(Bloomberg News)
(Bloomberg News)

(Bloomberg) -- SEC Chair Mary Jo White said the agency will develop stricter rules for advisors, wading into a battle between Wall Street and the White House, which says biased financial advice is costing investors billions of dollars.

White called for a new regulation that would make brokers put the interests of their clients ahead of their own, a so-called fiduciary duty. The remarks came after the Obama administration advanced a plan through the Labor Department to impose the higher standard on brokers who manage retirement accounts.

White’s plan would make all financial advisors follow the same rules.

The SEC should “implement a uniform fiduciary duty for broker-dealers and investment advisors where the standard is to act in the best interest of the investor,” White said Tuesday at a conference sponsored by the SIFMA in Phoenix.

The SEC, which oversees the brokerage industry as a whole, has studied the issue for years without taking any regulatory action. The agency now finds itself in the middle of what promises to be one of the most bruising Wall Street lobbying battles in years.

'PRINCIPLES-BASED'

The financial industry has been watching closely for White to reveal her position, which would break a standoff between the two Democrat and two Republican commissioners. White said she will begin talking with other commissioners about the outlines of new rules.

Under current regulations, brokers must make “suitable” recommendations, meaning the investments have to fit the customer’s needs and tolerance for risk. That’s looser than the fiduciary standard that investment advisors face. Some investor groups say the current rules don’t go far enough to limit conflicts of interests for brokers, who are paid by mutual funds and other companies for selling their products.

White called for SEC staff to develop a “principles-based standard” rooted in that of investment advisors.

White’s support for the measures aligns her with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. It pits her against many Republicans, who have said a fiduciary standard will be costly for brokers and could make them drop less wealthy clients.

“Getting the balance right is absolutely essential,” White said. “At the end of the day, if all we succeed in doing is depriving investors of reliable, reasonably-priced advice, we will have failed in that effort.”

ENFORCING STANDARDS

Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in a speech last week that current rules enable biased financial advice that jeopardizes workers’ nest eggs. He vowed to complete the rule before President Barack Obama has left in office.

White also said today she supports third-party compliance exams of investment advisors, an idea supported by some Republicans. The SEC has struggled for years to inspect more than 10% of all advisors annually. It conducts exams of nearly 50% of all brokers every year.

The outside exams would supplement, not replace, the SEC’s own compliance efforts, she said.

“The SEC really has for years not had sufficient resources to examine investment advisors,” she said. “Having a strong fiduciary duty standard on the books is only strong if it’s complied with and it’s enforced.”

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