Last week, the end came for an Obama-era attempt to mandate that financial professionals advising Americans on retirement savings give advice in the best interest of their clients. The cause? The Trump administration’s refusal to appeal a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruling that, in requiring the “fiduciary standard,” President Barack Obama’s Labor Department exceeded its legal authority. Once again, the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse for Americans needing financial help, so Wall Street can continue to rake in profits.
It’s all but a cliche at this point to note that millions of Americans risk falling off a financial cliff in retirement. As do-it-yourself retirement schemes such as the 401(k) replaced pensions in recent decades, all too many of us — through ill-advised investments, inability or unwillingness to set aside enough funds, or simply by not paying any attention — are not on track to save enough money for a comfortable retirement.
Many of us believe that when we seek financial advice for that retirement, we will receive objective information that puts our best interests first. Oftentimes, we will be mistaken. A good percentage of financial advisers work to something called the suitability standard, which allows them to also factor into their guidance how a particular investment by a client will improve their own bottom line. Often, their customers are clueless. A few years back, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) highlighted a number of insurance companies peddling annuities to retirement savers that did not exactly make it easy for investors to find out their friendly retirement adviser was eligible to receive trips to the Bahamas and similar based on their sales success.
Of course, the fiduciary standard or the lack thereof, of course, is hardly the only reason Americans increasingly lack adequate retirement savings. Stagnant incomes combined with rising costs for housing, education, health care and so on leave many under day-to-day financial pressure. Those who enjoy access to a retirement plan at work are unlikely to put as much money aside as experts say they should, and those who have that access often fail to put money aside at all.
But the way many of us get retirement savings and investment guidance certainly isn’t helping matters. The Obama administration calculated this sort of conflicted advice could be costing investors as much as $17 billion annually when it came to retirement monies. A small piece of the retirement savings crisis? Yes. But not an insignificant one.
The investment community (which likes to castigate Americans for not saving enough) spent the better part of the past decade fighting the Obama administration over enactment of the fiduciary rule, first through the lobbying process and then the courts. They caught a lucky break with the new administration. While Hillary Clinton had pledged to continue supporting and fighting for the fiduciary standard, Donald Trump did no such thing.
Almost as soon as Trump took the oath of office, his fledgling administration went to work delaying implementation of the fiduciary standard. They viewed it with such contempt they couldn’t even bother coming up with a coherent rationale for opposing it. I mean that literally: Anthony Scaramucci, while serving as a campaign aide, compared the effort to “the Dred Scott decision,” while Gary Cohn, the now-former head of the president’s National Economic Council, told the Wall Street Journal the fiduciary standard “is like putting only healthy food on the menu, because unhealthy food tastes good but you still shouldn’t eat it because you might die younger.”
The attack on the fiduciary standard is just business as usual for the Trump administration, which almost never misses an opportunity to prioritize the financial interests of big business generally over the pocketbook concerns of individual Americans. The White House has scrapped Obama-era rules designed to highlight potentially discriminatory pay by sex, race and ethnicity. At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, acting chief Mick Mulvaney has scaled back efforts to rein in everything from the usurious payday-loan industry to unscrupulous auto loan lenders. Betsy DeVos’s Education Department is working to make the world safer for predatory for-profit colleges and universities, while trying to make it harder for those victimized by them to seek redress.
The financial industry claims those complaining about the end of the Obama-era fiduciary standard are overreacting. They point out the Securities and Exchange Commission is also working on an enhanced investor protection standard that would cover consumers whenever they seek advice about any of their investment accounts, not just those containing retirement savings. But that plan is in the very early stages, and the SEC is considered more friendly to the financial services industry than the Labor Department. So it’s no surprise the enhanced financial guidance regulation it is currently seeking comments on is riddled with loopholes. You didn’t expect anything else in President Trump’s Washington, did you?