On Friday June 9th the much debated Fiduciary Rule will take partial effect. As The Wall Street Journal reported, despite President Trump’s calls for a re-evaluation, his Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta gave the “heart of the rule- a best interest standard of care required of stewards of retirement savings” the green light although the rule remains open to review. Read the article here (requires WSJ Subscription).
Supporters of the fiduciary rule say that ensuring that financial advisers act as fiduciaries, putting the interests of their clients first and ahead of their own, is essential. They frequently cite a report put out in 2015 by the Council of Economic Advisers under the Obama Administration which estimated that conflicted investment advice costs Americans an estimated $17 billion a year in retirement savings. Since the fiduciary rule is now partially in effect, at least for the time being, we thought it was worth looking at the report again.
Americans’ retirement income is derived from many sources, including Social Security, traditional pensions, employer-based retirement savings plans such as 401(k)s, and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). While this landscape is familiar today, it reflects a dramatic change from the landscape 40 years ago. The share of working Americans covered by traditional pension plans—which offer a guaranteed income stream in retirement—has fallen sharply. Today, most workers participating in a retirement plan at work are covered by a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k). Importantly, the income available in retirement from a defined contribution plan depends on both the amount initially saved and the return on those savings. The shift from traditional pensions to defined contribution plans raises important policy issues about investment responsibilities and the roles of individual households, employers, and investment advisers in ensuring the retirement security of Americans.
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Defined contribution plans and IRAs are intricately linked, as the overwhelming majority of money flowing into IRAs comes from rollovers from an employer-based retirement plan, not direct IRA contributions. Collectively, more than 40 million American families have savings of more than $7 trillion in IRAs. More than 75 million families have an employer-based retirement plan, own an IRA, or both. Rollovers to IRAs exceeded $300 billion in 2012 and are expected to increase steadily in the coming years. The decision whether to roll over one’s assets into an IRA can be confusing and the set of financial products that can be held in an IRA is vast, including savings accounts, money market accounts, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, individual stocks and bonds, and annuities. Selecting and managing IRA investments can be a challenging and time-consuming task, frequently one of the most complex financial decisions in a person’s life, and many Americans turn to professional advisers for assistance. However, financial advisers are often compensated through fees and commissions that depend on their clients’ actions. Such fee structures generate acute conflicts of interest: the best recommendation for the saver may not be the best recommendation for the adviser’s bottom line.
This report examines the evidence on the cost of conflicted investment advice and its effects on Americans’ retirement savings, focusing on IRAs. Investment losses due to conflicted advice result from the incentives conflicted payments generate for financial advisers to steer savers into products or investment strategies that provide larger payments to the adviser but are not necessarily the best choice for the saver.
CEA’s survey of the literature finds that:
- Conflicted advice leads to lower investment returns. Savers receiving conflicted advice earn returns roughly 1 percentage point lower each year (for example, conflicted advice reduces what would be a 6 percent return to a 5 percent return).
- An estimated $1.7 trillion of IRA assets are invested in products that generally provide payments that generate conflicts of interest. Thus, we estimate the aggregate annual cost of conflicted advice is about $17 billion each year.
- A retiree who receives conflicted advice when rolling over a 401(k) balance to an IRA at retirement will lose an estimated 12 percent of the value of his or her savings if drawn down over 30 years. If a retiree receiving conflicted advice takes withdrawals at the rate possible absent conflicted advice, his or her savings would run out more than 5 years earlier.
- The average IRA rollover for individuals 55 to 64 in 2012 was more than $100,000; losing 12 percent from conflicted advice has the same effect on feasible future withdrawals as if $12,000 was lost in the transfer.
The conclusions of this report are based on a careful review of the relevant academic literature but, as with any such analysis, are subject to uncertainty. However, this uncertainty should not mask the essential finding of this report: conflicted advice leads to large and economically meaningful costs for Americans’ retirement savings. Even a far more conservative estimate of the investment losses due to conflicted advice, such as half of a percentage point, would indicate annual losses of more than $8 billion. On the other hand, if conflicted advice affects a larger portion of IRA assets than the $1.7 trillion considered here—or if the estimate were extended to other forms of retirement savings—the total annual cost would exceed $17 billion.
I. The U.S. Retirement System
Americans’ retirement income comes from many sources. Social Security provides a basic foundation for retirement security. Traditional pensions, employer-based retirement savings plans such as 401(k)s, and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) allow workers to set aside additional earnings explicitly designated for retirement in a tax-advantaged way. (Table 1 provides an overview of these forms of savings.) Other savings, whether in a bank account or a home, provide additional resources that can be tapped in retirement. While this landscape is familiar today, it reflects a dramatic change from the landscape 40 years ago. The share of working Americans covered by traditional pension plans—which offer a guaranteed income stream in retirement—has fallen sharply. Today the majority of workers participating in a retirement plan at work are covered by a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k).
Figure 1 shows the composition of Americans’ tax-preferred retirement savings for the period 1978 to 2013. In 1978, traditional pensions accounted for nearly 70 percent of all retirement assets. Defined contribution plans accounted for less than 20 percent and IRAs accounted for only 2 percent. Annuities accounted for the remainder.2 By the end of 2013, traditional pensions accounted for only 35 percent of retirement assets, a decrease of 32 percentage points; defined contribution plans and IRAs accounted for more than half of all retirement assets.
This widely discussed shift from traditional pensions to defined contribution plans and IRAs raises important policy issues. In a traditional pension, investment decisions are largely handled by professional managers. In an IRA, investment decisions are almost entirely left to the individual saver. Defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, reflect a middle ground where employers may automatically enroll workers in particular default products and may provide workers with access to various forms of advice, but may also provide a large menu of options and nearly unrestricted choice of investment products (Vanguard 2014).
This shift in investment responsibility has coincided with an explosion in the investment options and trading platforms available. The period since 1974 has seen the advent and proliferation of index mutual funds, discount brokerage, exchange-traded funds, online trading, and more. The number and complexity of the products available can make financial decisionmaking difficult (Campbell 2006, Lusardi and Mitchell 2007). Moreover, an abundance of investment options and the way in which investment decisions are framed may challenge financial decisionmaking and lead to worse outcomes for savers (Iyengar et al. 2004, Benartzi et al. 2009). All of these factors in combination have led to an increasing role for financial advice. According to one survey, roughly half of traditional IRA-owning households have a retirement strategy created with the help of a professional financial adviser (Holden and Schrass 2015).
Retirement savers may obtain investment advice from a range of sources, including two primary groups of professionals: brokers and registered investment advisers (RIAs). Table 2 summarizes select sources of investment advice.3 In addition to investment and asset allocation recommendations, these advisers may provide overall savings advice, tax planning, estate planning, advice on claiming Social Security, and other services. In this report, we use “financial adviser” broadly to include all kinds of professionals providing advice, not just RIAs.
Two important ways in which advisers differ are (i) the legal and conduct standards that their advice must meet and (ii) the ways in which they are compensated for the advice they provide. For example, advice provided by RIAs must serve the best interest of their clients and satisfy duties of loyalty and care. Brokers’ recommendations must be suitable for the client taking into account factors such as age and income. Moreover, only registered investment advisers are permitted to give holistic advice, while brokers are restricted to providing incidental advice (Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) 2011). However, individual advisers can switch back and forth between the two regimes as they engage in different activities, a practice known as dual hatting. As a result, consumers may not know which legal or conduct regime applies to the advice they are receiving at any moment.
The distinctions between the relevant legal standards are important, but they also interact with an important second difference between advisers: differences in the ways in which they are compensated for the advice provided. The key difference is between those advisers who receive conflicted payments and those who do not. Conflicted payments are payments to the adviser that depend on the actions taken by the advisee. For example, an adviser may receive an annual payment for each dollar invested in certain products. Advisers who do not accept conflicted payments may charge an hourly rate, a percentage of assets, or other similar fees that do not directly depend on the investment decisions made by the client. Advisers may also receive both types of compensation: conflicted payments and payments that do not directly depend on their clients’ investment decisions.
Advisers accepting conflicted payments face a conflict of interest because the advice that is best for their own bottom line may not be the advice that is best for their customers’ savings. These misaligned interests can arise from a wide range of payment arrangements. Examples include revenue-sharing arrangements and front-end and back-end loads.4 Table 3 summarizes select forms of conflicted payment arrangements. Advice provided by advisers who accept conflicted payments is referred to as conflicted investment advice. While this report discusses the costs of conflicted investment advice, it is important to keep in mind that many financial advisers hold themselves to high professional standards.
The potential for negative effects of these conflicted payments may be invisible to consumers because they are often unaware of the differences in payment structures and legal standards across advisers and the conflicts they create. Moreover, even when consumers are aware of the differences, they can struggle to know which legal and conduct standard is relevant because advisers can switch between legal and conduct regimes in a given conversation with a client. In surveys, a majority of households reports satisfaction with their advisers and at the same time express confusion and make mistakes about the different titles, legal obligations, and consumer protections that exist in the advice industry (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) 2013, Government Accountability Office (GAO) 2011, Investment Company Institute 1997, SEC 2011). Households also express confusion over the fees that they are charged, reflecting the indirect and sometimes complex pricing of financial advice, which further widens the scope for abuse (Hung et al. 2008).
This report focuses on the impact of conflicted advice as it affects IRA owners. Unique features of the IRA market suggest that IRA investors are particularly vulnerable to conflicted advice. First, few individuals contribute to IRAs directly and, instead, most of the money flowing into these accounts accumulates in employer plans and is then rolled over into an IRA when workers change jobs or retire. In 2012, Americans contributed roughly $30 billion to traditional and Roth IRAs. In the same year, they rolled over more than $300 billion to traditional and Roth IRAs. At the point of rollover, savers are making decisions about large quantities of money relative to the sums involved in other more common financial decisions. Many savers may not have full knowledge about their options or a complete understanding of the detailed regulatory differences between their employer plan and an IRA—most notably that advice to roll money out of the plan into an IRA is generally subject to much lower standards of care than advice received in the plan. Moreover, investment fees in a typical IRA may exceed investment fees in a typical 401(k) according to a series of recent GAO reports (GAO 2009, 2011, 2013). While rolling over balances to an IRA makes financial sense for many people, when doing so incurs meaningfully higher fees, it generally does not.
Second, for many Americans making decisions about their IRA investments will be one of the only times they must confront the full set of investment products available in the marketplace and as such will be one of the most complicated savings decisions they will face in their lifetime.6 Third, IRA assets are largest for older households who may be more vulnerable to losses due to conflicts than other savers (Agarwal et al. 2009, Lusardi et al. 2009). SEC and CFPB reports have found consumer financial protection abuses that are specifically targeted at elderly households (CFPB 2013, SEC 2007).
While many different financial products provide conflicted payments, the analysis in the next section will largely focus on mutual fund assets. This focus is driven by the existence of high-quality empirical evidence on the issue of conflicts of interest for this subset of the market. As shown in Figure 2, mutual funds accounted for about half of all IRA assets in 2013, or roughly $3.5 trillion.7 However, to the degree that conflicted payments impose costs outside of mutual funds held in IRAs, the total costs imposed would be larger than the headline estimates in this report.
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