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Are DOL Fiduciary Foes Protecting the Little Guy? Financial Engines CIO Cries Foul

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Almost any day now, the Department of Labor will be issuing its final rule imposing a fiduciary standard on financial advisors who provide advice for retirement accounts.

While many major financial firms and industry groups like the Financial Services Institute, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority oppose the rule as proposed, some, like Financial Engines, an independent investment advisor and fiduciary for retirement plans, support it.

The DOL rule is “needed in the marketplace,” says Christopher Jones, the firm’s chief investment officer. “There’s a need for investment advisors to be free from conflicts of interest.”

Jones tells ThinkAdvisor that a popular argument against the rule contending that the small investors will suffer because advisors will no longer serve retirement accounts with assets in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands or more is “a red herring.”

Those opponents are arguing “under the guise of protecting the little guy but it’s really about sales, sales to the little guy … pushing high-fee products simply because of compensation for the advisor,” Jones said. “That sad business practice needs to stop.”

Under the DOL’s proposed fiduciary rule, sales of commission-based products will still be allowed if the advisor and investor enter into a best interest contract, known as a BIC or BICE (for best interest contract exemption). Among other things the BICE would commit a firm and advisor to providing advice in the client’s best interest, note that a firm has adopted policies and procedures designed to mitigate conflicts of interest and clearly disclose hidden fees or backdoor payments, according to a DOL fact sheet.

In practice, these constraints “are pretty onerous” and will likely cause firms to abandon practices that would have to be subject to a BICE, says Jones.

Indeed, some firms already have been making some changes already. As reported in ThinkAdvisor LPL Financial (LPLA) has said it will cut prices and account minimums and launch a fund-only brokerage IRA option, and Edward Jones said it’s working on a program to allow clients with just $5,000 “get guided support.”

Jones of Financial Engines admits that the DOL rule will make it less profitable for many firms to service smaller investors but not impossible. “Technology makes it possible to provide higher quality service online or through a human intermediary,” says Jones.

In addition products like like ETFs and index funds that encourage more “conflict-free business models and lower cost services for investors with smaller balances” also make the DOL rule workable for advisors, says Jones.

The DOL rule “will impact the industry,” says Jones. “You’ll see increasing consolidation especially around regional broker-dealers. Small commission-based brokers will be challenged but for good reason. Their business models are not very consumer-friendly.”

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