This article originally appeared on InvestmentNews by Mark Schoeff, Jr.
Democrats scraping the Trump administration’s reforms hinges on who’s picked to lead the SEC
It is said in Washington that personnel is policy. That aphorism borders on being a cliché, but it also is true and could influence the extent to which a new president undertakes a do-over of Trump administration investment advice reform.
Opponents of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Regulation Best Interest, the new broker advice standard that was implemented in June, say that it will do little to curb broker conflicts of interest. Their primary objection is that Reg BI, as it’s known, is not the same as the fiduciary standard that will continue to govern investment advisers.
Those who want to see Reg BI scrapped are pinning their hopes on an election outcome in which Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump.
Although it didn’t mention Reg BI – or a related Department of Labor advice rule – the Democratic party platform said financial advisers should be “legally obligated to put their client’s best interests first.”
That language harkens back to the Obama administration’s DOL fiduciary rule. The platform goes on to say Democrats will “take immediate action to reverse the Trump administration’s regulations allowing financial advisers to prioritize their self-interest over their clients’ financial wellbeing.”
But carrying out that policy goal depends on whom Biden appoints to the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The president’s party controls three of the five SEC seats.
Some investor advocates were disappointed by the previous Democratic-majority SEC when it came to their holy grail – a single fiduciary standard for brokers and investment advisers. That is making them take a wait-and-see attitude toward a potential Biden SEC.
“The objective of coming up with a uniform fiduciary rule didn’t happen during the Obama administration,” said Knut Rostad, president of the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard.
President Barack Obama’s first SEC chairman, Mary Schapiro, gave a speech in June 2009, in which she said “all securities professionals should be subject to the same fiduciary duty.”
But when the Dodd-Frank financial reform law gave the SEC the authority to promulgate a uniform fiduciary standard, it did not act. Instead, objections to such a regulation were raised by two Republican commissioners and the Schapiro-led commission never proposed a rule.
Obama’s next SEC chairman, Mary Jo White, studied the issue of investment advice standards for the first two years of her term before announcing in 2015 that she supported a uniform fiduciary standard and would push the agency toward a regulation. Again, there was a split among commissioners and the agency did not make a proposal.
“They didn’t want to come up with a split vote, so nothing got done during the Obama SEC-chair era,” Rostad said.
Rostad is not optimistic that Biden will appoint an SEC chair who will move to replace Reg BI with a fiduciary standard.
“Where does Joe Biden want to plant his legacy flag?” Rostad said. “It’s not obvious to me he’s going to plant it in investor protection.”
But Biden was vice president when the Obama administration advanced the DOL fiduciary rule. Perhaps he’ll take up advice standards as a way to protect retirement savers from conflicted advice, as the Democratic platform promises.
“There is reason for optimism, if the right [SEC] chair is picked,” Rostad said. “The chief criteria is [choosing someone] who is not wanting to exit to a Wall Street job or a job that depends on Wall Street support.”
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