The Securities and Exchange Commission rolled out new rules this month that prohibit brokers and investment advisers from putting their personal interests – fees, commission, potential relationships – ahead of their clients.’
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While the new standard is stronger than the former requirement that an investment recommendation be “suitable” for the investor, it doesn’t completely protect the investor from risk.
“What the SEC rule is designed to say to brokerage firms is, look at the investment, know how it works and make sure you are acting in the investor’s interest,” says Jacob Zamansky, a securities fraud attorney. “Don’t put them in a risky product just to generate fees or a commission.”
But Zamansky says the regulations are tepid.
The new rules may prevent brokers from putting investors in certain kinds of fee-driven, high-risk, complicated investment products, but there are still many ways to encounter fraud and frustration in the investment world.
If a professional tries to get you into a particular investment product before asking you about your own needs, that’s a bad sign.
“They are likely playing the numbers game rather than looking out for your best interests,” says Shaun Melby, a certified financial planner. “They likely only care about making the sale and not doing what is best for you.”
An adviser does not automatically have your best interests in mind, particularly those who earn commissions.
“If an adviser is doing everything 100% commission, it opens the door to a ton of abuse or conflict of interest issues,” says Sean McDougle, a certified financial planner.
What may be more challenging is when a long-time adviser starts recommending particular products that provide a plump commission or fee.
“The stock broker, oftentimes, will recommend some new thing that the home office is pushing,” says attorney Curtis Carlson. “Usually there is a big commission attached to it.”
His firm, which litigates investment fraud, handles cases involving wealthy athletes who have lost large amounts of money through inexperience and fraud.
“When you have an athlete who may have a limited education in terms of financial matters, these guys rely 100% on what these advisers tell them to do,” Carlson says.
Even those with investment experience, may listen too willingly to a broker without questioning the recommendation.
No credentials or ‘free’ services
Selecting an adviser with professional credentials helps you to know what standards they will be held to.
A certified financial planner, for example, is a designation that comes with training and a fiduciary responsibility – meaning the planner has to work in the client’s best interest.
A fee-only professional is not compensated when you opt for one of their recommendations. They’re paid a flat salary or fee that’s usually a percentage of the assets they manage.
When a financial professional says that their services are “completely free” or there is “no out-of-pocket cost” to the client, an investor should be skeptical.
“There is a big difference between a free first meeting and the entire relationship being free,” says Melby.
If they are offering you free financial services, it may be because they are earning a commission after making the sale.
“To tell someone they are getting something from you for free only because you are getting paid from the product you are selling is downright sleazy and dirty,” says Melby.
Even if you are paying fees based on a percentage of your assets, how do you know if your money is being invested responsibly?
Some advisers could be putting clients into overly-risky strategies or investment products in an effort to generate an additional amount of return to enhance their own fees.
“With many of these strategies, they may work in particular markets, but when markets become volatile, these strategies can cause problems,” says Carlson. “What if the market drops 10%? In many instances the strategy may cause you to lose 20%.”
While many of those investments are reserved for sophisticated investors who are well aware of the risks of investing, they’re not appropriate for many average investors.
Carlson says that, in general, the new regulations are likely to help investors, but won’t fullly protect them.
“The ways in which scoundrels can defraud customers is limited only by the imagination. This is never going to completely stop it.”