August 19, 2010
I entered the financial services industry after many years in another field so I have experience with both the consumer and provider side of the Fiduciary Standard issue.
The problem is that salespeople want to cloak themselves in the garb of advisors to make it appear they have the client's best interest in mind when they are really pushing product. Now, many good salespeople actually do have their best intesest in mind, but there is no way for the average consumer to tell to what standard the industry or the individual salesperson holds himself.
Single product salespeople (registered representatives and insurance producers) now argue for the status quo of loose regulation and looser still disclosure. Deep in the fine print of an account agreement and maybe even on the back of a statement there will be a note that there are potential conflicts of interest and that the representative is selling products.
People who sell advice and possibly products often hold themselves to the fiduciary standard. They believe that if you intend to serve your client's interest first there should be some way to educate the public on the difference so consumers would prefer to buy from them. Having failed to make the distinction clear, they now want everyone held to that same high standard. Perhaps they also harbor the belief that this will somehow drive the charlatans out of the industry.
While I believe everyone should behave well, and by that I mean adopt the fiduciary standard, it is important to give people choices. Those consumers who want to work with someone who is held to the fiduciary standard should be assured that they get what they pay for. Those consumers who only want a suitability standard of care with, perhaps, a lower price should clearly understand what they are getting.
Therefore, I propose that every person who will be held only to the suitability standard be required to use the term "representative" in his position title. Further, the use of the term "advisor" should be restricted to those individuals who will be held to the strong fiduciary standard. Insurance sales people must use the term "agent" unless they qualify for the "representative" or "advisor" designation.
In this way the public could quickly distinguish what level of service a provider offers. In this way the industry could choose to offer several levels of service to fit the market needs.
It would be the duty of the SEC (and FINRA, state securities regulators, state insurance regulators, and maybe even the patent and trademark division of the federal government) to educate the public and enforce the usage of these terms.