The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Wednesday voted to adopt a package of rules requiring brokerage firms to disclose potential conflicts in the fees investors pay and the commissions brokers earn when giving financial advice.
The Regulation Best Interest rules also require brokers to raise the advice standard to meet a client’s best interest when recommending stocks, mutual funds and other financial products.
“This action is long overdue,” said SEC Chairman Jay Clayton of the regulation package which was first proposed in April 2018.
“The differences between broker-dealers and investment advisers, and how they interact with their customers and clients, make it clear that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to regulating standards of conduct for financial professionals presents significant risk.”
The package of rules was passed by Clayton and the agency’s two Republican commissioners, but Robert Jackson, a Democrat appointee, dissented.
Wednesday’s vote caps a 10-year battle over regulation of the investment advice industry, which last year saw lobby groups successfully sue to overturn a similar Barack Obama-era fiduciary standard proposed by the Department of Labor.
The SEC rules, to be implemented by June 30 2020, are considered a win for Wall Street because, unlike the Department of Labor rules, they would still allow brokers to recommend products that benefit them, provided they disclose the conflict.
The SEC rules prescribe what brokers must do to comply, a step-up up from the current suitability standard that allows brokers to recommend products that they view as appropriate for a client’s investment goals and risk tolerance.
Despite much internal wrangling over the rules and a pushback by consumer groups, SEC officials said Wednesday’s final text remains similar to last year’s proposal.
Clayton, a Republican appointee, has said the rules would elevate the standard for both broker dealers and wealth managers. He said the final rules tried to address industry requests for detailed guidelines to make compliance easier.
Investor advocates, however, say the SEC rules are still too vague in its definition of “best interest” and do not address all investment advice conflicts, including the higher payments that brokers receive for selling products that are more expensive to trade.
“The SEC under Clayton pledged to protect Mr. and Mrs. 401K at the onset of crafting regulation best interest. The proposed rule-making is a betrayal of that promise,” said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Washington-based Consumer Federation of America.
The rules have been divisive within the agency. Robert Jackson, a Democrat-appointed commissioner, said the agency’s package “retains a muddled standard that exposes millions of Americans to the costs of conflicted advice.” He has also criticized the agency’s rules as too weak and lacking economic analysis to support it.
His dissent on Wednesday could lead to potential litigation from consumer groups.
Industry groups say the rules’ heightened disclosure requirements will benefit consumers.
“Investment advice is not ‘one-size-fits-all’ and neither is this rule’s oversight approach, which allows for the current brokerage business model to be upheld while protecting investors from harm,” said Samantha DeZur, U.S. Chamber of Commerce director for capital markets competitiveness.
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