Legislators are set to impose stricter regulations on a fast-growing group of investment advisers known as financial planners.
While these individuals control nearly 25 percent of all the investment assets owned by Americans, the laws governing them are far from adequate in protecting against abuse, according to a government study released last week.
The report by the General Accounting Office found that some of these advisers and planners have been responsible for investment losses of about $90 million to $200 million a year due to fraud and abuse.
Although the estimated annual losses are low compared with the amount of assets these advisers manage, the GAO study said, many cases of fraud go unreported because, among other reasons, people are embarrassed when they lose money.
Financial planners are defined as anyone who provides comprehensive financial advice to help clients achieve such goals as saving for retirement, reducing taxes or providing for education. They are usually compensated by fees for their advice and by commissions on products they sell to customers.
A bill introduced in the House April 2, designed to amend the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, would provide consumers with more information about the financial planners they hire and give consumers more powers to bring actions against planners who they believe have defrauded them.
The subcommittee is considering adopting some of the recommendations of the Securities and Exchange Commission, such as giving individuals, rather than just the SEC, the right to seek recovery of money from investment advisers under certain provisions of the law. Subcommittee members also are continuing discussions with groups that will be affected by the legislation.
The legislation would require all financial planners, investment advisers or people with similar jobs to register as investment advisers under the 1940 law.
The bill seeks to include certain professionals, such as accountants, lawyers and insurance agents, who also give their clients investment advice but are not covered by the 1940 law.
The bill would also require full written disclosure to the customer of direct and indirect compensation, including fees, commissions and other nonfinancial incentives, that the planner or adviser will receive by selling a customer a certain financial product.
In its study, the GAO found that the number of advisers has tripled to about 14,000 from about 4,600 over the past decade, while the assets they manage have increased tenfold, to about $4.6 trillion from $440 billion.
But the resources devoted to regulating this industry have failed to keep pace.
SEC Commissioner Mary L. Schapiro testified during congressional hearings last week that the commission supports the bill's objectives but "cannot provide a meaningful, direct level of regulation over the investment advisory industry unless the resources dedicated to its responsibilities under the Investment Advisers Act are significantly increased."
Schapiro recommended that the SEC be allowed to increase fees paid by investment advisers and use the money to augment the part of the commission's budget directed toward regulation of investment advisers.
Under the current system, advisers and planners pay a one-time fee of $150, which is turned over to the General Fund of the Treasury and is not available to the SEC unless appropriated.
Opposition to the bill came from accountants and insurance agents, who sometimes also act as investment advisers to their clients.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants said the bill "does not properly focus on the problem areas associated with the investments advisory industry," adding that it "casts a wide net over an unduly large array of individuals and services."