While the looming DoL fiduciary rule has heightened consumer awareness of the concept of fiduciary duty, the reality is that being a “fiduciary” (or not) isn’t actually a singular concept. While conceptually, it’s about acting in the interests of the client, and honoring the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care, not all regulators define (nor enforce) those terms consistently.
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, I explore four different types of financial advisor fiduciaries, including RIAs that are SEC fiduciaries, DoL fiduciaries serving retirement investors, CFP fiduciaries providing financial planning, and voluntary fiduciaries who decide to step up to honor private/third-party fiduciary standards.
One reason for varying fiduciary standards is the fact that different industry channels are regulated by different overseers – each of which defines fiduciary obligations in their own way. Registered Investment Advisers (RIAs) are overseen by the SEC and state regulators, which have both adopted a disclosure and transparency oriented approach to fiduciary duty, but only to investment advice and investment management. While the DoL fiduciary rule impacts anyone giving advice on retirement accounts (and not taxable investment accounts), but is more stringent in its limitations on conflict of interest. And the CFP Board requires that certificants often adhere to a fiduciary duty, but the requirement depends on specifically whether the certificant is actually doing “finanical planning” for a client.
And organizations with voluntary fiduciary standard for their advisor members – like NAPFA and the XY Planning Network – have their own definitions of when a fiduciary duty applies, and what conflicts are and aren’t permitted. In addition, RIAs who are struggling to differentiate as fiduciaries – now that DoL fiduciary will apply the rule to more advisors in the future – are looking to even more stringent versions of voluntary fiduciary rules, such as the new Fiduciary Registry from the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard, or CEFEX certification.
The bottom line, though, is simply that there are many different definitions of fiduciary duties, and two advisors who are both “fiduciaries” might still have very different fiduciary obligations. And unfortunately, given the research showing that consumers struggle even to understand the difference between fiduciary and suitability standards, it’s not likely most will grasp the nuances of the many different types of fiduciary duties anytime soon.