Advisor Group CEO praises SEC best interest proposal

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The SEC’s proposed Regulation Best Interest may require further changes at independent broker-dealers, but, at first glance, the CEO of one of the largest firms views them as welcome developments.

“There are enough special interest groups out there that the SEC can’t come up with a rule that’s just a nod to the industry,” says Advisor Group CEO Jamie Price. “I think they, generally speaking, wanted to do something that was meaningful for clients and that could work for the industry. We think the early read is they probably did a pretty good job of both.”

Price discussed the April 18 proposal a few days ahead of a meeting with lawyers to examine it in detail with other executives from the IBD network of 5,000 advisors. His reaction matches that of four Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analysts who call the SEC plan a “relatively benign outcome” for the industry.

Fiduciary advocates view the potential replacement of the Department of Labor’s rule much less favorably than Wall Street. Some have, however, expressed support for a provision restricting BD representatives from identifying themselves as “advisors” or “advisers” when not acting as fiduciaries.

Since most of the advisors with the Phoenix-based firm of four IBDs now provide both brokerage and advisory services, Price says he expects Advisor Group to be largely on board with enhanced disclosures helping to educate clients on the differences between the fiduciary and suitability standards.

“Advisors have no problem adhering to a best interest standard. I mean, they actually kind of chuckle about it, like, ‘You know, that’s what I try to do every single day,’” Price says. “In many cases, advisors are probably going to hold a higher standard than the commission standard and the best interest standard with their client.”

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Price has been talking about the fiduciary rule and related issues with the private equity-backed, Phoenix-based firm’s advisors since he joined it from UBS in December 2016. He’s met with some 2,200 advisors in 20 cities in recent months in the latest cluster of town hall-style events.

Advisor Group slashed fees on mutual funds and made other adjustments to comply with the DOL rule last year while voicing general support for it. Like many IBDs, though, the firm criticized aspects of the regulation it argued would price out smaller investors and boost class-action lawsuits.

Price doesn’t anticipate Advisor Group reversing any of the changes, regardless of the DOL regulation's fate following the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in March to vacate the rule.

The KBW analysts predict few firms will change their practices and business models “to conform to an ‘easier’ SEC rule,” they wrote in a note after the SEC’s announcement.

“The SEC's proposal was a relatively benign outcome so, in that regard, we view it as a positive for the industry,” according to the April 18 note. “At the same time, we think most investors and observers were anticipating a proposal that relied on enhanced disclosures rather than prescriptive rules and that is what the SEC put forward. Therefore, we expect a muted market response.”

The SEC opened a 90-day comment period while unveiling the roughly 1,000-page proposal, which the analysts foresee as taking a year and a half or more to finalize into a rule. Price says he looks forward to seeing formalized responses from SIFMA, FSI and “the entire ecosystem” on the proposal.

For the time being, Price says his firm is focusing on upgrading its level of service to advisors as more of them offer fee-based accounts. Nearly 650 advisors began providing advisory services last year, and the firm hired about 85 new operations staffers with a goal of growing net new advisory assets by 20%.

“Well, we blew through that in April,” Price says. “We got flooded on our operations desk, and so we have been beefing up all of our operations area.”

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Fiduciary Rule Fiduciary standard Regulatory reform Regulatory guidance Compliance Independent BDs Jamie Price Advisor Group SEC DoL