Financial advisors, more accustomed to fielding questions about fees or the stock market outlook from prospective clients, should get ready to also answer queries about best interest or suitability standards. This is, if state regulators and AARP have anything to say about it.
The North American Securities Administrators Association, together with AARP, the advocacy organization for Americans 50 or older, recently published an online tool called “AARP Interview an Advisor” designed to help clients decide whether or not to hire an advisor.
The questions include clarification of advisors’ licenses, compensation, services and products, along with whether any regulators have disciplined them. Public databases already make many of the answers available for any advisor, but such inquiries by clients would make the issues express up front.
The website follows the decision by President Trump’s administration to delay the enforcement and best interest contract exemption provisions of the fiduciary rule. AARP served as a key driving force behind the Obama administration’s creation of the Department of Labor rule.
“While [RIAs] serve as fiduciaries who are required to provide advice that is in their clients’ best interest, many other financial advisors operate under different requirements that obligate them only to make recommendations that are ‘suitable,’” Jean Setzfand, senior vice president for programs, said in a statement. “AARP’s new interactive guide will help investors avoid confusion about a financial professional’s standards and qualifications.”
The tool stops short of suggesting clients avoid non-fiduciaries, noting in a disclaimer that AARP is not providing advice nor promoting any individual planners. The choice of advisor “is a personal decision that should made after careful consideration of your individual financial situation,” the disclaimer says.
In that vein, the website gives identical “successfully submitted” messages in response to users who select either “best interests” or “suitability” in a section of the interview on the standards. It also refrains from correcting wrong answers, such as a “yes” to whether investment returns are guaranteed.
The organization has planned “enhancements to provide more educational guideposts” through the website, Setzfand wrote in an email. The tool would have been as valid for clients before the fiduciary rule as it is in the present, and the two organizations don't necessarily see the fiduciary question as a dealbreaker, she says.
“AARP and NASAA do not make any recommendations about who to do business with,” Setzfand says. “Our purpose with the Interview an Advisor tool is to help educate investors about how different advisors are compensated and the varying standards of care they are legally required to provide clients.”
Advice in clients’ best interests does loom large to them. Nearly three quarters of adults who have or have had retirement accounts said it’s “very important” for advisors to act in clients’ best interests, according to an independent survey commissioned by AARP in 2016.
The fiduciary rule received 91% support in the same poll. In contrast, advisors, their firms and industry organizations have split opinions on the rule. The divide in some ways reflects the breakdown of fiduciary and non-fiduciary advisors, although brokers of all stripes have expressed unease with it.
Half of employee advisors somewhat or strongly disagree with the view that the fiduciary rule helps investors, according to a survey published in June by J.D. Power. Some 55% of independent advisors said they don’t even fully understand the rule, the study also showed.