One of the more memorable scenes in Martin Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street" centered around then-wide-eyed rookie Jordan Belfort's first luncheon with high-earning Wall Street stock broker Mark Hanna who instructs him that the "name of the game" is moving money "from the client's pocket to your pocket."
"But if you can make your clients money at the same time it's advantageous to everyone, correct?" the young man responds, offering what the audience will soon realize was the future "Wolf's" last moment of moral clarity.
The veteran broker's one-word response hardly misses a beat: "No."
That may exaggerate the view from Wall Street, and it's worth noting that the real-life Mr. Belfort, who was eventually convicted of fraud and related crimes for "pumping and dumping" stocks and other schemes, may not be the most reliable of eyewitnesses. But what the scene speaks to is a valid concern — the uncertainty of whether brokers look out for the interests of their clients or merely look to drum up commissions.
At a time when average Americans are increasingly invested in stocks to finance their retirement, this has become a pressing issue, a fact recently recognized by President Barack Obama who on Monday endorsed new Labor Department-drafted rules that could greatly affect how brokers deal with the public. The pending regulations would hold financial advisers to what's known as a "fiduciary" standard when talking to clients about their retirement investments, meaning that the advice has to be in the client's best interests.
Right now, such advice is held to a more modest standard of whether an investment is "suitable" or not. In theory, that gives brokers some wiggle room to steer clients toward investments that not only earn money for the client but feature lucrative commissions or other economic incentives that enrich the broker and his employer.
It's an important distinction. The difference between one mutual fund and another that comes with a 2 percent higher fee level, for instance, can over time represent the difference between earning a comfortable retirement or not. We have no doubt that most brokers take their clients' best interests to heart already, commissions or not, yet it's troubling that so many in the finance industry continue to oppose such rules.
One of the industry's chief objections is that the regulations will remove their incentive to take on small investors — or at least offer them a full range of investment products. But that might actually be a good thing. As Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard Group, has often observed, the small investor is usually better off in a plain vanilla mix of low-cost index funds, the simplest of which set a retirement target date and invest in an appropriate mix of stocks and bonds, automatically adjusting the proportion as that date approaches.
The problem is that a lot of Americans feel lost when it comes to investing for retirement. Rules aren't clear, costs aren't clear and the knowledge base and legal obligations of advisers? That's not clear either. One of the latest TV commercials touting certified financial planners features average people sitting at a table discussing their finances with a well-dressed, well-groomed man who eventually reveals he's actually a rock-and-roll disk jockey who doesn't know anything about investing.
Wall Street has considerable clout in Washington and much is at stake in this debate. Americans have socked away trillions of dollars in 401(k) accounts and similar retirement vehicles, and retiring Baby Boomers have already begun rolling 401(k) accounts into IRAs to the tune of hundreds of billions annually. That's what Mr. Belfort might call a commission-rich environment.
But one more point is worth noting: There are already financial advisers operating on a fiduciary standard, giving clients advice and taking their payment not through commissions but by a flat fee on the total assets managed. So it obviously can be done. The question is whether Wall Street is willing to take a potential hit in profits.
Five years ago, the Obama administration abandoned a similar plan in the face of protests from the big brokerage firms. The devil is in the details, of course, but perhaps the self-styled "Fourth Quarter" president will stand firm this time around. With the loss of pension plans and uncertainty over future Social Security benefits, people need to be confident that they aren't being played for suckers by those they've trusted with their retirement investments.