2017 was a wild year for both the wealth management industry and for its most famous regulation—the fiduciary rule. But what will happen in 2018? The answer is a lot, and not all in the direction some might think. While the DOL rule does feel like it might be on its last legs given the long delay and SEC involvement in developing a new rule, there are some factors which might help it, or at least advance the fiduciary rule cause. For instance, industry buy-in of the rule, especially by big firms, is increasing as they realize it is more profitable to adhere because of higher revenues from fee-based accounts. Additionally, many states are working on their own rules, another factor likely to push federal rule-makers. Finally, the SEC may come out with its own universal rule this year.
FINSUM: We expect it to be another wild ride in the fiduciary saga this year. Our best bet is that the SEC will come close to making a rule this year, but that it will not be implemented until mid 2019.
The battle over client is heating up again. On one side stands the broker, and on the other, the firm. Who owns the client relationship? Both say they do. Some may have been wondering where FINRA stands on the issue. However, the regulator has just taken the easy way out, saying it has no stance on the question. FINRA says it is not involved in the broker protocol and takes no sides on the topic, though it does have arbitration rules to handle disputes. Brokers want a FINRA rule, or at least process on the issue, with one attorney saying “Finra needs to convene an industry conference to finally be able to decide on what’s a workable definition of who owns the customer … There’s got to be a better way of doing this than TROs and arbitration”.
FINSUM: The broker protocol seems likely to completely dissolve this year. Hopefully something workable will take its place, because the legal alternatives are not great for anyone (other than lawyers!).
Advisors need to pay very close attention to what states are doing on taxes. As might have been expected, states with high taxes are working hard to come up with solutions that protect their residents from the higher payouts trying to be imposed by the federal government. The new tax package limits state and local deductions (“SALT”) to just $10,000, which means much higher tax bills for residents of higher tax states. While New York is preparing to sue the federal government over the changes, California has already come up with what looks like a good solution. Residents of the state can simply donate to the “California Excellence Fund” instead pf paying taxes, as such a charitable gift is deductible in the new federal package.
FINSUM: New York may also use the same plan as California is using. All the states seem likely to do this. What a big waste of time and energy because of a silly rule.
Merrill Lynch took a big step yesterday. Seemingly espousing the same view as Jamie Dimon, the firm officially blocked clients and all advisors who act on their behalf from trading Bitcoin. The firm does not believe in the asset class’ investment suitability. The ban extends beyond direct purchases of the cryptocurrency and extends to all futures and funds that trade in bitcoin. Advisors reportedly have mixed feelings on the move, with some saying it is a missed opportunity.
FINSUM: In our opinion, Bitcoin is a solid idea and is here to stay, but it just has so much regulatory risk right now that we think only accredited investors should be allowed to have it in their portfolios.
The fiduciary rule is in an odd sort of limbo. Despite being seemingly dead from a rule-making point-of-view, it is still very much alive as a practical rule that needs to be abided by even if it is not in full force. But is still surprising to learn, especially given all the hype over the rule’s possible dissolution, that 42% of all advisor-held US assets under management are now subject to the fiduciary rule. That figure is up from what would have been 24% in 2005 and 33% in 2010. The growth has come from the large number of firms seeking to grow their fee-based managed account programs.
FINSUM: That is a quite a high proportion of assets. We hope the DOL rule will not be implemented and the SEC will come up with a more effectual version.
The Broker Protocol just suffered another loss. Despite Merrill Lynch deciding to stay in the agreement, the loss of Morgan Stanley and UBS appeared too much of an enticement, and Citigroup has now departed. Citigroup has about 1,000 advisors across the country, and the bank says that leaving the Protocol will allow them to “continue to invest in our growing team of award-winning financial advisers”.
FINSUM: So MS, UBS, and Citigroup are now gone, with ML and Raymond James saying they will stay in. One side is eventually going to win. We think the leavers will eventually cause MS and RJ to leave.