cut” conflicts of interest (it names load- and revenue-sharing with product providers) shave 35 to 50 basis points off IRA investor returns, amounting to $6 billion to $8 billion a year. When researchers use a broader definition of conflicted payments, estimated losses grow as high as $17 billion a year. “An investor receiving conflicted advice who expects to retire in 30 years loses at least 5% to 10% of his or her potential retirement savings due to conflicts, or approximately one to three years’ worth of withdrawals during retirement,” the authors write.
Where the memo really raises hackles, though, is in its broadside against the advice industry as a whole. “Studies generally find that investors using financial advisors pay excess fees and that their returns are lower than what they would otherwise would be, both before and after fees.” In other words, advisors both overcharge and underperform.
According to Financial Advisor magazine, FSI officials were surprised at the memo, telling the magazine they’d had a “constructive dialogue” with the Council of Economic Advisors only in November. BenefitsPro reports Republican lawmakers are rolling up their sleeves to fight back with mirror-image legislation. For example, a bill called SAFE from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch would “gut the Department of Labor’s efforts to apply a stricter fiduciary standard across the industry,” says BenefitsPro.
And Adam Antoniades, president of independent broker-dealer Cetera Financial Group has called the memo “shocking” and “offensive,” according to InvestmentNews. Addressing an FSI conference on Jan. 23, he said the memo “accuses all financial advisors of defrauding their clients,” the publication reports.
The FSI, which has a lobbying budget of $8.5 million, has been using its resources for years to fight the Department of Labor’s fiduciary initiative. But the White House memo suggests the battle may be bloodier than usual in 2015.