What the New Federal Fiduciary Rule Means to Investors

In April, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) made headlines with its final rule covering conflicts of interest among investment advisers. Media coverage focused on the difference between a “fiduciary” standard and a “suitability” standard. Financial advisors and investment firms have been debating this issue—often heatedly—for years, and the DOL action probably will bring about changes within the industry. The new rules also have a message for investors, especially those who rely upon an advisor. This lesson may not be astounding but it’s worth keeping in mind: You should know what investment advice is costing and whether you’re getting your money’s worth.

 

In April, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) made headlines with its final rule covering conflicts of interest among investment advisers. Media coverage focused on the difference between a “fiduciary” standard and a “suitability” standard. Financial advisors and investment firms have been debating this issue—often heatedly—for years, and the DOL action probably will bring about changes within the industry. The new rules also have a message for investors, especially those who rely upon an advisor. This lesson may not be astounding but it’s worth keeping in mind: You should know what investment advice is costing and whether you’re getting your money’s worth.

 

Defining the terms
Investment advisors who are registered with the SEC are considered fiduciaries:
They have an obligation to act in a client’s best interest. Alternatively, registered representatives associated with a securities brokerage firm are required to make investment recommendations that are suitable for a particular client, given the client’s circumstances. (Registered investment advisors are fiduciaries under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940 but not under ERISA, the federal law covering retirement plans; ERISA is the DOL’s responsibility, so that agency issued the rule on retirement advice.) When issuing its final rule in April, the DOL came down firmly in favor of the fiduciary standard, stating that “persons who provide investment advice or recommendations for a fee or other compensation with respect to assets of a plan or IRA” will be treated “as fiduciaries in a wider array of advice relationships.”

 

Digging deeper

Investors should keep in mind that the DOL rule covers retirement advice, not all investments. Therefore, this regulation applies to advisors’ recommendations for IRAs, 401(k)s, and other retirement accounts. When Wendy Jones seeks advice on how to invest in a regular (nonretirement) account, the DOL rule won’t apply, at least not directly. Advisors who...


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