U.S. SEC adopts rules to prevent broker conflicts, boost disclosure

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Wednesday voted to adopt a package of rules requiring brokerage firms to disclose potential conflicts in the fees investors pay and the commissions brokers earn when giving financial advice.

FILE PHOTO: A street sign is seen in front of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street in New York, February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Eric Thayer/File Photo

The Regulation Best Interest rules also require brokers to raise the standard for giving advice to meet a client’s best interest when recommending stocks, mutual funds and other financial products.

“This action is long overdue,” said Republican-appointed SEC Chairman Jay Clayton of the package, which was first proposed in April 2018.

“The differences between broker-dealers and investment advisers, and how they interact with their customers and clients, make it clear that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to regulating standards of conduct for financial professionals presents significant risk.”

The rules were passed by Clayton and the agency’s two Republican-appointed commissioners. Robert Jackson, a Democrat appointee, dissented.

Wednesday’s vote caps a 10-year battle over regulation of the investment advice industry. Lobby groups last year sued successfully to overturn a similar Barack Obama-era fiduciary standard proposed by the Department of Labor.

The SEC rules, to be implemented by June 30, 2020, are considered a win for Wall Street because, unlike the Department of Labor rules, they would still allow brokers to recommend products that benefit them, provided they disclose the conflict.

The SEC rules prescribe what brokers must do to comply, a step up from the current standard that allows brokers to recommend products that they view as “suitable” for a client’s investment goals and risk tolerance, without having to disclose any potential conflicts.

Despite much internal wrangling over the rules and a pushback by consumer groups, SEC officials said Wednesday’s final text remains similar to last year’s proposal.

Clayton has said the rules would elevate the standard for what is considered in an investor’s best interest for both broker dealers and wealth managers. He said the final rules tried to address industry requests for detailed guidelines to make compliance easier.

Investor advocates, however, say the SEC rules are still too vague in its definition of “best interest” and do not address all investment advice conflicts, including the higher payments that brokers receive for selling products that are more expensive to trade.

Representative Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, said the package fell short by failing to require all financial advisors to adhere to “a strong, uniform fiduciary standard of care when providing investors with investment advice,” and called on the SEC to rescind it.

The rules have been divisive within the agency. Jackson said the package “retains a muddled standard that exposes millions of Americans to the costs of conflicted advice.” He has also said the package lacks strong economic analysis to support how consumers will benefit over financial advisers, dissent that could lead to litigation from consumer groups.

Industry groups say the rules’ heightened disclosure requirements will benefit consumers.

“Compliance with the rule will not be easy for the industry. Firms will need to make substantial changes. The costs to implement will no doubt be significant, but ... worthwhile to uniformly enhance investor protection,” said Kenneth E. Bentsen, Jr., who leads the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Reporting by Katanga Johnson; editing by Michelle Price, Tom Brown and Sonya Hepinstall