Biden wants to end junk fees in retirement planning. Here’s what critics of his fiduciary rule are saying.


By Alessandra Malito

People pay ‘junk fees’ when the trusted advice they are looking for comes with hidden costs, President Biden says

The potential return of the fiduciary rule, which would require more stringent regulation of financial advisers, received a mixed reception Tuesday, with many in the financial-services industry objecting to what they see as unnecessary regulation.

The White House announced its latest proposal focused on retirement savings on Tuesday. The regulation, which will need to be finalized after a 60-day public-comment period, would lay down stricter rules for financial advisers and how they recommend investment products to retirement savers. The rule would also add IRAs to the protections under ERISA, the federal law that regulates employer-sponsored retirement plans like the 401(k) plan.

In a statement, the administration said the proposal would “close loopholes and require that financial advisers provide retirement advice in the best interest of the saver, rather than chasing the highest payday.”

The latest proposal is similar to the Obama administration’s fiduciary rule, officially known as the Conflicts of Interest rule, which was struck down in court under the Trump administration. With both proposals, the Biden and Obama administrations have argued such a rule could save retirement savers billions of dollars every year in unnecessary fees.

See: The White House says it wants to help retirement savers avoid billions of dollars in ‘junk fees’

Fans of the measure say retirement savers will be better protected.

“It’s time to update the nearly 50-year-old regulatory framework under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to prevent advisors from avoiding a fiduciary responsibility even when they are functioning as, and clients are relying on them as, trusted advisors,” the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards said in a statement.

The CFP board oversees certified financial planners, who are required to act as fiduciaries under that designation. “The outdated law does not prevent advisors from taking advantage of gaps in the regulations to steer their clients into high-cost, substandard investments that pay the advisor well but eat away at retirement investors’ nest eggs over time,” the statement said.

The latest proposal would also target the fees associated with conflicts of interest. People are paying “junk fees,” Biden said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon, when the trusted advice they are looking for comes with hidden costs.

The Obama administration, when it proposed its rule, said conflicts of interest could add up to as much as $17 billion a year out of the pockets of consumers. The Biden White House specifically targeted annuities in its announcement Tuesday morning, saying conflicts of interest in advice for the sale of fixed-index annuities alone could cost retirement savers as much as $5 billion a year.

Annuities in retirement accounts are supposed to work like pension plans, providing a fixed income year after year, Biden said during the announcement. “But when the advice is self-serving, annuities drain people’s savings and deliver much less than expected,” he said.

“I’m not saying all brokers,” he added. “I’m saying some.”

What the critics say

But critics oppose the proposal and disagree with its stated intentions. In a statement, Jillian Froment, executive vice president and general counsel of the American Council of Life Insurers, a trade organization for the life-insurance industry, argued that annuities can be useful in retirement planning.

“Traditional pensions are no longer the norm, and guaranteed lifetime income through annuities lets people create their own pensions. That’s why annuity ownership is up,” she said in a statement from the ACLI.

Numerous other organizations came out against the proposal as well.

Many financial advisers, including broker-dealers, are already complying with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Regulation Best Interest rule, which requires financial advisers to expose any conflicts of interest. Having too many rules may complicate matters, they say.

“It is imperative that new regulations harmonize with Reg BI. Introducing more conflicting regulations would be unnecessary and could potentially hinder middle-class Americans’ ability to achieve a financially secure retirement,” said Dale Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Financial Services Institute, a trade organization for independent financial advisers and firms.

Others said the proposed rule is just a way for the government to exert more, and unnecessary, control.

“We struggle to see what the need is for more rule-making, as opposed to robust enforcement,” said Jason Berkowitz, chief legal and regulatory affairs officer at the Insured Retirement Institute, a retirement-focused association with members including life insurers, asset managers, law firms and broker-dealers.

Others say the rule will help people find advisers they can trust. AARP said in a statement that the proposal would help consumers feel secure in the advice they receive from financial advisers.

“People should be able to count on their financial advisors to provide sound advice that protects and grows their retirement assets, free of conflicts of interest,” Jo Ann Jenkins, chief executive officer of AARP, said in a statement. “A strong rule that closes loopholes in current law will help safeguard their hard-earned retirement funds.”

-Alessandra Malito

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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11-01-23 1004ET

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