Tips on Shopping for a Financial Advisor

Published in the Pawtucket Times on February 8, 2021

As a result of living in times of economic uncertainty resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, retirees are worried about how they can protect their hard-earned egg nest from the volatility of the stock market.  It is even now more important to be working with a financial planner who is watching your back and not putting their interest first.   

Just days ago, the Washington, DC-based AARP launched “AARP Interview an Advisor™,” free resource to help investors to assist investors in evaluating a financial advisor. This new financial tool enables older investors to better assess and understand the credentials of financial advisors and how they are compensated. SEC’s ‘Best Interest Fails to Put the Interests of the Investor First AARP says this online resource was created in response to a Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) 2019 ruling that stopped a long-standing federal regulation requiring financial advisors to put their clients’ interest above their own. 

AARP and other critics of the Final Rule say that it fell short of defining exactly what that term means operationally. “The regulation explicitly states that it does not mean that financial advisors provide a fiduciary standard of care. Despite its name, ‘Regulation Best Interest’ does not require that financial advisors put their client’s interest above their own financial interests,” charges AARP.  The nation’s largest aging advocacy group warns that warns that sound financial advice from Fiduciaries won’t happen without a Code of Standard that requires the best interest of the client. AARP Interview an Advisor™ guides users through process of researching potential advisors and provides them with this valuable evaluation tools to help them evaluate their financial planner.     

Last year, AARP conducted a national survey to gauge investors’ awareness and views of the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest ruling and also their understanding of the fees and expenses they pay for investment products and financial advice.  

The survey findings, detailed in the recently released 27-page report, Should Financial Advisors Put Your Interests First, indicated a need to raise the awareness of the SEC’s new regulation and its impact on investing.  It also became very clear to the study’s researchers that investors require more assistance in vetting current and/or future financial advisors to ensure that their financial advisor puts their interests first and more education is needed requiring investment fees and expenses. 

AARP’s survey of 1,577 adults ages 25 and older who have money saved in retirement savings accounts and/or other investment accounts, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago on behalf of AARP between Aug. 22, 2019 and Aug. 26, 2019 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), found more than 80 percent of American investors were not aware of the SEC ruling.  Upon learning about this regulatory change, four-in-five investors (83 percent) opposed the change. According to AARP’s survey findings, nearly 70 percent of investors have at least two investment accounts.

Among those having multiple accounts, 74 percent do not use the same financial institution to manage all of their accounts. The median amount that investors currently have in savings and investments ranges between $50,000 and $99,999. Additionally, 90 percent of investors either somewhat (52 percent) or completely (38 percent) trust the financial institutions or advisors who manage their investment accounts.  

Despite 68 percent of investors believing that they are somewhat (54 percent) or very (14 percent) knowledgeable about their investments, 41 percent mistakenly believe that they don’t pay any fees or expenses for their investment accounts. 

 Can You Trust Your Financial Planner? 

Yet the survey findings note that 58 percent of investors think financial advisors would choose to increase their earnings by selling their clients higher cost investment products even if similar lower cost products are available. “With millions of American families concerned about the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic, it is crucial for them to be equipped with the best resources and information when selecting a financial advisor,” said Jean Setzfand, AARP Senior Vice President of Programming, in a Feb. 4, 2020 statement announcing the release of the new Financial Planning tool. “The new SEC regulation states that advisors must act in their client’s ‘best interest,’ but falls short of defining exactly what that term means,” she said. “

AARP Interview an Advisor™” is an online resource that provides guidance and a checklist for investors on how to assess the services and standards of financial advisors. Investors are invited to fill out a short survey that evaluates the potential advisor and compares them on a three-point scale. It also provides investors with advice on how to effectively communicate with a prospective advisor, assess their credentials and better understand how advisors are compensated.The COVID-19 pandemic has put many seniors off track in reaching their financial goal of building a big enough egg-nest to provide financial security in their later years.  Now its even more important for you to have a top-notch financial planner who has your back.

To view AARP’s Survey of retail investors about advisor-client relationships and fees, go to https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/surveys_statistics/econ/2019/retail-investor-survey-report.doi.10.26419-2Fres.00342.001.pdf.

AARP Pushes for Higher Standards When it Comes to Financial Advisors

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 28, 2015

AARP continues its efforts to push for a proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rule that would require financial advisors to put their client’s interests first when giving retirement advice.  In advance of last weeks hearing, before the House Education and Workforce Committee, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group delivered nearly 60,000 petitions containing the signatures from every state to support a higher standard in financial advising to prevent conflicts of interest.    .

In a June 16 release, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP stated that the June 27th Congressional hearing only showcased financial firms and their concerns, but did not provide much of an opportunity to hear directly from consumers about how the new proposed rule would benefit them.  But, AARP’s petitions drive should send a powerful message to Congress, that the nonprofit group, representing 37 million older Americans, and 60,000 voters identified on those petitions want to have their voices heard by Congress on this very pressing retirement issue.

When Advising, Do No Harm

“While a number of investment advisers also support a rule requiring advice to be in the best interest of clients, some opponents have recently weighed in with comments that offer time worn code words for harming consumers,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, AARP.  She says that the delivered petitions would ensure “that all, not just some, financial advisers put their clients’ interests first.”

“Many opponents of the proposed new rule, who are asking for delays or say the regulatory costs are too high, are simply looking to protect high fees at the expense of consumers.  But consumers deserve advice in their best interest, not advice that benefits the adviser,” says LeaMond.

In addition to forwarding petitions to the Department of Labor, AARP volunteers continue their efforts to call on Congress to prevent legislation that seeks to stop or slow an updated “best interest” standard.  According to the AARP, “each year hidden fees, unfair risk and bad investment advice rob Americans of $17 billion of retirement income.”

LeaMond says that AARP plans to submit comments to the DOL on the proposed rule in the weeks ahead. The nonprofit group’s petition delivery included over 33,000 signatures and follows an initial petition delivery last month that included over 26,000 signatures that support eliminating conflicts of interest in retirement advice.  “It is important that the Department hear from individuals who are negatively impacted by the current standard, not just financial firms who benefit from it,” she said.

AARP’s petition drive efforts followed President Obama’s February visit to AARP Headquarters where he used the opportunity to publicly support the proposed DOL rule, endorsed by a coalition of aging, labor and consumer groups that limits conflicts of interest, increases accountability, and strengthens protection for Americans receiving retirement investment advice.

At the AARP press event, Obama called for the updating of DOL rules and requirements that would mandate higher standards for financial advisors, requiring them to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving financial advice.

Obama noted that the existing rules governing retirement investments written over 40 years ago “outdated,” filled with “legal loopholes,” and just “fine print,” to be in need of an overhaul.  The existing rules governing retirement investments were written “at a time when most workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, and IRAs were brand new, and 401ks didn’t even exist,” said the President.

According to Megan Leonhardt, senior editor for WealthManagement.com, in a June 15th article, “New Coalition Pushes for DOL Fiduciary Rule,” DOL’s proposed rule has “been delayed multiple times since the agency first rolled it out in 2010.  It was expected to be released in August according to the agency’s regulatory agenda, but an update in May pushed back the date to January.”

“Industry lobbyists have mounted significant pushback. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Financial Services Institute have argued a rule similar to the DOL’s initial proposal could limit the public’s access to quality financial advice,” says Leonhardt.

Acting in the Client’s Best Interest

“Rhode Island has been part of the national effort to move the Labor Department rule forward,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We’ve talked to people who have been quite surprised to know that their savings could be at risk by having an adviser fail to act in their client’s best interest. The response to the petition campaign is a measure of the concern. Retirement planning is daunting for the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. There’s plenty to worry about. Having confidence that your financial adviser is working in your best interest would relieve some of the anxiety.  That’s why there seems to be overwhelming support for the rule change.”

Along with AARP, Rhode Island federal lawmakers are weighing in on this key retirement issue, seeing its importance to older Rhode Islanders.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) says, “Protecting the financial well-being of our seniors is a top priority for me, and ensuring that they have access to complete and accurate information before making investment decisions is an essential component of that effort.  President Obama and Labor Secretary Perez are leading a good faith effort to protect consumers, including seniors and I look forward to evaluating the final rule after the public comment period ends and I have had the benefit of considering these comments.”

Adds, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) “Investors should have the security of knowing that the advice they receive is in their best interest.  I applaud the Obama Administration for updating regulations on retirement investments and for working with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the new rules help Americans save more for retirement.”

For this writer, hiring a financial advisor is like purchasing a used care, that is you always feel that you might have made the wrong decision.   New DOL requires that call for higher standards for financial advisors, who would be required to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving advice, just might give me peace of mind, when planning my retirement…and probably to millions of older Americans, too.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.