The debate over the outcome of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fiduciary rule is bringing to light what could turn out to be an even more contentious issue: whether such a rule will include harmonizing advisor and broker rules.
While we’ve heard the term harmonization raised before in the debate over what a fiduciary rule should ultimately look like—and how harmonization should potentially be used to minimize investor confusion about whether they are dealing with a broker or advisor—the issue received renewed momentum when SEC Commissioner Elisse Walter released the SEC’s March 1 request for information on the costs and benefits of promulgating a uniform fiduciary rule for brokers and advisors.
At the time, Walter (then chairwoman) said that the comments received would also help the agency in its “ongoing consideration of alternative standards of conduct for certain broker-dealers and investment advisors, as well as potential harmonization of other aspects of regulation in this area.”
Under Dodd-Frank, the SEC has the authority to not only pass a rule to put brokers under a fiduciary mandate, but to also harmonize the rules for advisors and brokers—both without going to Congress for approval.
Walter’s comment that the agency is considering meshing fiduciary and harmonization into one rule is putting advisors and some custodians on red alert.
Bernie Clark, executive vice president of Schwab Advisor Services, told me during an interview in Washington in early May that Schwab’s mission is to ensure that a fiduciary rule is not coupled with harmonization of broker and advisor rules.
“We are trying to delink those concepts”—coupling fiduciary duty and harmonization in one rule, Clark said. “The sense we have is that the SEC is linking the two [and] that’s where the breakdown has occurred.”
Harmonization of advisor and broker rules brings with it a “harsh reality,” Clark said: The principals-based RIA model—which currently adheres to about 40 rules—would be forced to comply with the nearly “800 broker-dealer rules.” This, Clark said, would essentially “topple” the RIA model and drive a lot of the smaller RIAs out of business.
Clark argued during our discussion that the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), Wall Street’s trade group, along with the broker-dealer industry are “very supportive of harmonization because the migration of assets away from those models into the independent space has been great.” If the SEC harmonizes broker and advisor rules “then you are drawing the RIA back into the more traditional model, which doesn’t serve the RIA well or their clients.”
But Clark—who was in Washington as part of the Investment Adviser Association’s (IAA) Lobbying Day—says one bright spot is that members of Congress agree that the SEC should not mesh fiduciary duty and harmonization into one rule.