The political changes that have taken place in the united States heighten the need for seniors to be vigilant with respect to their finances and their retirement savings.
In April 2017, an Obama-era Labor Department regulation known as the “fiduciary rule” had been slated to take effect. Under that rule, financial advisors, when advising clients on their retirement savings, would be required to put the interests of the clients first. Many sell financial products, such as annuities, on which they earn commissions, but the new rule would forbid advisors from receiving commissions that create a conflict of interest with their fiduciary responsibility to their clients.
However, on February 3, President Trump called for a review of the fiduciary rule, and the expectation is that his administration will prevent it from coming into force. Fortunately, many seniors have already moved their retirement savings into index funds at Vanguard and similar firms, where management fees are very low and commissions are not an issue. Moreover, some financial services firms are moving to fee-only advisory services and giving up on commissions altogether. Nonetheless, the Obama administration estimated that conflicts of interest on the part of financial advisors take an estimated $17 billion per year out of the IRAs and 401(k)s of American citizens.
The fiduciary rule would have offered an important protection to retirement savers, but since it will likely not come into force, seniors are going to have to fend for themselves, as ever. They will have to take care to seek out a truly independent financial advisor — one who charges a fee and earns no commissions from the products he or she recommends. This means asking tough questions at the outset, but the results will be worth it.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are moving to do away with or sharply restrict the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This is the watchdog agency that uncovered the scam at Wells Fargo Bank. As the Bureau put it, “Spurred by sales targets and compensation incentives, [Wells Fargo] employees boosted sales figures by covertly opening accounts and funding them by transferring funds from consumers’ authorized accounts without their knowledge or consent, often racking up fees or other charges.” Many, including Senators Susan Collins and Clair McCaskill of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, suspect that the bogus account scheme specifically targeted seniors.
The Consumer Protection Bureau also took action against the Navy Federal Credit Union, which had been “making false threats about debt collection to its members, which include active-duty military, retired servicemembers, and their families.”
How can seniors protect themselves against these sorts of scams if the Bureau disappears or is weakened? That’s going to be tough, but if you suspect something fishy, complain loudly and be sure to let your representatives in Congress know.
Republicans in Congress are also trying to prevent California, Illinois and other states from taking measures to help workers at companies that don’t offer retirement plans to set up their own retirement accounts. In California,for example, according to the New York Times, “participating employees would have a small percentage of pay deducted from their paychecks, unless they opted out. Those amounts would be pooled and managed by investment professionals chosen by the state in a bidding process; the plan would be overseen by a board of government and business leaders appointed by the governor and the Legislature.” Some financial firms seem to see this as an encroachment on their turf.
These are just some of the straws in the wind indicating that the times are unfriendly to seniors. We must be vigilant to protect our interests.