It's time to sit down and have a nice long talk with your financial adviser, especially if she works at a bank or brokerage firm.
It's likely that you'll soon have to change -- or at least define more carefully -- the way your account is set up, so it pays to know what you're facing. Investors who get their financial advice through so-called fee-based accounts are most likely to be affected.
Here's the background: The Securities and Exchange Commission, which regulates financial advisers, had crafted its rules to allow advisers working at big brokerage firms to meet a lesser standard in terms of their responsibility to clients.
Independent advisers must accept fiduciary responsibility, putting the welfare of their clients above themselves. Commission-earning brokers who offer advice were permitted to sidestep the fiduciary question and instead meet a suitability rule. The investments they recommended had to be suitable for the client, but they could also weigh issues like how much they are paid to sell the product.
Many brokerage firms offer both kinds of advice; commission-based stock and mutual fund selection, and fee-based retirement planning, asset allocation and the like.
The Financial Planning Association, which represents financial advisers, challenged the initial SEC brokerage-exemption and prevailed in the federal courts. The SEC recently decided not to take the issue to the Supreme Court, so the exemption is effectively ended.
The SEC has asked for some time to work out a new solution, so it's entirely possible that there will be another attempt at an end-run around the fiduciary rule. But there's no reason for clients to sit and wait for that to happen; they should take care of their accounts first.
As it stands now, big firms -- Merrill Lynch is so heavily affected by this that the SEC's original exemption has been tagged the Merrill Rule by industry insiders -- will have to clarify their arrangements with clients.
The industry folk say millions of accounts will have to be re-papered. What that means is that the fuzzy fee- plus-commissions arrangement won't work as well anymore. Clients most likely will be given a choice of independent financial advice or traditional brokerage advice. The independent advice will probably cost more than what they are used to paying and will carry that fiduciary responsibility. The brokerage advice will cost less -- it might even look free to clients who don't understand sales charges, marketing fees and commissions. And it will hew to the suitability rule instead of the fiduciary standard.
What's a client to do? Consider all options.
As long as you're forced to make a decision, now would be a good time to evaluate all the options available to you, suggests Tom Orecchio, an Old Tappan, New Jersey, financial adviser and spokesman for the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, a professional association that represents fee-only planners.
That means hearing what your current adviser has to say, but also comparing the services with those offered by other independent financial professionals. The big boys most affected by this ruling -- Merrill, Morgan Stanley, Citibank and Charles Schwab top the list -- are unlikely to want to give up your business. They will most likely figure out how to divide their advisory and brokerage divisions in such a way as to keep it all legal and at least an arm's length apart.
Investors should consider these pointers in seeking financial advice as the SEC, the brokerage industry, and the financial planners work out all of the details.
-- You are responsible for choosing a good financial adviser for yourself, even if the SEC moves slowly or not in a consumer-friendly direction. You can interview a few advisers and get clear answers about their arrangement with you by using the Consumer Services link's Financial Planning Diagnostic at http://www.napfa.org.
-- A fiduciary standard is a higher standard than a suitability standard.
-- Good financial advice is worth paying for.
-- You should know how much you are paying for it. If you opt to stick with a brokerage account, ask for a full accounting of sales charges, commissions, marketing fees and all other fees that are built in. If you're going to a fee-only adviser, ask for a full dollar accounting, too. Your fees might be assessed as a retainer or as a portion of your assets.
-- You shouldn't have to buy more advice than you need. If you're looking for finite advice such as how to invest your 401(k) this year, you might be better off with an adviser who charges by the hour, answers your questions and allows you implement the advice yourself.
-- Look here: Places to find financial advisers include the Financial Planning Association (http://www.fpanet.org), Napfa (Web site above), the Garrett Planning Network (http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com), and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (http://www.pfp.aicpa.org).