In the next key step of the progression towards a uniform fiduciary standard for all brokers and investment advisers in the delivery of personalized investment advice, the SEC has issued a request for data and information to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on the potential consequences of implementing such a rule. The analysis is expected to include not only an evaluation of the potential benefits to the consumer, and costs to the industry (which become indirect costs to consumers as well), but also the prospect costs and benefits of various approaches to harmonize regulation and oversight between the rules-based broker-dealer system and the principles-based fiduciary RIA approach.
What the outcome of the cost-benefit analyses will be, though, is still anyone's guess. While fiduciary advocates tend to emphasize the weaker advice and conflicts of interest inherent in the broker suitability framework, it's less clear how to precisely quantify the financial impact of such conflicts, and the exact amount that consumers could benefit from a fiduciary standard. Yet the reality seems to be that demonstrating a cost-benefit analysis that favors consumers may be crucial if fiduciary rulemaking is to move forward.
On the other hand, a strong cost-benefit analysis may show surprising results as well - for instance, is it really true that the fiduciary model is more costly, or could it actually be less costly to administer as so many gray ambiguous areas that result in consumer complaints would simply be outright disallowed? If the fiduciary model is more costly, why are so many brokers breaking away to start independent RIAs that appear to be more profitable, not less? Why is it that the volume of complaints appears to be greater against suitability-based brokers than fiduciary-based investment advisers if fiduciary is really a "higher cost" model? Could the truth really be that a higher standard that eliminates ambiguity may actually result in lower costs to consumers?
Ultimately, the comment period will remain open for four months, so expect to hear a lot more about this issue as various organizations submit their own cost-benefit studies. And if you're interested, you can submit your own comments as well through the SEC's website.