Obama Proposes Tougher Consumer Rules to Protect IRA Investors

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) -

President Barack Obama on Monday proposed tougher regulations on investment brokers who handle retirement funds, saying new rules would limit hidden fees, “back-door payments” and conflicts of interest that eat into middle-class Americans’ savings.

Warning against advisers who are “bilking” clients and selling “snake-oil,” Obama billed the move — a revival of an effort quashed by industry opposition four years ago — as part of his renewed focus on a populist economic message. He stood with consumer advocates, retirees and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the liberal favorite who has pushed the administration to tighten Wall Street regulations.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do to make sure the recovery reaches every single American out there and not just those at the top,” Obama said in remarks delivered at AARP headquarters.

The proposed rule, which Obama can put in place without congressional approval, would impose a requirement on some financial advisers to act as what the law calls “fiduciaries” for their clients, meaning that when they recommend or sell investments, they would be required to put the clients’ interests ahead of other factors, such as their own compensation or company profits.

The aim is to crack down on advisers who steer investors to products that provide hidden payments or generate higher fees, and not necessarily those that provide the best returns.

Currently, advisers are required to recommend “suitable” investments for clients, but that standard leaves considerable room for abuses, according to consumer advocates who have long called for imposing a fiduciary requirement.

The White House says that conflicts of interest cost savers millions. A report released Monday by the Council of Economic Advisers estimated that investors receiving “conflicted advice” earn lower returns — roughly 1 percentage point lower each year — than other investors. That adds up to roughly $17 billion in lost returns in IRAs each year, the report said. Over time, the losses build to tens of thousands of dollars for average workers.

Financial-services-industry officials dispute those estimates, saying the losses are smaller.

The Department of Labor proposed similar regulations in 2010, only to see a strong industry pushback and criticism from lawmakers in both parties. Opponents argued that the rules as written would have inadvertently prevented investors from receiving important advice and would have dictated how firms could compensate their employees.

The new version of the proposal includes exemptions aimed at addressing those concerns, officials said.

The president, however, suggested that some of the financial industry’s complaints were overblown. Rules governing retirement investing are decades old and in need of updating, he said.

Input from Wall Street will be welcome during the process of writing a final version of the regulation, he said, but “what I won’t accept is the notion that there’s nothing we can do.”

“These industry doomsday predictions have not come true in other countries” that have taken more aggressive steps, Obama argued. And while some firms may suffer under the new rule, if their advisers are “bilking” clients, “then you shouldn’t be in business. That’s pretty straightforward.”

The tough talk came from a president trying to burnish his record on financial regulation as the clock ticks down on his tenure. Obama argued that the reform he enacted in the wake of the banking collapse “has been meaningful; it has been effective.”

The White House enlisted Warren’s advice on this and other economic proposals — making a relatively rare attempt to win the public approval of an advocate who is beloved by many Democratic liberals, but not so much by Wall Street. Warren recently met with Obama’s top domestic-policy adviser, Cecilia Munoz, to discuss this proposal, as well as measures on community colleges and student loans, a White House official said.