Single mom, retirees say nest eggs hit after they put too much faith in fee-hungry brokers

Susan Bernardo trusted her stockbroker. She wound up losing a fortune.

Her broker, David Harris, advised her to sell $400,000 worth of relatively safe municipal bonds, she says, and sink the proceeds into real estate and energy partnerships in hopes of earning more income. She had received the cash from a settlement after her husband died in an accident and needed money to raise her small son.

More than six years later, those investments are in trouble. The stream of interest payments she used for living expenses has mostly dried up and the value of her portfolio is half of what it was, according to a financial planner who helped her file a claim against the broker.

Bernardo says Harris never told her how risky the new investments were, or about the fat 5 percent commission that brokers typically get selling them. Harris hasn't returned calls seeking comment.

That her broker might not have acted in her best interest never occurred to her, until recently.

"I thought, 'OK, someone is watching over me,'" says Bernardo, now 57, of Wantagh, New York. "Maybe I was naive."

The Obama administration thinks too many brokers aren't looking out for their clients, and instead pushing risky and costly investments in a rush for big commissions. The White House is backing a proposed rule it hopes will help end the practice. The new rule would require brokers handling retirement accounts to put the interest of their clients ahead of their own, a so-called fiduciary standard long required of lawyers, doctors and some financial professionals like registered investment advisers.

Under the current rule, brokers must limit their recommendations to what is "suitable" for clients based on their financial situation and appetite for risk. That's too weak, critics say. Brokers don't have to offer cheaper alternatives or keep an eye on the investments. Critics say this current rule has allowed brokers to invest too much of their clients' money in high-fee mutual funds that erode returns over the years, or put it in risky products that can wallop them with losses

In announcing its support for stricter standards, the White House cited a report from its Council of Economic Advisers that estimates brokers with conflicts of interest are cutting returns in individual retirement accounts by 1 percent a year, or about $17 billion.

And if brokers were held to the same standard as doctors or lawyers, critics say, fewer would be cleared of wrongdoing by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, an industry-funded group that oversees arbitrations and can impose fines and other penalties.

"When they give bad, conflicted advice, they should be held liable, and they're not," says Mercer Bullard, a law professor at the University of Mississippi. "Unless they're a fiduciary, it's very difficult to win that case."

A lobby group for the securities industry, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, is trying to kill the rule, which was proposed by the Labor Department. It fears officials there lack expertise about the brokerage industry and will write the rule in a way that will make it too costly for brokers to help clients with small accounts.

Brokers are especially busy dispensing advice when people change jobs or retire and have the option of rolling over 401(k) accounts into IRAs, products that the Labor Department oversees. Investors transferred $350 billion into IRAs in 2013, a 45 percent jump in four years, according to researcher Cerulli Associates. Switching to one allows them to choose among many more funds and investment products than is typically available in a 401(k). But a 2013 study by a congressional auditor found that such moves were often a mistake because they can trigger high fees and commissions, and many investors are confused about the costs.

Stephen Meadows, a retired architect, lost more than $100,000, a fifth of his original investment, according to estimates from a lawyer trying to get his money back in arbitration. His broker put him into non-traded REITs that pay large commissions to those selling them, but are difficult for investors to unload in a pinch.

Meadows says his broker never told him about the commissions, typically 7 percent of what's invested, or risks. But he rejects the notion he should have known better.

"If people want me to design a building for them, I don't expect them to know how to do that," says Meadows, 63.

When he wanted to sell one of the REITs, he was told he could only get back 4 percent of what he had invested. His former broker, John Martin, citing the arbitration, says he can't talk about the case or his commission.

For Bernardo, the single mom, the hurt keeps getting worse.

When her husband died, her son also got a settlement. Her broker recommended that she put his money in variable annuities. While the earnings can grow tax free, the annuities charge steep fees if investors take out cash before turning 59 ½. Her son was three years old at the time.

Now, the son has no choice but to tap his annuities to help his mom pay bills, even though more than a third of every dollar he takes out is going toward penalties and taxes, according to her financial planner, James Burns. If the broker had been held to a fiduciary standard, Burns doesn't think he would have recommended that type of investment for a child.

"He made a lot of choices to better his fortune," says Bernardo of her broker. "He knew I was naive."


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