Here’s a Way to Help Tell the Good Brokers From the Bad

Don’t be so quick to believe the dirt you hear about brokers.

That’s the inescapable takeaway from research reported by Bloomberg News last week showing that false accusations of broker misconduct are disturbingly common.

Dynamic Securities Analytics, a securities litigation consulting firm, reviewed 82 arbitrated disputes between brokerage firms and their former brokers that took place between 2016 and the first quarter of this year. In roughly half of those cases, arbitrators concluded that firms had defamed brokers when reporting the reasons for their dismissals.

Leaving aside the irreparable damage to the reputations of falsely accused brokers — which is considerable — Dynamic’s research raises serious doubts about the reliability of brokers’ public employment records. Brokerage firms must disclose brokers’ comings and goings and any wrongdoing they commit along the way. That information is meant to allow investors to evaluate brokers’ backgrounds and dodge bad actors.

And if those disclosures are to be believed, then there is an alarming amount of bad behavior. Researchers Mark Egan, Gregor Matvos and Amit Seru reviewed brokers’ employment records dating from 2005 to 2015 for a study in the Journal of Political Economy. They found that 7 percent of brokers have a record of misconduct and that the number exceeds 15 percent at some of the largest brokerage firms. 

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Merrill Can’t Restore the Bad Old Days of Conflicts

The fiduciary rule is dead, but its spirit lives on.

The rule, which the Department of Labor first proposed in 2015, required brokers to act as fiduciaries — to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own — when handling retirement accounts. It sounded simple, but it meant that brokers would have to rethink the way they do business.

Mutual fund companies routinely pay brokers to sell their funds to clients. That payment is often an annual fee for as long as the client is invested in the fund — a particularly pernicious conflict of interest that gives brokers incentive to keep clients in high-priced and often poorly performing funds. As fiduciaries, brokers would most likely have to abandon the practice or at the very least disclose it to their clients.

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Financial Advisers Need Steady Learning to Keep Earning

It’s time for financial professionals to become a profession in substance, not just in name.

The Securities and Exchange Commission proposed new rules for brokers and financial advisers last week. Observers have understandably focused on the big change, which requires brokers to disclose their conflicts and look after clients’ best interests.

But a more modest proposal deserves discussion. Namely, the SEC would subject financial advisers to continuing education requirements.

It’s a wise move. Financial innovation is happening at a dizzying pace. More investment options are available today than ever before, spanning many different types of assets, geographies and investing styles, and new products are coming to market all the time.

That’s a challenge for an aging industry. The average age of financial advisers is 50, according to Cerulli Associates, and just 11.7 percent of advisers are younger than 35. Whatever advisers learned when they were trained for the job decades ago is most likely outdated.

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The SEC Just Did Brokers a Huge Favor

The Securities and Exchange Commission just threw brokers a lifeline. They should grab it.

Brokers’ troubles began in April 2015, when the Department of Labor first proposed its so-called fiduciary rule. The rule, which was issued a year later, requires brokers to act as, well, fiduciaries — or to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own — when handling retirement accounts.

It was a big departure from business as usual. Fund companies and other purveyors of financial products typically pay brokers to sell their wares, which means brokers are incentivized to recommend those that pay them the most, not necessarily those that are in their clients’ best interests. The naked conflict doesn’t exactly promote trust, so brokers aren’t quick to disclose it to clients.

All of that would obviously have to change under the fiduciary rule, and brokers fought back. They insisted they’re merely salespeople, dutifully executing orders for clients. And because they don’t give financial advice, there’s nothing wrong with selling the products that hand them the biggest bounty.

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