The SEC’s “Regulation Best Interest” is in the best interest of Wall Street, not retirement savers and other investors

On Wednesday, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued over 1,000 pages of proposed regulations relating to the conduct of financial professionals. Among other things, the proposals specify that brokers must act in the best interest of clients, limit the use of terms like “financial adviser,” and require financial professionals to provide clients with short descriptions of their legal obligations to the client and of their compensation structure.

At first blush, these appear to be positive, albeit incremental, steps. In fact, their purpose is not to protect investors, but to present an alternative to the much stronger protections in a Department of Labor (DOL) rule that requires financial professional offering investment advice to retirement savers to adhere to a fiduciary standard. While the DOL rule remains in place for the time being, the Trump administration has delayed its full implementation and enforcement, and it has been challenged in court by financial industry players. EPI has estimated that these delays will cost investors $18.5 billion in higher fees and lower net returns over the next 30 years.

The SEC’s proposed “best interest” standard, which to unsuspecting investors may sound similar to the DOL’s fiduciary standard, is in fact much weaker. Though it would prohibit brokers and other financial professionals from steering clients toward clearly unsuitable investments, financial professionals are already prohibited from doing so under current rules. While these rules prevent brokers from—say—recommending highly risky investments to risk-averse clients, they don’t prevent them from promoting higher-cost but “suitable” investments when similar lower-cost investments are available.

The SEC proposals, unlike the DOL rule, do not prohibit commissions and other forms of compensation that create conflicts of interest between financial professionals offering advice and their clients. Though some egregious practices may be curbed, the practical impact of the SEC proposals is unclear because the Commission does not define “best interest.” If anything, dissenting Commissioner Kara Stein says the proposed regulations appear designed to provide financial professionals with guidelines on how to adhere to the letter of the law with written disclosures, policies, and procedures—but no meaningful changes to actual practices. Moreover, enforcement is likely to be weak, because investors would not be able to sue brokers for violating the “best interest” standard, but would only have recourse to private arbitration under the auspices of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an industry-funded body. As Commissioner Stein put it, a better name for these proposals is “Regulation Status Quo.”