A federal district court in Missouri recently denied a motion to dismiss the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s (“SIFMA’s”) challenge to Missouri Securities Division rules that require financial firms and professionals to obtain clients’ signatures on state-prescribed documents before providing advice that “incorporates a social or nonfinancial objective.” The decision – Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association v. Ashcroft – upholds a noteworthy response from the securities industry to the anti-ESG backlash that has emerged in the past few years and has politicized investment decisionmaking.
Earlier this month, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (“SIFMA”) released its “Proposed Best Interests of the Customer Standard for Broker-Dealers” – an alternative to the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) proposed regulation addressing the standard of care for broker-dealers and other financial professionals who provide retirement investment advice. Unlike the DOL’s proposed rule, which we wrote about here, SIFMA’s across-the-board proposal emphasizes disclosure and investor consent as mechanisms to promote a uniform “best interest” standard.
In remarks accompanying SIFMA’s announcement, Kenneth E. Bentsen, the organization’s President and CEO, reiterated SIFMA’s support for a uniform standard to govern broker-dealers and investment advisers providing investment advice to retail customers. Mr. Bentsen highlighted a number of issues with the current DOL proposal, expressing specific concern that it would limit access to affordable retirement services and result in investor confusion. Mr. Bentsen explained that, given the increased liability risk and compliance costs associated with the current DOL proposal, firms have indicated that, if enacted, they plan to shift their commission-based brokerage accounts to (more expensive) fee-based accounts. Because, according to Mr. Bentsen, most firms are willing to provide fee-based services only for higher-balanced accounts, this could potentially leave millions of consumers with “no option for advice or guidance.” In addition, Mr. Bentsen said that “it is hard to see how investors won’t be confused” by the DOL’s proposed rule, which will apply different standards to broker-dealers when they provide retirement-related investment advice than when they provide investment advice that is not retirement related.