News & Insights

Pure and Organic … Sort of

by Elliot Weissbluth on April 22, 2016

The long-awaited DOL Conflict of Interest rule has generated a lot of conversation around the concept of “fiduciary.”

The word “fiduciary” comes from the Latin fiducia—“trust.” It is a legally binding obligation to serve the best interest of another ahead of one’s own. In medicine, it requires doctors to act in the best interests of their patients. In law, it requires attorneys to act in the best interest of their clients.

“Fiduciary” is a label that indicates to consumers that what they’re buying is good for them—not unlike “organic” food.

The “organic” movement began as a grassroots alternative to mass-produced and highly processed food. As demand for organic food rose, regulators stepped in to establish rules governing use of the label “organic.” The resulting standards reflect the lobbying of the food industry: USDA rules state that if 95% of a product is made up of organic ingredients, it can be called organic. And, if it’s 70%, the label can read “made with organic ingredients.”

So, when you buy “organic,” there could still be other “inorganic” substances mixed in to improve yield or preserve shelf life, color and appearance. Yet the label says “organic.”

Similarly, many investors assume that their financial advisors act in their best interests and provide “pure and healthy” advice. But shockingly, prior to this ruling, retirement advisors and brokers were only required to provide advice that was “suitable” for clients.

The DOL’s new rule “requires more retirement investment advisers to put their client’s best interest first, by expanding the types of retirement advice covered by fiduciary protections.”

Unfortunately, in order to get the new rule passed, the DOL made concessions to the financial industry, which voiced concerns about a negative impact it would have on their ability to generate profits. These compromises resulted in a version of “fiduciary” that falls short of its true meaning—much like the labeling standards for “organic” products.

One of the most perverse concessions that the large financial firms forced into the new DOL rule allows advisors and brokers to continue the practice of recommending proprietary investment products to their clients. Their claim was that not offering the firm’s own products deprived the client of what was in their best interest.

traditional fiduciary does not sell or manufacture proprietary products (watch a quick animated video for an everyday analogy that explains this: the drugstore toothpaste aisle).

Today, if you want truly organic food, and you are prepared to pay the premium, you have to do your own research to make sure “organic” is really “organic”.

The same applies if you want a financial advisor who is a true fiduciary.

Caveat emptor.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

# Best interests Department of Labor Fiduciary Retirement Advice

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