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Rules and regulations exist to let us know what behaviors we should expect from the people we do business with. Sometimes, good sense or social convention overtake these rules — and they don’t matter so much. Just about everyone wears seat-belts these days (we all know how much they improve our odds of survival in an accident); the ranks of underage smokers have plummeted (it’s no longer cool). Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, as they say, there’s no cramming it back in.

Such is the case with the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule. On Friday, President Trump asked the Labor Department to review the rule, which requires brokers working with retirement savers to put the interest of their clients ahead of their own. After years of work on it, the regulation was finalized last year by the Obama administration.

Let me explain. Whether it is overturned by the Trump administration is besides the point. The Labor Department has already taken the key language offline (you can see the earlier text here). Even before the government announced the new standard of care for advisers on retirement accounts, the public had figured it out: Investors have been moving away from high-cost, conflicted advice (with undisclosed kickbacks to brokers on the side) and toward low-cost investment advice where the adviser acts transparently in the investor’s best interests.

They have voted with their feet, and with their dollars.

Long before the 2011 staff report of the Securities and Exchange Commission (Study on Investment Advisers and Broker-Dealers) recommended a uniform fiduciary rule for all investors, the industry was moving in that direction. The fiduciary rule is not shaping investor behavior, it is now catching up with it. It has been six years since the SEC study suggested the standard; while the commission has been stalemated by politics and the Labor Department by the new administration, they are both now far behind the curve.


— Vanguard, the industry leader in low-cost indexing, has attracted $3 trillion since the 2008 financial crisis. It now manages about $4 trillion.

— Blackrock, the world’s largest investment firm, runs over $4 trillion. It notes that it is a “fiduciary for our clients” regardless of whether the new rule is implemented

— Software-managed investing (aka robo-advisors) and Hybrid (robo/adviser combos) will be $100 billion in the next few years. They already are managing almost $75 billion, according to Michael Kitces, an expert on the advisory business. Kitces notes that just the top five robos – Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (over $40 billion), Schwab Intelligent Portfolios (over $10 billion), Betterment (over $7 billion), Wealthfront ($5 billion) and Personal Capital ($3.4 billion) – alone account for $65 billion in assets under management.

Had it gone into effect as planned in April 2017, the fiduciary rule was likely to have accelerated the process of money moving from expensive and conflicted advice to advice that is lower cost and in the clients’ best interest. Changing the new rule implementation plan won’t stop the underlying trend – at worst it might slow it somewhat.

Regardless, the change is now inevitable. Industry expectations, based on an A.T. Kearney study, are that by 2020, “the DOL’s new fiduciary rule will result in a $2 trillion asset shift” that will save investors roughly $20 billion by not having to pay commissions.

In the early 2000s, retail investors whose investments were at these big firms had commission-based brokerage accounts. The primary rules that covered the behavior of brokers were from FINRA, the industry’s self-regulating organization. As you would imagine, letting the industry regulate itself led to all manner of expensive, opaque, conflicted advice that often worked against the interest of the investor, and toward the broker’s financial interest.

Investors have decided that Caveat emptor is not what they want governing their retirement accounts. Having the fiduciary rule in place would surely protect those investors who have yet to figure out who is really working for them. It would be nice to discover that the new administration was more “investor friendly.” But it was not the rules that moved the big firms toward a fee-based business model – market forces did.

Whether the fiduciary rule stays or not, the investing public has figured out what the proper standard should be. Investors are not waiting for the government to make the finance industry put investors’ interests first.

As market forces have revealed, they are insisting on it themselves.

Courtesy of Ritholtz

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Remembering The Impetus Of Irrational Exuberance

In December of 1996, Greenspan was clearly beginning to worry about the economic fallout of a bursting asset bubble. Back then he had a front row seat and, in fact, a strong hand in creating the dotcom bubble, whether he admits it or not. He was so worried about the consequences of “irrational exuberance” that he declared these concerns “must be an integral part of the development of monetary policy.” And this was before he had even witnessed any of the actual economic consequences we have now lived with for two decades. Clearly, his worries were well founded but he wasn’t quite worried enough.

The financial well-being of entire generations has been permanently damaged. Think of the Baby Boomers whose retirement dreams turned to nightmares through two stock market crashes in less than a decade. Think of the Generation Xers whose dreams were shattered by the housing bubble and the mortgage crisis. As a group these latter folks, even though they are now entering their peak earnings years, are flat broke almost a decade after it all began. And the major media outlets wonder openly why the average American has next to nothing in savings. He was explicitly encouraged by the single most powerful institution on the planet to put his savings into great peril, time and again.

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-1-22-18-pmNow I should be clear that over the decade following this famous speech, while he remained Fed Chairman, he did nothing to incorporate these prescient concerns into Fed policy. Just the opposite. After the dotcom bubble burst he engineered the housing bubble to try to ameliorate the damage done by the first. It’s one thing to worry about the risks of financial bubbles you have a hand in creating; it’s something else to actually do something about them. So while we can admire his foresight we should not honor it by overlooking his cowardice in failing to do anything about it.

Since then, and with the benefit of witnessing the actual fallout of these epic busts, many at the Fed (and even more outside of it) have openly discussed this dilemma of directly addressing asset bubbles. Eric Rosengren, head of the Fed Bank of Boston, became the latest to openly echo Greenspan’s concerns regarding “irrational exuberance” in the financial markets. Robert Shiller won a Nobel Prize for work in this very area. Still, nothing has been done to actually address these massive economic risks. After 20 years and two bursting bubbles whose effects are still plaguing the economy it’s still nothing more than sporadic public hand wringing by the people with the power to do something about it.

In recent years the Fed has only doubled down on these policies by directly pursuing a “wealth effect.” Rather than give a boost to the broad economy, however, these central bankers have only accomplished an even greater and more pervasive financial asset perversion. Stocks, bonds and real estate have all become as overvalued as we have ever seen any one of them individually in this country. The end result of all of this money printing and interest rate manipulation is the worst economic expansion since the Great Depression and the greatest wealth inequality since that period, as well.

Someday, possibly soon, the public will finally decide it’s had enough of the escalating boom bust cycles the Fed has exacerbated, if not directly engineered, over the past couple of decades. Falling confidence in these technocrats and the resulting rising populism will serve as a clarion call for a new brand of Fed Chairman with the courage to finally address the glaring danger asset bubbles pose to financial stability and the long-term economic health of our nation. She will be the 21st century’s version of Paul Volcker. Rather than breaking the back of inflation in the traditional sense, she will break the cycle of unwarranted asset inflation at the direction of the Fed and all of its deleterious consequences. At least I hope it’s not irrational to believe so.

Courtesy of TheFelderReport

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