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Heightened Scrutiny on Brokers

Market Digest – Week Ending 3/27

Softer economic data was the primary theme of the week, sending both domestic and international stocks lower. On Tuesday, the Labor Department reported US consumer prices increased 0.2% in February. While the increase was expected, it remained below target levels. Stocks fell again Wednesday after a weaker than expected US durable goods report, and Friday’s revised GDP figures came in below estimates.

Weekly Returns:

S&P 500: 2,061 (-2.2%)
FTSE All-World ex-US: (-1.3%)
US 10 Year Treasury Yield: 1.95% (+0.03%)
Gold: $1,197 (+1.2%)
USD/EUR: $1.089 (+0.7%)

Major Events:

• Tuesday – A Germanwings passenger plane carrying 150 crashed in the French Alps, en route to Dusseldorf.

• Wednesday – Packaged food giants Kraft and Heinz announced a merger, creating one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies.

• Wednesday – Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, fled the city of Aden when Houthi militants closed in. Saudi Arabia later intervened and aided the government with airstrikes.

• Thursday – Reports surfaced that the co-pilot in Germanwings Flight 9825 deliberately crashed the plane. Reasons for his actions are still unknown.

• Friday – The third revised estimate for fourth quarter GDP was released, showing a 2.2% annual rate of growth. This fell short of the 2.4% consensus expectation.

Our take:

While the stock market took a breather, an issue we highlighted a few weeks ago regarding brokers seemed to gain momentum. On Tuesday, SEC Chair Mary Jo White gave testimony to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, detailing the SEC’s agenda, operations, and budget requests. In her commentary, she officially outlined how broker-dealers and investment advisors should be subject to the same fiduciary standard, and that advice provided should be in the client’s best interest. Even New York City’s Comptroller is pushing for heavier regulation, calling for all brokers and financial advisors to disclose whether they are a fiduciary when speaking with clients and prospects, according to the Wall Street Journal.

As such, it’s probably a good time to refresh everyone on the difference between a broker-dealer and registered investment advisor. We’ve all heard the term “stockbroker”, right? They’re an investment professional that sells, or brokers, investments. And they often make a commission on the sale, which can include anything from stocks, mutual funds, annuities, or even insurance policies. Given this arrangement, there is a clear conflict of interest between them and the client. There is an incentive to sell products with higher commissions, and these products may or may not be in the client’s best interest.

Over the last couple decades the word “broker” took on a negative connotation, so the industry adapted. Almost all brokers now call themselves financial advisors, which obviously sounds more objective. But make no mistake: nothing has changed other than the title. This is worth highlighting because it’s a common area of confusion for investors.

A registered investment advisor, on the other hand, is subject to an entirely different set of regulatory standards. They are considered a fiduciary, and as result they have a legal obligation to act in their clients’ best interest. But they also often call themselves financial advisors. So be careful with whom you talk to, and ask the right questions. If you’re unsure what to ask, see our post: How Do You Know If You Can Trust Your Financial Advisor.

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