Benjamin P. Edwards is a professor at Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law.
By attacking the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule, which is set to go into effect in April, the Trump administration has decided to fatten the financial sector at the expense of overall economic growth. In a recent interview, Gary Cohn, the new director of the White House National Economic Council, offered a novel critique of the fiduciary rule claiming it was “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.”
Opponents of the fiduciary rule often repeat the tired talking point that it would limit consumer choice. This is not true. Consumers can still make the choice — on their own — to pursue unwise investments. The rule simply limits the abilities of financial advisers to push those investments. In Cohn’s food framework, it forces financial advisers to behave like nutritionists, giving clients the truth instead of pitching an alternative-fact fantasy diet of burgers, fries and sugary shakes.
Properly understood, Cohn’s analogy provides a framework for understanding why Wall Street now sells financial junk food: Today, financial advisers enjoy the flavors while savers suffer the side effects. Financial advisers relish selling high-fee mutual funds and other alternative investments because they kick more money back to them. Some underperforming investments — such as non-traded real estate investment trusts — divert 13 percent or more to fees, even though it’s hard to imagine retirees salivating at the chance to hand that much money over to financial middlemen for an underperforming investment.
Throwing this feast for financial advisers leaves investors with scraps. Cohn’s predecessors found that conflicted advice generated more than $17 billion in excess costs for retirees annually. On average, this means that retirees run out of money five years sooner than if they had not received conflicted advice. Cohn’s admission that the advisers serve up “unhealthy food” essentially admits that the billions in costs are real. But Cohn may not care as much because costs for investors are revenues for investment banks and broker dealers — such as Cohn’s former firm Goldman Sachs.
Cohn’s food metaphor also helps explain why economic research has found a correlation between a country’s bloated financial sector and sluggish economic growth. By wasting money on middlemen, investors struggle to put their savings to work funding opportunities and helping to grow the economy. If too many financial middlemen uselessly trade between themselves and extract fees, economic growth slows. Money stays inside the financial sector and never makes it out to fund projects in the real economy. The fiduciary rule offered a chance to put Wall Street on a diet and let honest advice counteract the dangers posed by too much finance.
To be sure, opponents of the fiduciary rule do worry that some investors might go without financial advice if the fiduciary rule makes it unprofitable to advise less wealthy clients. But investors would be better off without these false friends. Cohn has conceded that investors “might die younger” if they listen to these commission-chasing salesmen, and the unhealthy food analogy holds here as well. A study by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority found that more than just money rides on investment decisions. A bad financial adviser can hurt a client’s health — about a third of investment fraud victims become depressed afterward and even more struggle to sleep.
The Trump administration’s decision to block the fiduciary rule backs Wall Street’s decision to adopt betrayal as a business model. Many ordinary retirement savers now defer to their financial advisers because of a mistaken belief that their adviser has an obligation to act in their best interest. The fiduciary rule simply shifted the law to match the expectation that industry advertisements created. Unwinding it now betrays retiree expectations and the best economic interest of the United States. It means more money for Wall Street’s middlemen and less economic growth.