Editors' pick: Originally published Jan. 27.
Want to drive your brokerage or insurance firm nuts? Send a letter telling them to put the stuff they say in their marketing and advertising in writing to you -- or risk losing your business.
The financial industry reaches deep into its brimming piggybank to send you a message suggesting that the people who sell you stocks, bonds, mutual funds and insurance products are all fiduciaries -- people who put your interests ahead of their own.
But the truth is that a lot of the people who portray themselves as trusted advisers to the public have no legal duty to put investors first. The public is confused if not clueless about the distinction, which is exactly the way the industry likes it.
Two consumer groups, the Consumer Federation of America and Americans for Financial Reform, published a report on Jan. 18, titled "Financial Advisor or Investment Salesperson? Broker and Insurers Want to Have it Both Ways," which contrasts the yawning gap between what the brokerage and insurance industries say in legal filings with the way they portray themselves to the public.
"Are they financial advisers or are they just salespeople?," asked Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America and co-author of the report. "Put another way, are they lying to the court, or are they lying to their customers?"
To review: stockbrokers, who never call themselves "stockbrokers," don't have to put your interests first. But they typically label themselves as "advisers" and leave you with the impression that they're held to the higher standard of investment advisors who are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And regulators let them get away with it.
Consider the consumer pitch of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, or Naifa, which suggests on its website advisorsyoucantrust.org that you can "Trust Your Future With a Naifa Advisor."
Naifa says its members work with clients through every stage of their lives and educate them about retirement options "that will lead to a secure future," citing statistics that suggest investors will enjoy higher returns with a Naifa adviser. This advice for "those who need it the most" comes from people who adhere to a code of ethics "that's about honesty and integrity," according to the site.
I'm guessing the Naifa folks have been so busy making money for the investing public that they didn't have time to check the regulatory records of the two members they featured on their online tout sheet.
One had a customer complaint alleging he'd misrepresented the terms of a variable life insurance policy. The complaint was denied by his firm.