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PBS exposes financial industry's hidden truth

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I’m not big into TV. For me, its only purpose is to screen classic movies, Buffalo Bills games and the occasional Jeopardy Tournament of Champions. Of course, every now and then some channel will offer an enticing special. For me, “enticing” usually involves at least one of these three components: Any Beatle (living or dead), old time northeastern railroading or William Shatner.

Lately, I’ve found these things most often on Saturday Night Live or The Comedy Channel. But this past weekend, my local PBS station showcased the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour as never seen before, at least by me. I was so excited, I turned the channel on a full 10 minutes before the start of the movie. That was a mistake.

As bad luck would have it, I was honored to witness the final few minutes of some financial advice show. At least I think it was financial advice. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t local — it had that antiseptic, syndicated feel to it.

You know what I mean. It’s the kind of format that has an unseen, classy-voiced announcer throw out a factoid or “Did you know…” question in between segments. I tend to ignore these shows as white noise, but my otherwise-engaged mind took notice when the invisible voice asked, “Does Wall Street provide a service or make products?”

My attention caught, I waited as the host spewed some tripe about 529 plans. (“If you don’t spend on your grandkids, spend it on yourself! You can go back to school!” Seriously. This was his advice. He even included the exclamation points.) When he was mercifully done, the voice gave the answer to the question. 

“The business of Wall Street,” the velvet voice said with silky certitude, “is to create and sell product, not to provide a service.”

There, in a nutshell, is the problem faced by all those who advocate a uniform fiduciary standard. “Wall Street” — more appropriately, the financial industry — offers both. Some professionals pitch products and some supply service.

The fiduciary standard applies to advisors, not brokers. Advisors provide a service. Brokers sell products. From the mouth of PBS, perhaps the best proxy we have for urbane sophistication, comes this platitude: Wall Street doesn’t serve, it sells.

So this is what is comes down to: Are we a muppet or a man? Do we sell or do we serve? Shall we accept the suitable or do we have a greater calling to duty? These questions have stirred tremendous discussion within our industry for several years now.

Complicating this is the concept of dual registration, as blessed by the regulators, where we assert we can live and thrive — with no confusion whatsoever — with a professional split-personality. Never claiming we’re one or the other, like a switch we can turn off the broker and turn on the advisor without ever abrogating our fiduciary duty. Some of us, however, maintain we cannot serve two masters.

But, while we’ve been busy arguing how many angels dance on the head of a 12b-1 fee, it appears the good folks at public broadcasting have already determined the answer of our debate. We aren’t trustworthy like Marcus Welby, M.D., we’re slimy like Joe Isuzu.

How did we allow this to happen? For a hint, look at the evolution of banks since the mid-1990s. They couldn’t leave their generations-tested comfortable business model alone. They had to compete with foreign faux-banks, blindly ignoring the lessons of their 1980s Japanese counterparts.

In this high speed chase for growth, the government not only put away the radar gun, it provided the fuel. Then, our economic engine seized up in 2008. We still live with the consequences of this continued unenlightened policy. 

Just remember this. The same government that loosened mortgage guidelines to give the poor a better chance to buy homes also loosened the natural — and generations-tested — barriers between brokers and advisers.

What we’re left with are bankers, brokers and even some advisors without the self-discipline to hold back when it comes to reaching for every last buck. 

In the end, although we can see the distinction between these business models, the public — both unenlightened and enlightened — cannot. We’re neither muppets nor men. We’re merely purveyors of the latest investment snake oil.

For more from Chris Carosa:

The missing link of 401(k) fee disclosure

Why ‘one portfolio’ is the top choice for 401(k) investors

When it comes to retirement investing, never trust anyone under 30


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