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Financial groups sue to block rule on retirement advice

The Labor Department, lead by Secretary Thomas Perez, above, announced rules in April that could transform the financial advice given to people saving for retirement by requiring brokers and advisers to put their clients’ interest first. (Drew Angerer/Bloomberg)
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Trade groups representing businesses, Wall Street firms and other financial professionals joined forces to file a legal challenge against a new rule from the Obama administration that would restrict the advice brokers and advisers can offer to retirement savers.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Financial Services Roundtable, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, and other business groups in a federal court in Dallas.

The groups are attempting to block a rule announced by the Labor Department in April that created a higher standard for the investment advice offered to retirement savers. The new regulations require brokers selling investments for retirement accounts to put their clients’ interest ahead of their own. That is a higher standard than the previous guidelines, which allowed brokers to sell an investment to retirement savers as long as it was “suitable,” even if a less expensive or less complicated product was available.

Supporters of the rule say it could provide an additional layer of protections for mom-and-pop investors planning for retirement. The regulations are meant to improve disclosures and reduce conflicts of interest that some investors may not be aware of, such as when a company is paid for recommending a particular mutual fund.

But the groups representing brokers and other financial professionals say the new rules will increase costs for investment firms and make it more difficult for them to work with small-time investors or to talk with prospective clients.

In the complaint, the financial groups claim that the Labor Department “overstepped” its authority when it created the rule. In particular, the lawsuit challenges a provision of the rule that makes it possible for investors to take part in class-action lawsuits when they feel their broker is not acting in their best interest.

The trade organizations said the department didn’t have the power to include that provision as part of the rule. They also said in a statement that the change could increase legal costs for financial advisers, “who will face the threat of class action lawyers challenging their every move.”

As a result, some advisers may start to limit the services they offer to retirement savers, they say. “At the end of the day that is going to raise costs for the firms that would be passed on to the clients,” said Ken Bentsen, chief executive of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement Thursday that the lawsuit was an effort by a “small, vocal minority” to support the status quo. “People saving for retirement have a legal right and a compelling economic need to receive retirement investment advice that is in their best interest,” he said, adding that the rule would be defended “vigorously.”