Editorial: Rules deny small investors advice

The Detroit News

New rules offered by the Obama administration to protect investors from unscrupulous stockbrokers and financial advisers will likely end up depriving many savers of any guidance in managing their Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k) plans.

The regulations are proposed by the Labor Department and would change 40 years of practice in which brokers and advisers operate on a commission model — they get paid when their customers buy and sell securities.

President Barack Obama, who endorses the rules, contends the commission system puts investors at risk because it encourages brokers to push their clients to trade so they can collect fat commissions.

The president also objects to brokers marketing products to customers that they are being paid to sell, in effect getting a commission both from their clients and the company offering the security.

These concerns are legitimate. But the remedy the administration has come up with would harm the very people it is intended to help.

The rules would effectively end the commission model for trading securities. Under the rule, fiduciaries face government penalties if they are determined not to be acting solely in the best interest of their client.

Investors would pay a fee for investment guidance, but not necessarily a commission for each sale.

The 1,000-page rule requires a complex contract to be signed before a communication between an adviser and client.

Most financial firms don’t offer fee-based advisers to investors with accounts under $25,000, because of the high cost of providing the service.

That group of smaller investors includes 45 percent of Americans. Opponents of the change say most, if not all of them, would be left on their own in making decisions about their retirement accounts.

The same holds true for small businesses that provide retirement plans. Those with fewer than 100 employees would likely be shut out from professional guidance under a strictly fee-based system.

A bipartisan group of Congress members, including Michigan’s Sen. Debbie Stabenow, is urging Labor Secretary Tom Perez to either scrap the new standard or significantly amend it. A similar congressional outcry derailed the rules the first time they were proposed in 2011.

This time, Congress is threatening to strip funds away from the Labor Department for implementing and enforcing the rules should they be adopted.

Labor’s role in the rule-making is questionable. Perez claims jurisdiction because employers often contribute to their employees’ retirement accounts.

But the Dodd-Frank law gives the Security and Exchange Commission the authority to establish a new fiduciary standard. And that’s probably where the work should be done.

The instinct to protect investors from brokers with an undisclosed conflict of interest is sound.

But it should be acted on without making financial advice far more costly and inaccessible to the small investor.