When the SEC recommended last January that brokers and investment advisors operate under a uniform fiduciary standard of care when dealing with clients, the decision seemed to validate, at last, what many industry groups and fiduciary advocates had been saying for years.
But the move does not mean their work is over, at least not for Knut Rostad, the regulatory and compliance officer at Rembert Pendleton Jackson, a Falls Church, Va., wealth management firm. Rostad is president of the new Institute for the Fiduciary Standard, created with six other industry colleagues in August.
The organization's name should sound familiar. In June 2009, Rostad was the driving force behind the Committee for the Fiduciary Standard. He and five others founded that group to educate consumers about the differences between the suitability and fiduciary standards of care. Rostad stepped away to establish the institute, and the two are now separate entities. Harold Evensky, president of advisory firm Evensky & Katz, is chairman of the committee.
Rostad declined to discuss the functions of the institute for this article, or his reasons for the separation. Defining what fiduciary means is particularly urgent now that the Department of Labor is proposing a fiduciary requirement for advisors and plan sponsors on retirement accounts. There is intensifying debate about whether there should be any flexibility on how it's applied to the standard's new adherents.
"While we've made progress advancing understanding of the fiduciary standard and its practical importance, there's much left to do," Rostad said in a statement in August. "Misunderstandings abound about what fiduciary means."
But Evensky says it's more appropriate that the committee play a finite role. Groups like the committee and the institute could provide data and research on the two chief objections to a uniform fiduciary standard - that it will limit choices and raise costs for investors. Beyond that, he says, their influence diminishes.
Rostad has addressed some of the objections. In a letter to the SEC last December, he wrote, "Thirty years of experience with pension, profit sharing and 401(k) plans subject to the fiduciary standard of ERISA clearly demonstrates that choice is not eliminated under a fiduciary standard."
The SEC has spent an inordinate amount of time being educated about the core differences between fiduciary and suitability standards, Evensky says. "I think they know it well, but they have a real world to deal with - of politics, broker-dealers and Congress," he says. For its part, Evensky says, the committee should disband after the SEC implements standards for the industry. But Rostad, evidently, believes a lot of work remains to be done.