Big Finance woke up Wednesday to a big disappointment: The budget bill hammered out by Congress over the past several months carries no provision blocking the Labor Department from going forward with its so-called fiduciary rule, which would require financial advisers to act in the best interest of their clients. Stymieing the rule, which was backed by President Obama and Democrats aligned with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, had been a major goal of insurance sellers and big banks.
“We should do everything we can to help Americans increase their retirement savings,” said Tim Pawlenty, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, a major Wall Street lobbying group, in a statement. “Ensuring the [Labor Department] gets their rule right should be a top priority for Congress.”
Dale Brown, president of the Financial Services Institute, also expressed dismay that the budget rider failed to appear in the final bill, adding, "The odds of passing an omnibus bill with a rider to protect retirement investors from the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, however, were always slim." The Obama administration had threatened a veto if the rider passed.
Lobbyists for the broker-dealer industry say that the new Labor Department rule would limit middle-income Americans' access to the sort of financial advice provided by companies ranging from Wells Fargo and LPL Financial. Critics of the rule, like Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., assailed it as a "regulation that ultimately takes away our freedoms," increasing costs and curtailing consumer choice.
But advocates of the rule deem it a necessary update to retirement laws that have failed to keep up with a decadeslong shift in American retirement savings from pensions to individual retirement accounts. Financial advisers who counsel individual savers are not legally obliged to act in their clients' best interests, as pension plan fiduciaries are. As a result, advisers are incentivized to push savers into high-fee, high-commission investments that diminish returns over time, consumer advocates say.
A White House study published earlier this year estimated that such "conflicted advice" leads to overall investment fees that are 1 percent higher than they are absent conflicts of interest, draining some $17 billion from retirement savings every year. Industry groups dispute those numbers.
The Labor Department rule, which is expected to be finalized in the first few months of 2016, would require financial advisers to disclose how they earn money to clients, and it would limit the types of commissions available on financial products like mutual funds and variable annuities.