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Fiduciary Standard Moving Ahead at Breackneck Speed

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The intense pressure on the Securities and Exchange Commission to satisfy all sides on the fiduciary standard issue–and to do so at the very tight schedule of six months–was again illustrated last week.

In a survey financed by consumer groups and investment advisor and financial planning organizations, nine out of 10 U.S. investors were said to believe that stockbrokers and investment advisers who provide the same kind of investment advisory services should have to follow the same investor protection rules.

Officials from the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors countered that their members believe that the best way to enhance consumer protection is through strong and effective supervision within financial services firms, and regular, periodic inspections by the SEC and other regulatory bodies.

“Not all investors are alike,” said NAIFA president Terry Headley. “There are different needs, different levels of service and different levels of advice required by and available to investors.”

The survey found most investors are confused about which financial professionals are required to operate under a “fiduciary standard” requiring them to put client’s interest ahead of their own.

The groups said they found that the vast majority of U.S. investors believe that all financial professionals providing investment advice should be required to operate under such a pro-investor standard.

The survey is being turned over to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission by supporters of the fiduciary standard. The SEC is studying the issue of a uniform fiduciary standard under a mandate issued by the new financial services reform law.

The agency has six months to complete a study of gaps in regulation under the current market conduct standards, and then full authority to publish a regulation that addresses the issue of whether a uniform fiduciary standard is required.

The poll of 1,319 investors was conducted August 19-23, 2010 by ORC/Infogroup for the Consumer Federation of America, AARP, the North American Securities Administrators Association, and leading investment adviser and financial planning organizations.

But, in a statement, Headley countered that for NAIFA members, applying such a subjective standard to broker-dealers and registered reps who sell products makes it difficult to identify what is ‘best.’

“Is ‘best’ the least expensive? Is ‘best’ the premium relative to the benefit of the product?” he asked. “Does ‘best’ refer to best return on investment?”

Headley explained that it is “uncertain, and that uncertainty may force registered reps to mitigate their potential liability by raising the cost for their services or it may force them to leave the business altogether, thereby reducing market access, and in effect limiting American’s freedom of choice on how they access and pay for products served by NAIFA members.”

In explaining why they undertook the survey, consumer group, investor advisor, and financial planning officials acknowledged that the large number of comment letters by insurance agents, officials of the groups that sponsored the survey voiced concern that a campaign by insurance agents is creating “significant headwinds” to establishing a uniform fiduciary standard.

They said that they fear that a letter-writing campaign by the agents, more than 2,700 comment letters have been received, would “vitiate” SEC efforts to establish a uniform fiduciary standard.

They said the survey determined that 96 %, or nearly all U.S. investors, agree that the fiduciary requirement should extend to insurance agents selling investments.

The group said they also found that there is widespread misunderstanding about which financial professionals are held to the fiduciary standard, noting that, through the survey, they found that three out of five U.S. investors mistakenly think that “insurance agents” have a fiduciary duty to their clients.


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