We saw an article that caught our eye today. How does earning a 1.8% yield on cash sound? If that sounds enticing, consider putting some money in Betterment’s new Smart Saver option. Betterment is seeking to compete with digital banks, who have been boosting interest payouts recently, by offering a product for cash that might be stagnating in a savings account. The yield is backed by a mix of 80% short-term US Treasury bonds and 20% US short-term investment bonds. The only catch is that the account is not FDIC insured, which is a hindrance compared to some bank accounts which are offering comparable yields and are FDIC insured.
FINSUM: This seems like a good offering in principle. Betterment’s argument against the competition is that unlike banks, their holdings directly track the Fed instead of being artificially manipulated to optimize net interest margin.
Any advisor will know that the SEC’s new Regulation Best Interest has been under serious fire for the last couple of months. While it initially had a relatively warm reception from industry, brokers have railed against it more recently. Now, state attorney generals are mounting a furious push. The AGs of 17 states have come together to denounce the rule and demand a revision that mirrors the standard laid out in the old DOL rule. Specifically, the groups wants Reg BI to hold broker-dealers to the same standard as RIAs.
FINSUM: The SEC probably won’t do anything about this now, but this sets the stage for a major legal challenge before the rule may actually be implemented.
There was a great deal of anxiety over the fiduciary rule, and now there is mounting consternation about the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest. But within that story, there is a lost narrative—the fate of the US’ small broker-dealers. Mounting regulatory pressure continues to dwindle their ranks. The number of Finra-registered broker-dealers has fallen 10% since 2013, and last year the number fell to a total of 3,726, down 109 from 2016. One industry commentator summarizes that “It is getting to the point that the many firms under 10 advisors dread Finra audits and are positioning themselves to be under a larger broker-dealer in order to simplify their life”. “This used to be a fun business, but not anymore”, says the commentator, citing a B-D owner.
FINSUM: We can personally testify to the difficulties that smaller B-Ds face, and not just in terms of direct regulatory costs. Additionally, factors like limits to markups constrain revenue, so there is pressure on both sides.
Be careful of sketchy deal solicitations that are floating around the market right now. Apparently there are fake securities firms, either posing as real ones or using aliases, who are soliciting deal interest in the advisor market. Many times the fake deals will cite endorsement from the SEC or other regulators, often fictitious ones (e.g. The Bureau of Financial & Protection Services). The SEC itself issued the warning to investors about the phony deals.
FINSUM: Any advisor will know these are fake and that the SEC does not endorse deals, but many clients could fall for these scams.
We became concerned for our advisor readers today when we read an article in the FT warning that many trading platforms are at serious risk of hacking. The article says that many trading platforms, such Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and Interactive Brokers, secure data in an unencrypted or partially unencrypted format, leaving them highly vulnerable to hacking. If a hacker got your password, they would be able to do anything you could on the platform. Generally speaking larger brokers had safer platforms than smaller ones, and both Schwab and TD Ameritrade emphasize that they are making progress on the issue.
FINSUM: This seems like a major risk that has gone ignored. We wanted to make sure to warn our readers as we are aware that many of you use Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade.
Okay, here is an honest question for our readers that we are debating internally. Did the DOL rule face more criticism, or is the SEC’s Best Interest rule taking more heat? While it initially seemed that only investor protection groups disliked the SEC’s Regulation BI, coalitions of brokers are now railing against it too. Amazingly, both brokers and investor protection groups agree—the SEC’s rule is too vague and confusing. Brokers say the rule is so vague they don’t even know how to comply, while investor groups say it is so weak it won’t change current practices (these are effectively the same argument!). “This will only serve to harm the brokerage model and limit choice for those investors who prefer the brokerage advice model”, says a broker group.
FINSUM: Honestly, we think the current iteration of the SEC rule is all but dead. The comment window closed yesterday, and we expect a serious redraft.