With the implementation date of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule looming large in April, all attention has been focused on how financial advisors and their Financial Institutions are making adjustments to manage their compensation conflicts of interest, to avoid breaching the fiduciary’s fundamental duty of loyalty to act in the client’s best interests.
However, the reality is that being a fiduciary actually entails two core duties: the first is the duty of loyalty (to act in the client’s best interests), and the second is the duty of care (to provide diligent and prudent advice, and only in areas in which the advisor is competent to provide such advice). After all, a fiduciary obligation is relatively meaningless with only a duty of loyalty, if there’s no expectation of competency; otherwise, consumers would still be harmed by unwitting negligence, even if there was no intentional (or conflicted) self-enrichment.
And the distinction matters, because the Department of Labor’s Best Interests Contract Exemption attaches a fiduciary obligation to the Financial Institution itself, including the potential for a class action lawsuit against the institution for failing to meet its fiduciary obligations. Which means a Financial Institution could face a class action lawsuit not only for systemic breaches of the fiduciary duty of loyalty (e.g., by utilizing too much conflicted compensation), but also by systemically breaching the fiduciary duty of care but not sufficient training their advisors.
In other words, Financial Institutions face the risk that they will be sued in a class action lawsuit for failing to put their financial advisors through the training and education (e.g., professional designations) necessary to ensure that the advisor would even know what the “best” advice for the client was in the first place!
Unfortunately, right now there actually is no universally accepted minimum competency standard for financial advice (or in the case of DoL fiduciary, retirement advice), though certainly recognized rigorous designations that include both education and an advice process – such as the CFP Board’s CFP certification, and RIIA’s RMA designation – provide a likely path of safety for Financial Institutions. Which means in the coming year, there may soon be explosive growth in programs like the CFP and RMA, as Financial Institutions recognize and then try to minimize their exposure to a class action lawsuit for failing to meet the fiduciary duty of care.