Trump officials seek to delay Obama rule on investment advisers

Trump officials seek to delay Obama rule on investment advisers
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The Trump administration is seeking to delay an Obama-era rule on investment advisers that is fiercely opposed by the financial industry.

The Labor Department proposed Wednesday to delay implementation of the so-called fiduciary rule, which broadly requires retirement advisers to act in the best interest of their clients.

The regulation, supported by liberals on Capitol Hill such as Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenCordray's legacy of consumer protection worth defending Booker tries to find the right lane  Jones raised 0K a day after first Moore accusers came forward: report MORE (D-Mass.), is aimed at preventing conflicts of interest where financial advisers push clients toward investment products that they receive commissions for.

But critics in the business world say the rule is overly broad and will have disastrous consequences, cutting off investment advice to people with lower incomes.

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Tim Pawlenty, the CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable (FSR), said the regulation as drafted "will lead to fewer retirement savings choices for many Americans."

“FSR believes a best-interest standard should be implemented for all investment accounts and that financial professionals should act in the ‘best interest’ of their customers,” Pawlenty said. “But such a requirement should be implemented without miles of bureaucratic red tape."

President Trump last month ordered the Labor Department to review the fiduciary rule to determine whether it would “adversely affect the ability of Americans to gain access to retirement information and financial advice” or whether the rule could result in an increase in lawsuits against financial advisers.

The Labor Department responded Wednesday by proposing to delay the implementation of the fiduciary rule from April until June, which will give the Trump administration more time to repeal the regulation.

"Absent an extension of the applicability date, if the examination prompts the Department to propose rescinding or revising the rule, affected advisers, retirement investors and other stakeholders might face two major changes in the regulatory environment rather than one," the Labor Department said in the proposal. "This could unnecessarily disrupt the marketplace, producing frictional costs that are not offset by commensurate benefits."

Some financial firms, such as Merrill Lynch, have announced that they would begin complying with the Obama-era fiduciary rule regardless of what the Trump administration does.

Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the fiduciary rule last year under the Congressional Review Act, but President Obama vetoed that measure. 

Due to that, Trump’s Labor Department would have to go through an entirely new rulemaking process to repeal the fiduciary rule, a process that could take months to complete.

Proponents of the fiduciary rule have tried to change the White House's mind.

In February, several groups met with the White House, urging officials not to stop the regulation.

In 10 separate meetings, roughly a dozen organizations pushed to have the regulation take effect, including the AFL-CIO, AARP, Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Committee for the Fiduciary Standard, Consumer Federation of America, American Association for Justice, Center for American Progress and Better Markets. 

"The courts have repeatedly held that any delay in the rule would cause far more harm on the public than it would to the industry that's complaining about the rule," Stephen Hall, the legal director for Better Markets, told The Hill.

Industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the FSR, the Insured Retirement Institute, and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, have sued the Labor Department over the rule, arguing it could have negative, unattended consequences and raise the price of investment advice. 

The rule has so far survived four different court challenges.

Proponents of the fiduciary standard say they will fight to protect it.

"We will absolutely consider all of our options in protecting and defending this rule. If we deem it appropriate and necessary to take legal action, we would certainly consider it," Hall said.

So far, Trump's Justice Department has been defending the rule against industry lawsuits. Changing course on the legal battlefield may not be looked upon kindly by judges, legal experts say.

During the consideration of the rule under the Obama administration, industry lobbyists also met with the White House to press for curtailing the regulation. 

In the early months of 2016, there were 17 meetings about the rule, both for its proponents and opponents, according to an analysis of records by The Hill. 

Heavy hitters such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the FSR, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Investment Company Institute, the American Council of Life Insurers, and the Spark Institute, an industry group for the retirement plan industry, all attended White House meetings from January 2016 to March 2016. 

“This is a topic of interest to virtually everyone in the [financial services] industry,” Michael Hadley, a partner at law firm Davis & Harman, who has attended recent meetings, told The Hill at the time.

— This story was updated at 11:53 a.m.