Leaders of the Financial Services Institute expressed cautious optimism about their efforts to dilute or derail an initiative under way at the Department of Labor to broaden the scope of the term "fiduciary," a top policy priority for the advocacy organization.
In October, the group convened an advocacy summit in Washington where members fanned out on Capitol Hill for meetings with more than 250 congressional offices to press their issues, including the fiduciary rulemaking and to champion FINRA as the organization that should vested with oversight of investment advisors in a self-regulatory model.
"The most important accomplishment from the advocacy summit was the message we carried," Dale Brown, FSI's president and CEO, told members on a conference call this week.
The FSI worries that the Labor Department's redefinition of fiduciary under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act will be overly broad, ensnaring any professional who provides advice to plans in exchange for a fee or other compensation. The group has argued to lawmakers and Labor officials that a regulatory overreach would saddle its members -- main street financial professionals, as it describes them -- with unreasonable compliance burdens that would excessively impinge on their business operations.
The group has already scored a modest victory with word from the Labor Department that it would table the issue until next year, a move that came in partial response to pressure from the lawmakers that FSI and other like-minded organizations have been lobbying.
Now, it is working to gin up support in both chambers of Congress for a letter-writing campaign to apply additional pressure on the Labor Department to further delay its rulemaking or, failing that, to strike provisions that the group finds particularly onerous for its members.
"These letter-writing campaigns are really designed to keep the pressure on the Department of Labor," said David Bellaire, FSI's general counsel and director of government affairs. "The longer we stretch it out the less likely it is that the Department of Labor will introduce the proposal at all."
Bellaire said that Labor Department officials have indicated that they might modify two particularly objectionable aspects of the proposed fiduciary definition expected to be revealed early next year. One concerns a provision that would exempt financial professionals from fiduciary obligations if they were engaged in educational activities, rather than direct advisory. The other is a seller's exception, offering broker-dealers cover from the fiduciary responsibility in situations where their clients understand that they are receiving a sales pitch. But in each case, the FSI is relying on intimations from the Labor Department, and, as they say, the devil is in the details.
"We want to see the details on both of these, and until we do we won't know how positive these developments are," Bellaire said. "It's clear we need to keep the pressure on the Department of Labor."
On the Hill, the FSI has already successfully enlisted House Democrats, led by Connecticut's Jim Himes, to deliver a letter carrying the signatures of 32 members to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urging restraint on the reproposal of the rule. On the GOP side, Bellaire said that a similar letter was finalized on Wednesday, with Rep. Judy Gibbert Biggert of Illinois taking the lead. FSI had assisted in drafting the language of that letter, and Bellaire said the organization is currently "whipping for signatures" to demonstrate a broad base of support.
The picture is cloudier in the Senate. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts has indicated "strong interest" in spearheading a letter-writing effort, according to Bellaire, while the FSI is still seeking out a Democrat to take the lead in a Senate campaign endorsed by that party.
"In the Senate we still have some work to do," Bellaire said.