Let me start by saying that you can’t impose morality and ethical behavior through legislation. Those that wish to take advantage of others for personal gain by nature do not follow the rules. Therefore, any legislation or rules attempting to enforce moral character, in my opinion, will not work. Don’t get me wrong, I think that change is necessary in the financial services industry, but there must be a better way.
I believe it is every financial advisor’s moral responsibility to put the clients’ interests ahead of their own with no exceptions.
Taking into consideration my statement above, the debate for a uniform fiduciary standard is flawed. Given the current model, registered investment advisors (RIAs) are regulated by the SEC (primarily under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940) and are the only type of advisor held to a fiduciary standard and are legally required to work in their clients’ best interest. Essentially this means that all other advisors have a moral (but not legal) responsibility to work in the clients’ best interest.
I personally feel that the SEC and FINRA are ill-equipped to provide the necessary level of enforcement required if all financial advisors are fiduciaries. Given the rampant cases of investor fraud across the country, I see no end in sight, with nominal punishments for bad behavior.
For example, I recently read an article that mentioned an advisor receiving a $5,000 fine and one month suspension for cheating on his continuing education (CE) courses. Will that punishment curb the behavior in the future? I doubt it. Cheating is the result of someone’s conscious decision to break the rules. It’s a mindset. Once the line is crossed, what’s to stop that person from doing it again, but on a larger scale? In this instance, after one month, the advisor can begin to solicit business and work with clients to manage their money again. Would you want someone who has cheated in the past manage your money? I know I wouldn’t.
As the media clearly points out via the regular flow of articles on advisor misconduct, the current punishments are not curbing the behaviors. I’m an advocate for more substantial and strict punishments for misconduct and illegal activity. But that’s not going to solve the problem and neither is a legal responsibility.
An industry centered on money will always attract criminal activity.