Airing on March 2, 1962, the 24th episode of Twilight Zone’s third season was entitled “To Serve Man.” You might remember this now-famous show for featuring Richard Kiel – who would later play Jaws in James Bond movies – as the mysterious alien Kanamit who comes to Earth with technology that rids the world of all things bad.
The plot centers on an alien book whose title “To Serve Man” is interpreted benevolently (i.e., to help humans).
In the end, and too late, it’s discovered to be a cookbook.
“Clear lines, clear labels,” is what broadcast veteran Pam Krueger told me when I asked her about the SEC’s “Best Interest” proposal (see “Exclusive Interview: MoneyTrack’s Pam Krueger Says It’s Time for Industry and Regulators to ‘Pick a Lane’,” FiduciaryNews.com, Aug. 21, 2018).
The trouble with most regulations is that they’re written by lawyers for lawyers. Spoiler alert: Most people aren’t lawyers. While regulators seem intent on accommodating all fifty shades of grey, retirement savers just want to know “Is this right for me?”
Therein lies the problem. “Is this right for me?” implies a black-and-white answer. Such clarity does not exist. We each have our own wants and needs. We each have our own goals and dreams. No cookie-cutter solution can accommodate the variety of answers inherent in the diversity of individual situations.
Imagine having a medical problem. At first, you seek the advice of a general practitioner. Once the ailment is isolated, you’re often referred to a specialist.
And we don’t limit this model to the health profession. We use specialists to work on various parts of our car. We hire specialty contractors (electricians, plumbers, etc..) to fix the little things that can go wrong in our house. Heck, we have so many specialty food restaurants that going out to dinner can present a burdensome choice.
So why not divvy up the world of finance into specialists? Perhaps, rather than squeeze everyone under a single universal umbrella, it might be better to admit to the reality of a rainbow of umbrellas, each designed for a specific circumstance.
Yes, we may still have room for general practitioners, but only within the larger constellation of specialists. We can have “financial planners” to address broad issues, “bankers and custodians” to handle safekeeping, “brokers” to handle transactions, and “Registered Investment Advisers” to manage portfolios.
Above all, this needs to be offered within the context of “clear lines and clear labels.” We all know the dangers of one-stop shopping. The lure of convenience masks the bane of higher prices and limited choices. This model, while we can’t prohibit it, must be the exception, rather than the rule.
If the SEC is serious about helping investors, it ought to be considering ways to eliminate bundled services and require service providers to, as Pam Krueger puts it, “pick a lane.”
Otherwise, the great unwashed masses will find themselves not being served by their financial professionals, but being served to their financial professionals.
Christopher Carosa, CTFA, is editor of FiduciaryNews.