With President-Elect Trump moving quickly to enact his campaign promises, every financial advisor should be ready for potential regulatory change. If you don’t know how your registered investment advisor, broker-dealer or office of supervisory jurisdiction is prepared to react—and to deal with uncertainty in the meantime—change is likely to hit you with the impact of a speeding bus.
The Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, passed in 2016, is one area where we are very likely to see regulatory change. The rule, which requires retirement advisors to act in the best interests of their clients, becomes applicable April 10, under current plans. If the rule actually does take effect then, it will be good news for firms that have already been putting their clients first, giving these firms an edge over competitors who are failing to give them responsible advice.
But it is very possible the rule won’t take effect. President Trump has already signed a memorandum that aims to block it.
Repealing the rule would benefit financial services firms that are not acting in retirement clients’ best interests by, for instance, charging high fees. Although many consumers think their financial advisors must be looking out for them, this is not always the case. In June, for example, Merrill Lynch, owned by Bank of America, agreed to pay $415 million and to admit wrongdoing to settle charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission that the firm misused clients’ money and failed to protect their securities.
Even before the president signed his memorandum, there was already momentum building to undo the fiduciary rule. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced a bill in January 2017, for instance, that would delay its implementation by two years. Wilson argued that it is “one of the most costly, burdensome regulations to come from the Obama administration.”
While Senate Democrats could block the new bill with a filibuster, the possibility of a reversal of the rule puts financial advisory firms in a quandary. At the moment, the rule is still in place, so we need to focus on compliance, which will be costly. Some firms are already getting rid of commission-based retirement accounts and lowering the minimum assets requirements for fee-based retirement accounts, while others are putting measures in place to prove that their commission-based retirement accounts are run in a way that reflects clients’ best interests.
Such efforts will be in vain if the rule is trashed and firms ultimately don’t go ahead with changes they are making now. My belief is that regardless of whether the fiduciary rule takes effect, financial advisory firms should do what it takes to put retirement clients’ best interests first. Delivering value without a doubt will always give you an edge over the competition.
Dodd-Frank is another area where financial advisors could see sweeping changes. Trump has already said he wants to “dismantle” the Dodd-Frank rule and signed an executive order telling the Treasury Department to look for ways to undo its regulations. That position has many supporters. Although the law—intended to prevent a repeat of the financial collapse of 2008—has some valuable elements, it also brought requirements with which is it is almost impossible to comply.
However, it isn’t easy to get rid of tremendously complex regulation. It isn’t clear if Trump will be able to succeed.
Even if Trump achieves his goal, the Republican replacement for the law will likely come with steep requirements, too. The Financial Choice Act, introduced by Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), head of the House Financial Services Committee, would require a bank that wants to opt out of Dodd-Frank to have higher capital reserves. That will have many implications for financial services firms, especially those that are not well capitalized.
Like the fiduciary rule, Dodd-Frank still exists. That means we have to keep operating on the assumption that it will remain in place for the indefinite future—while continuing to plan for the possibility that it may be changed or replaced.
At Carson Institutional Alliance, a partnership of select advisors I formed, we have pooled our resources to stay in front of regulatory change. None of us can predict the future. However, staying ready for whatever transpires will keep us from getting blindsided and let us stay focused on what we do best: serving our clients.
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