With very little media or public attention, the Obama Administration recently suspended a Bush-era rule to let employees get financial guidance from the advisers managing their 401(k) investments. The provision was designed to give average investors access to the kind of personal financial advice that is typically a privilege of the wealthy. Instead, they are likely to get no guidance at all.
The saga began in 2006 when bipartisan reforms to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act opened the door to greater personal financial services directed to the average investor. In 2008, the Labor Department proposed a rule to let the financial advisers who handle a company's 401(k) programs also provide financial guidance to employees. This means such well-known firms as Fidelity or Vanguard. The new team at Labor has now killed the rule out of supposed concern for conflicts of interest.
The claim is that because the advisers who run 401(k) and other retirement programs work with mutual fund companies and brokerages to sell investment products, they can't be trusted to provide investors with impartial advice. According to California Democrat George Miller, the rule would have "opened the door to unscrupulous advisers to make recommendations based on their financial stake and not in the best interest of workers."
Labor says it will issue an alternative rule, but we've been down this road before. When the investment guidance was being considered, two proposals were in play. The Bush Administration's plan allowed a company to hire a fund manager, and for the fund manager to provide investment advice as part of a package deal for the firm's employees. The plan had the advantage of being cost effective and easily used, with any potential conflict mitigated by disclosure and other safeguards.
At the time, the anti-Wall Street brigade led by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin insisted that advisers would inevitably "hoodwink" consumers into bad investments. They proposed that if companies wished to provide investment advice to their workers they be required to hire independent advisers, whose suggestions would supposedly be pristine and trustworthy. The costs of these outsiders would also be paid by the employer. That might be affordable for huge corporations, but the additional costs are prohibitive to many smaller businesses, which means most workers will end up having to fend for themselves.
Mr. Harkin is now back at it, this time as a committee chairman who wants to codify the new Labor language into law. The current Congress has already demonstrated its disdain for markets, but stripping employees of basic financial advice betrays outright hostility to the concept of individuals managing their own retirement investments.