On April 18, 2018, the SEC proposed “Regulation Best Interest,” which is the latest in a long and disputed line of proposed attempts by various governmental bodies to homogenize the duties owed by brokers and investment advisers to their respective clients. Professionals in the financial services industry and others should take note that they have until approximately July 23, 2018i to file a public comment on the proposed SEC rule, and investors should take this opportunity to educate themselves on the current differences between “brokers” and “investment advisers,” including the different standard of care that each owe their clients.
For decades, customers of the financial services industry have been confused by (if not outright unaware of) the different “standards of care” that their “brokers” and “investment advisers” have owed them.
On the one hand, “[a]n investment adviser is a fiduciary whose duty is to serve the best interests of its clients, including an obligation not to subordinate clients’ interests to its own. Included in the fiduciary standard are the duties of loyalty and care.”ii Investment advisers typically charge for their services via an annual fee assessed as a percentage of the “assets under management” (the so-called “AUM”) that the investment adviser “manages” for the client. The primary regulator of an investment adviser is either the SEC (usually for relatively larger investment advisers – i.e., those managing more than $100 million AUM) or a state securities commission (usually for relatively smaller investment advisers – i.e., those managing less than $100 million AUM).
On the other hand, brokers “generally must become members of FINRA” and are merely required to “deal fairly with their customers.”iii FINRA Rule 2111 requires, in part, that a broker “must have a reasonable basis to believe that a recommended transaction or investment strategy involving a security or securities is suitable for the customer, based on the information obtained through the reasonable diligence of the [broker] to ascertain the customer’s investment profile” (the “suitability” standard).iv Rather than a percentage of AUM, brokers’ compensation is typically derived from commissions they charge on each of the trades they execute for their clients. FINRA, a non-governmental organization, is the primary regulator for almost all brokers in the U.S.
At first blush, a layman retail client could easily be excused for struggling to understand the difference between the requirements of an investment adviser to “serve the best interests of its clients” and those of a broker to “deal fairly with their clients.” This confusion is exacerbated when a broker is also registered as an investment adviser, thus clouding what “hat” the advisor is wearing when dealing with a client.
Tortured Regulatory History
Regulator concern about this confusion has existed for decades. In 2004, the SEC retained consultants to conduct focus group testing to ascertain, in part, how investors differentiate the roles, legal obligations, and compensation between investment advisers and broker-dealers. The results were striking:
In general, [the focus] groups did not understand that the roles and legal obligations of investment advisers and broker-dealers were different. In particular, they were confused by the different titles (e.g., financial planner, financial advisor, financial consultant, broker-dealer, and investment adviser), and did not understand terms such as “fiduciary.”v
In 2006, the SEC engaged RAND to conduct a large-scale survey on household investment behavior, including whether investors understood the duties and obligations owed by investment advisers and broker-dealers to each of their clients. First, it should be noted, “RAND concluded that it was difficult for it to identify the business practices of investment advisers and broker-dealers with any certainty.”vi Second, RAND surveyed 654 households (two-thirds of which were considered “experienced”) and conducted six focus groups, and reported that such participants –
…could not identify correctly the legal duties owed to investors with respect to the services and functions investment advisers and brokers performed. The primary view of investors was that the financial professional – regardless of whether the person was an investment adviser or a broker-dealer – was acting in the investor’s best interest.vii
In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act mandated the SEC to conduct a study to evaluate, among other things, “Whether there are legal or regulatory gaps, shortcomings, or overlaps in legal or regulatory standards in the protection of retail customers relating to the standards of care for providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail customers that should be addressed by rule or statute,” and to consider ”whether retail customers understand or are confused by the differences in the standards of care that apply to broker-dealers and investment advisers.”viii A conclusion of that study was as follows:
[T]he Staff recommends the consideration of rulemakings that would apply expressly and uniformly to both broker-dealers and investment advisers, when providing personalized investment advice about securities to retail customers, a fiduciary standard no less stringent than currently applied to investment advisers under Advisers Act Sections 206(1) and (2).
In 2013, the SEC issued a “request for information” on the subject of a potential “uniform fiduciary standard,”ix but never promulgated a rule after receiving more than 250 comment letters from “industry groups, individual market participants, and other interested persons[….]”x
Finally, on April 8, 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor adopted a new, expanded definition of “fiduciary” to include those who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of an ERISA plan or IRA (in other words, certain “brokers”) (the “DOL Fiduciary Rule”). Many brokerage firms and others (such as insurance companies) made operational and licensing adjustments to prepare for the DOL Fiduciary Rule while various lawsuits were filed in attempts to invalidate the controversial rule. Most recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated the DOL Fiduciary Rule on March 15, 2018.xi
“Suitability” Standard vs. “Fiduciary” Standard
The “suitability” standard of a broker is a far cry from the “fiduciary” standard of an investment adviser. As the SEC has stated, “Like many principal-agent relationships, the relationship between a broker-dealer and an investor has inherent conflicts of interest, which may provide an incentive to a broker-dealer to seek to maximize its compensation at the expense of the investor it is advising.”xii Put more bluntly, “there is no specific obligation under the Exchange Act that broker-dealers make recommendations that are in their customers’ best interest.”xiii
FINRA (including under its former name, NASD) has certainly striven to close that gap via its own interpretations and disciplinary proceedings, and has succeeded to a point. Specifically, a number of SEC administrative rulings have confirmed FINRA’s interpretation of FINRA’s suitability rule as requiring a broker-dealer to make recommendations that are “consistent with his customers’ best interests” or are not “clearly contrary to the best interest of the customer.”xiv However, the SEC has highlighted that these interpretations are “not explicit requirement[s] of FINRA’s suitability rule.”xv
This lower duty of care for brokers (as opposed to investment advisers, who have a fiduciary duty) has had and continues to have purportedly large and definitive financial consequences for retail investors:
Conflicted advice causes substantial harm to investors. Just looking at retirement savers, SaveOurRetirement.com estimates that investors lose between $57 million and $117 million every day due to conflicted investment advice, amounting to at least $21 billion annually.xvi
A 2015 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) estimated that –
[…]conflicts of interests cost middle-class families who receive conflicted advice huge amounts of their hard-earned savings. It finds conflicts likely lead, on average, to:
- 1 percentage point lower annual returns on retirement savings.
- $17 billion of losses every year for working and middle class families.
SEC”S NEWLY-PROPOSED “REGULATION BEST INTEREST”
Despite the controversy over the DOL Fiduciary Rule and its recent, apparent defeat, the SEC has been working under the guidance of Chairman Jay Clayton since 2017 to finally rectify the confusion among investors as to the different standards of care applicable to brokers versus investment advisers.xvii
The latest development in that regard has been the proposal by the SEC of “Regulation Best Interest” (“Reg. BI”) on April 18, 2018.xviii The proposed rule is significant in its proposed breadth. Subparagraph (a)(1) of the proposed rule would provide as follows:
A broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer, when making a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities to a retail customer, shall act in the best interest of the retail customer at the time the recommendation is made, without placing the financial or other interest of the broker, dealer, or natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer making the recommendation ahead of the interest of the retail customer.xix
This is a sea change in the duty of care owed by brokers to their retail clients, as it would effectively enhance a broker’s duty of care to approximate that of an investment adviser’s (at least in regard to retail clients).xx
To satisfy the “best interest” obligation in subparagraph (a)(1), subparagraph (a)(2) of Reg. BI would impose four component requirements: a Disclosure Obligation, a Care Obligation, and two Conflict of Interest Obligations.xxi
For the “Disclosure Obligation,” subparagraph (a)(2)(i) of Reg. BI would require the broker to –
reasonably disclose to the retail customer, in writing, the material facts relating to the scope and terms of the relationship with the retail customer, including all material conflicts of interest that are associated with the recommendation.xxii
For the “Care Obligation,” subparagraph (a)(2)(ii) of Reg. BI would require the broker to “exercise reasonable diligence, care, skill, and prudence to” do the following:
(A) Understand the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation, and have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation could be in the best interest of at least some retail customers;
(B) Have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of a particular retail customer based on that retail customer’s investment profile and the potential risks and rewards associated with the recommendation; and
(C) Have a reasonable basis to believe that a series of recommended transactions, even if in the retail customer’s best interest when viewed in isolation, is not excessive and is in the retail customer’s best interest when taken together in light of the retail customer’s investment profile.xxiii
Finally, for the two “Conflict of Interest Obligations,” subparagraph (a)(2)(iii) of Reg. BI would require the following:
(A) The broker or dealer establishes, maintains, and enforces written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and at a minimum disclose, or eliminate, all material conflicts of interest that are associated with such recommendations.
(B) The broker or dealer establishes, maintains, and enforces written policies and procedures reasonably designed to identify and disclose and mitigate, or eliminate, material conflicts of interest arising from financial incentives associated with such recommendations.xxiv
Furthermore, Reg. BI would expand the SEC’s records requirement rules (i.e., Rules 17a-3 and 17a-4) to provide that “[f]or each retail customer to whom a recommendation of any securities transaction or investment strategy involving securities is or will be provided,” a broker obtain and maintain for six years “[a] record of all information collected from and provided to the retail customer pursuant to [Reg. BI].”xxv
The SEC’s proposed “Regulation Best Interest” is a significant proposal that could have far-reaching impact across the securities brokerage and other segments of the financial services industries. Whether this latest regulatory effort to establish a more consistent standard of care for brokers and investment advisers will succeed is unknown, but the proposed rule is certainly an aggressive step in that regard.
All those interested will have until approximately July 23, 2018 to file a public comment on the proposed rule. Meanwhile, investors should take this opportunity to educate themselves on the current differences between “brokers” and “investment advisers,” including the different standard of care that each owe their clients.
i The specific date will be established once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.
ii Staff of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Study on Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers As Required by Section 913 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Jan. 2011) (“Study”), at iii, available at www.sec.gov/news/studies/2011/913studyfinal.pdf.
iii Study at iv.
iv FINRA Rule 2111(a), available at http://finra.complinet.com/en/display/display.html?rbid=2403&record_id=15663&element_id=9859&highlight=2111#r15663, as of April 23, 2018.
v Study at 96.
vi Study at 97.
vii Study at 98.
viii Study at i.
ix See Request for Data and Other Information: Duties of Brokers, Dealers and Investment Advisers, Exchange Act Release No. 69013 (Mar. 1, 2013), available at http://www.sec.gov/rules/other/2013/34-69013.pdf.
x Regulation Best Interest, Exchange Act Release No. 34-83062 (April 18, 2018) (“Reg. BI Proposal”), at 20, available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/34-83062.pdf.
xi Reg. BI Proposal at 27.
xii Reg. BI Proposal at 7.
xiii Reg. BI Proposal at 8.
xiv Reg. BI Proposal at 14, fn. 15.
xv Reg. BI Proposal at 8, fn. 6.
xvi Reg. BI Proposal at 20, fn. 28, quoting Letter from Marnie C. Lambert, President, Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (Aug. 11, 2017) (“PIABA Letter”).
xvii Chairman Jay Clayton, Public Comments from Retail Investors and Other Interested Parties on Standards of Conduct for Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers, Public Statement, June 1, 2017, available at https://www.sec.gov/news/public-statement/statement-chairman-clayton-2017-05-31.
xviii See Reg. BI Proposal.
xix Reg. BI Proposal, at 404.
xx In a related SEC proposal regarding investment advisers that was also dated April 18, 2018, the SEC stated that “[a]n investment adviser’s fiduciary duty is similar to, but not the same as, the proposed obligations of broker-dealers under Regulation Best Interest,” and that “we are not proposing a uniform standard of conduct for broker-dealers and investment advisers in light of their different relationship types and models for providing advice[….]” See Proposed Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisers; Request for Comment on Enhancing Investment Adviser Regulation, Investment Advisers Act Release No. IA-4889 (April 18, 2018), available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/proposed/2018/ia-4889.pdf.
xxi Reg. BI Proposal, at 404.
xxii Reg. BI, subparagraph (B), Reg. BI Proposal, at 404.
xxiii Reg. BI Proposal, at 404-405.
Subparagraph (b)(2) of Reg. BI would define “retail customer’s investment profile” as including, but not be limited to, “the retail customer’s age, other investments, financial situation and needs, tax status, investment objectives, investment experience, investment time horizon, liquidity needs, risk tolerance, and any other information the retail customer may disclose to the broker, dealer, or a natural person who is an associated person of a broker or dealer in connection with a recommendation.” Reg. BI Proposal, at 406.
xxiv Reg. BI Proposal, at 405.
xxv Reg. BI Proposal, at 406-407