The agency is specifically seeking input that would offer empirical and quantitative insight into the effects of a uniform fiduciary standard, looking particularly at any costs that such a rule would entail.
The SEC first floated the idea of extending the fiduciary responsibilities that advisors face to cover broker-dealers in January 2011, stressing at the time that most investors were not aware of the distinction between advisors, who are obligated to act in their clients' best interest, and brokers, who are held to a looser standard.
In a statement on Friday, SEC Chairman Elisse Walter reiterated the agency's view that it needs to address the regulatory gap to better protect consumers.
"Studies have shown that few investors realize that the standard of care they receive depends on the type of investment professional they use. And often investors do not know which type of financial professional they are relying on," Walter said. "This request for information will help us in our ongoing consideration of alternative standards of conduct for certain broker-dealers and investment advisers, as well as potential harmonization of other aspects of regulation in this area."
The uniform fiduciary standard figures to be one the SEC proceedings that advisors and brokers will most closely watch in the coming months. A Senate confirmation hearing for Mary Jo White, President Obama's nominee to head the agency on a permanent basis, is reportedly slated for later this month.
In its guidance seeking further comment on alternative regulatory standards for advisors and broker-dealers, the SEC noted that the two professions have converged over the years, and that they now routinely offer many of the same services, such as personalized investment advice for retail customers. In that light, the agency's 2011 report suggested that it no longer makes sense for advisors to be regulated under the fiduciary requirements stipulated in the 1940 Investment Advisers Act, while broker-dealers are overseen in accordance with the 1934 Securities Exchange Act, along with the provisions of any self-regulatory organization to which they belong.
"Investment advisers and broker-dealers, for example, provide investment advice both on an episodic and on an ongoing basis," the agency said. "We have expressed concern when specific regulatory obligations depend on the statute under which a financial intermediary is registered instead of the services provided."
Supporters of the SEC's work on a new fiduciary standard for broker-dealers quickly praised the call for further comment on the matter.
"We welcome the SEC's continued focus on this important issue for individual retail investors," Ira Hammerman, senior managing director and general counsel at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said in a statement. "We've long supported a uniform fiduciary standard of care for brokers and investment advisers who provide personalized investment advice to individual retail investors. We've been expecting the SEC to move in such a fashion, and we believe that gathering further data and is the appropriate next step forward."
The SEC will accept comments from the public for 120 days following the publication of its notice in the Federal Register.