The Trump administration is allowing to go forward an Obama-era rule that puts stricter requirements on professionals who advise retirement savers on their investments. But it's leaving open the possibility that deep changes to the rule will still be made.
Wall Street and Republican lawmakers have been pushing against the so-called "fiduciary" rule, which requires that financial pros who charge commissions put their clients' best interests first when advising them on retirement investments. President Donald Trump in February told the Labor Department to delay implementing the rule, due to be phased in starting June 9.
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But Trump's new labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, said Tuesday the department has decided not to delay the rule while it seeks public input on how to change it.
"Respect for the rule of law leads us to the conclusion that this (June 9) date cannot be postponed," Acosta wrote in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal. "Trust in Americans' ability to decide what is best for them and their families leads us to the conclusion that we should seek public comment on how to revise this rule."
Americans have about $14 trillion in retirement savings — in 401(k) retirement accounts, other defined-contribution plans such as federal employees' plans and in individual retirement accounts. Supporters of the fiduciary rule see it as key to guaranteeing the integrity of the advice they get on where to invest it. The aim of the rule, put in by the Obama administration about a year ago, was to prevent financial advisers from steering clients toward investments with higher commissions and fees that can chip away at retirement savings.
Investors would save about $4 billion annually under the rule, according to Obama administration estimates.
The financial industry, on the other hand, has argued that the rule would limit retirees' investment choices by forcing advisers to steer them to low-risk options.
Consumer advocates greeted Acosta's announcement, which appeared as a departure from a string of moves in recent months by the administration and Republican lawmakers to ease regulations.
The move was "a great victory for Americans saving for retirement," said Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, a group that advocates for stricter regulation.
Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, urged the Labor Department "to resist industry-led efforts to diminish or weaken the rule and the important protections it provides."
Experts say problems sometimes arise when people who are retiring "roll over" their employer-based 401(k) assets into IRAs. Brokers may persuade them to put those assets into variable annuities, real estate investment trusts or other investments that can be risky or otherwise not in the client's best interest.
Variable annuities can provide higher returns from the stocks or bonds they are tied to, but they are riskier than fixed annuities, which pay a set income to an investor for life.
"The rollover decision at retirement may be the most important one many investors ever make and it is often irreversible. It generally involves large sums and there have been many reports of abuse," financial analysis firm Dalbar said Tuesday. "Now that the fiduciary rule is cast in stone, common rollover practices violate regulations."
The American Council of Life Insurers, whose member companies sell annuities for retirement income, said it was disappointed by the Labor Department's decision.
The rule that will take effect next month "significantly harms consumers' ability to plan and save for financially secure retirements," ACLI President Dirk Kempthorne said in a statement. "As currently written, the regulation limits retirement savers' access to education and information about annuities, the only financial products in the marketplace that guarantee lifetime income."
Undoing the fiduciary rule was part of a promised assault by Trump on financial rules put in by President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers after the 2008-09 crisis and Great Recession. Trump ordered a government review of the Dodd-Frank financial oversight law, which he has called a "disaster."
Major Republican legislation to unwind the Dodd-Frank law, now pointed toward a vote by the U.S. House, would repeal the Labor Department rule. It would not be replaced until the Securities and Exchange Commission came up with a separate rule for all investments, not just retirement assets, prescribing standards for brokers and advisers — and it would have to be close to the SEC's rule. The SEC may be expected to take a friendlier approach to the financial industry than the Labor Department.
Acosta concluded his op-ed by saying the Labor Department "will roll back regulations that harm American workers and families. We will do so while respecting the principles and institutions that make America strong."