The biggest shake-up of the retirement industry in four decades is set to take place in April with new regulations designed to protect consumers from $17 billion annually in unnecessary fees and biased advice from brokers and financial advisers.
The industry has spent millions in the past year preparing for the US Department of Labor order and consumer advocates were confident that savers would see their costs go down.
Then the election happened.
Now, the Labor Department’s reforms for retirement advisers, brokerages, insurance firms, and mutual fund companies could be delayed, gutted, or overturned, industry and consumer experts said.
Donald Trump’s presidential win, along with the continued Republican control of Congress, has called into question rules that would force brokers to consider the best interest of their clients, rather than their own fees and commissions, when recommending retirement investments.
“Are we going to make the retirement system work for average Americans who are trying to save for a decent retirement,” said Barbara Roper, director of investment protection at the Consumer Federation of America. “I’m not optimistic it will be implemented on schedule in April.”
Roper and industry insiders cautioned that there is still much uncertainty about what Trump will do as president. And they’re waiting to see who he will pick for labor secretary to gauge the new administration’s position on the so-called “fiduciary rule.”
As of now, only investment advisers registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or individual states follow the fiduciary standard, which requires them to act in the best interest of clients. Brokers and most other financial professionals follow a lower “suitability standard’’ that is significantly less strict and permits advisers to steer investors to higher-cost options.
But putting the brakes on these consumer protections, which were implemented without congressional action, could be disruptive.
Most companies are already making changes in how they charge consumers for advice. Some have sold off segments of their businesses that could be cumbersome under the new regulations, and many have their legal teams working nonstop to develop new conflict-of-interest disclosure forms to provide clients.
And consumers themselves are already ditching higher-priced, commission-based services for lower-cost options, such as robo-advisers that use algorithms to direct investments.
Still, Trump has promised to cut back on financial regulation. Anthony Scaramucci, a hedge fund manager and a campaign adviser, has called for the rule’s repeal and compared it to the Dred Scott decision that affirmed slavery. He argued that the Labor Department is discriminating against investment advisers.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled financial services committee in the US House of Representatives has introduced legislation to halt implementation of the rule.
“It’s obvious that the landscape has changed, the political environment has changed. Certainly we’re encouraged,” said Dale E. Brown, chief executive of the Financial Services Institute, a Washington-based lobbying group for financial advisers.
The institute is among several trade organizations that have sued the Labor Department to block the rule from taking effect in April 2017.
They accuse the agency of overreaching and argue that the higher legal standards for advisers under the rules harm smaller investors and moderate-income customers. These investors may not bring in significant profits for a firm, but could bring an expensive lawsuit if they are unhappy.
John Ferreira, a managing partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, said the law firm is advising its financial services clients to immediately make the inexpensive changes, such as reviewing the services that may conflict with the law.
The more complex measures, such as new disclosure contracts for clients who continue to receive commission-based services, can be put on a slower track until after the inauguration, Ferreira said.
Some companies have already announced big changes to their business models in advance of the rule being implemented.
Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in October said that its brokers wouldn’t be able to earn commissions for services on retirements accounts after April 10, 2017. The company declined to comment on how the election outcome might influence those plans.
Commonwealth Financial Network, a 1,600-adviser firm based in Waltham, announced in October that it, too, would end commission-based retirement services and move to a flat fee, to avoid potential conflicts. Implementing the new rule is costing the company $15 million annually in legal fees and lost revenue, he said.
Since the election, advisers have been asking if the changes will be shelved, said Wayne Bloom, chief executive of Commonwealth.
“We based our decision based on a set of facts. If the facts change, we’ll re-access,” Bloom said. “But you have to stay the course. The worse thing to do is stand down and then be caught behind the eight ball.”
Brokerage LPL Financial Holdings Inc., based in Boston, is standardizing its commissions. It also declined to comment on how the election result might change things going forward.
Boston-based Fidelity Investments, a fierce opponent of the fiduciary rule, declined to speculate.
Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Springfield is continuing to prepare for the April deadline and will “adjust if needed,” said spokesman Jim Lacey.
“Regardless of the ultimate outcome, we firmly believe that all of our advisers will continue to act in the best interest of our clients,” Lacey said.
Trump and Congress have several options to undo the rule.
The Labor Department could propose changes, although it would have to reopen the lengthy public comment and hearing process, which most experts say is unlikely.
Republican legislators could try to pass a new law supplanting the rule.
While Democrats are likely to fight that, they are outnumbered in both chambers and will be fighting on several fronts to protect Obama administration legislation, including the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank financial reforms.