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For some, DOL fiduciary rule is proverbial road to hell

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Echoing an idea he advanced last week at a retirement industry symposium, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Illinois, suggested the Department of Labor’s proposed fiduciary rule is part of the Obama Administration’s larger effort to force control of the country’s retirement savings into the hands of government.

“The Administration’s own regulations, as well as public comments, have made it clear that they don’t want Americans to have control over how much to invest, which investments to choose, and when to draw down their accounts in retirement,” said Roskam in opening remarks at today’s House Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee hearing on the fiduciary rule.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” added Roskam. “The reality is this regulation would prevent many people from getting any investment advice at all.”

Roskam tied the DOL’s rulemaking efforts to President Obama’s call for new rules to facilitate state-run retirement programs for workers in the private sector.

He cited the experience of public pension fund management in his own state—Truth in Accounting recently calculated Illinois’ unfunded pension liabilities at $111.5 billion—as a caveat against state management of private sector retirement funds.

“Given the extent of mismanagement and underfunding in existing public pension plans, which are underfunded by some $4 trillion, I can’t think of a better way to undermine the retirement security of Americans than to push them out of the private sector and into government-run public pension plans that are absolutely failing working families today,” said Roskam at today’s hearing.

The DOL decision to not re-propose a rule in spite of nearly 3,000 comment letters and “hundreds” of formal concerns issued by congressional members of “all ideological bents” suggests regulators are moving forward “with impunity,” added Roskam.

Roskam made that claim in spite of comments from Timothy Hauser, deputy assistant Secretary of Labor, made earlier in the week at the Investment Management Consultants Association in Washington.

“You’re likely to see that feedback’s going to be reflected in the final rule,” said Hauser, according to reporting in Investment News.

He specifically said the DOL is mulling changes to the proposed Best Interest Contract Exemption, the controversial provision that would require extensive fee disclosures on commission-based investment products.

Opponents of the rule say that it would force lower-income investors into fee-based accounts, which could cost more for investors than existing commission-based models.

Also today, the House Financial Services Committee will mark up the Retail Investor Protection Act, the bill sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, that would insist the Securities and Exchange Commission would be the lead regulator in writing a new fiduciary rule.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White has said the commission is only at the initial stage of formulating its own rule.

Proponents of the DOL’s proposed rule claim Rep. Wagner’s bill amounts to nothing more than a Wall Street-backed red herring designed to obstruct finalizing a rule that is based on five years of industry input.

“The bill being considered today is a charade that looks reasonable, but is really just Wall Street’s latest attempt to kill a long overdue, modest, and sensible rule proposed by DOL to protect Americans saving for retirement,” said Dennis Kelleher, President and CEO of Better Markets, and advocacy for financial market reform and a strong supporter of the DOL’s proposal.

Today’s witnesses at the House Oversight hearing included Bradford Campbell, an ERISA attorney and former head of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration, who testified that the DOL’s own data in 2011 shows that IRA investors lose more than $100 billion a year due to lack of investment advice.

Opponents of the DOL’s proposal say it would disincentivize the financial services industry from providing advice to lower and moderate-income Americans.

And Paul Scott Stevens, CEO of the Investment Company Institute, testified that the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ data that claims investors lose $17 billion a year to conflicted advice “does not stand up when tested against the data.”

Stevens said the proposal would result in net losses to investors of $109 billion over 10 years.

Damon Silvers, special counsel to the AFL-CIO, defended the CEA estimates on savings lost to conflicted advice.

“Let’s be clear about what this rulemaking is about. It is not about whether investment advice is a good idea. Of course it is—but only if it is advice that is in the investor’s best interest,” testified Silvers.

“The question for members of Congress in evaluating this rulemaking is: should we put the onus on your constituents to protect themselves from the costs of conflicted advice or should we create a set of rules for fair play,” asked Silvers.

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