A group of U.S. state attorneys general is calling on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to beef up its efforts to enhance retail investor protection through a proposed new rule requiring broker-dealers to prioritize clients’ best interests.
The coalition of 17 state attorneys general, led by New York’s Barbara Underwood, said on Wednesday that the SEC must strengthen its proposed rule, known as Regulation Best Interest, to ensure that broker-dealers put their clients’ interests before their own. They argue that the proposed rule is too weak in that it doesn’t require brokers to act as fiduciaries, doesn’t ban specific conflicts of interest, and is too ambiguous in certain respects.
“Retail investors depend on financial professionals to help them navigate an increasingly complex financial marketplace. They expect and deserve the broker-dealer relationship to be one of trust, loyalty, and care. It’s critical that this rule be strengthened to ensure that investors’ wellbeing is the top priority,” said Underwood.
The attorneys general — which includes those from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia, in addition to New York — argue that the SEC’s proposed rule is “an inadequate attempt to address a long-recognized deficiency in regulation of broker-dealers.”
The attorneys general contend that the SEC’s proposal should be strengthened by: imposing a uniform fiduciary standard on broker-dealers and investment advisors; eliminating the most egregious conflicts; enhancing disclosure requirements; and, clearly defining key terms.
“These enhancements would ensure that retail investors are not subject to abusive and conflicted behavior,” the attorneys general say. “They also would promote more effective enforcement by regulators, the development of healthy broker-dealer compliance programs, and greater understanding by investors of the obligations owed to them by their financial professionals.”
The U.S. Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), expressed support, in general, for the SEC’s proposed rule, although it also makes recommendations for revising the proposal.
SIFMA recommends that certain definitions should be revised; further clarity is provided on disclosure obligations; and that there should be parity between the treatment of conflicts by advisors under the fiduciary standard and by broker-dealers under the best interest standard.
“SIFMA has long supported the creation of a heightened best interest standard for broker-dealers across all accounts that builds upon the existing, robust, broker-dealer regulatory regime. We commend the SEC for proposing a new best interest standard that would protect retail investors while preserving retail investor choice,” said Kenneth Bentsen Jr., president and CEO of SIFMA, in a statement. “We urge the SEC to promptly evaluate, and as appropriate, incorporate the legal analysis, data and commentary received during the comment period and swiftly proceed to final rulemaking.”
Earlier this year, the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) announced that it would not pursue the introduction of an overarching best interest standard, but has made proposals designed to boost investor protection by embedding best interest principles within the existing rules on suitability, “know your client” and “know your product” obligations and conflicts of interest. Those proposals are out for comment until Oct. 19.