Why is it so hard to get meaningful consumer protections in the financial services world? Consider this imaginary conversation:
Finster, get your butt in my office this instant.
Sure, boss. What is it?
I’m looking over the final budget figures, and this line item here is jumping off the page at me so hard it’s leaving ugly marks on my eyeballs.
Lobbying expenditures, sir?
Apparently, we’re contributing record amounts this campaign cycle. And who are these people we’re spending so much money on? Ann Wagner? Is she running for president and I just didn’t notice? Phil Roe? Who the hell is Phil Roe? Peter Roskam. Michelle Grisham—
Sir, Rep. Wagner introduced a very helpful bill that would stop the Department of Labor from implementing a number of fiduciary-reform measures under ERISA. And Rep. Roe and Rep. Roskam—
Speak English, Finster. What measures are we talking about?
Everyone who provides investment advice to any qualified plan, or relating to any IRA rollover, would have to provide it in the best interests of the plan participants, not in our best interests.
Finster, what communist country do you think we live in?
Is that a trick question, sir?
What about these other expenditures? We have lobbyists visiting Capitol Hill daily. We have an average of one meeting a week with different folks at the SEC. Don’t you think that’s a little excessive after a year when the market was down overall?
Sir, given the amount of money at stake —
Exactly how much are we talking about, Finster?
Roughly $18 billion in excess revenue if you add up all the brokerage firms and independent broker-dealers.
Really? How much of that is ours?
(Long silence.) Do we have the PR department on top of this?
Sir, if you’ll look a little further down the budget, you’ll see that we’ve quadrupled expenditures. Our PR team is working night and day to convince gullible reporters that up is down and the sun actually rises in the West. We’ve written a number of editorials in major newspapers, making tightly reasoned arguments that prove once and for all that engaging an advisor who will only recommend what’s best for you is terrible for your long-term financial health.
Excellent! Is it working?
It’s hard to say, sir. The Department of Labor isn’t backing down. And people still remember 2008 —
Best money the government ever spent, keeping us in business.
Yes sir, but there are still hard feelings about it in some circles from a lot of stupid people who don’t really understand economics. But I can’t help wondering if —
What are you saying, Finster?
Permission to speak bluntly, sir?
Finster, when have I ever punished my subordinates for speaking up and telling the unvarnished truth?
Just this morning, sir, when you —
Never mind that. Tell me what I need to hear.
Yes, sir. It’s just that there are thousands of investment advisors out there who seem to be making a decent living while already doing this thing that we’re spending so much money fighting.
What exactly do you mean by a “decent living?”
They can’t afford to spend millions to get Congress to insert blatant falsehoods into their legislation, their bonus pools collectively are a few digits short of the $25 billion that Wall Street pays out each year, and if they were to go under tomorrow, it would be difficult for any one of them to hold the entire economic system hostage. But —
But what, Finster?
They seem happy, sir.
Contented. Willing to live under those rules, even if it means they don’t have any means to siphon off peoples’ future retirement into their own pockets. They seem to get a kind of peaceful feeling from helping people succeed.
Are drugs involved?
Not that we’ve been able to determine at this point, sir.
Happy, you say?
Without obscene compensation levels.
I don’t understand it either, sir.
Helping people succeed, with no hidden underlying agenda.
Sir, you can make it sound as ridiculous as you want, but the facts —
Finster, you’re not seeing the big picture here. Write down all those things that you’ve observed about those — what are they called again?
Investment advisors. Wealth managers. Financial planners.
Yes. And remember those names. From now on, those are the names we’re going to use for our sales reps.
And we’re going to craft advertising campaigns that make it sound as if our sales reps are exactly like those.
Happy, you say?
Apparently, sir. But —
And we’re going to tell the public we do whatever the hell it is that they do. Only then we won’t. Do you see it? Those happy bozo chumps are going to provide the model for what everyone wants, and as soon as they do, we’re going to jump in and pre-empt it by making the public believe they can get all those things from us.
But, sir, that’s actually exactly what we do now.
Oh. And how’s it working?
People are confused. They can’t make out the difference between our sales reps and those do-good advisors.
Good. Keep it that way. In fact, double the marketing budget. Can’t be too careful these days.
Yes, sir. And what about the lobbying expenditures?
Double them, too. And hire legal teams, the best in Washington, in case the DoL actually does this. What was that word?
Yes, that thing. If they want to turn this country into a communist wasteland, then we’ll simply sue their asses in every venue in the country. Do you hear me, Finster? We have billions in revenue at stake; we can well afford to spend a few tens of millions on this. Finster, is this a great country or what?
Absolutely terrific, sir.
Next time, say it like you mean it. Now get your butt out of my office.
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist in San Diego, is publisher of Inside Information, an information service for financial advisors. Follow him on Twitter at @BobVeres.
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