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Mutual Fund News

Advisers, and rules they thrive by, need to come out of the shadows

Canadian securities regulators have put off making a decision on whether to impose tougher rules on mutual fund commissions and other aspects of the relationship between financial advisers and their clients. Instead, they're going to do some more nattering and weighing of the information they've been gathering.

That has brought shouts of joy from some of Canada's financial advisers. Advocis, the advisers' lobby group, and its investment allies have been fighting a rearguard action against any moves that would force the industry to abandon its opaque commission practices, put an end to egregious conflicts of interest and start treating clients as if their interests actually come first.

Last month, the industry released a report it commissioned that just happened to reach the conclusion it was seeking: "There is no gap in Canada that need be or could be filled by imposing further statutory obligations on investment advisers and dealers."

The industry would settle for endless jawing that puts off as long as possible any interference with a business model that works extremely well for everybody but the overpaying customer. That means keeping things like the actual costs to investors hidden and avoiding more stringent safeguards that would it make it easier for aggrieved clients to sue advisers who steer them into inappropriate securities for the sake of fatter commissions.

"This cautious and reasoned approach is the right course because there's so much at stake," Advocis president Greg Pollock intoned in a statement. "A wrong decision could have devastating consequences, so we're relieved that the regulators are taking the time to consider all the facts."

Advocis and its advocates are working particularly hard to preserve the commission fees embedded within mutual funds. The industry-wide practice of paying trailing commissions is a terrific lure for financial planners - even as it leaves them open to obvious conflicts of interest. Most sensible people, including the Ontario Securities Commission's investor advisory panel, want the practice prohibited.

Advocis's ludicrous response is that this "would drive up the cost of financial advice, making it unaffordable for hundreds of thousands of middle-class Canadians." It doesn't mention that Canadians already pay far too much in both open and hidden costs compared with investors in other countries.

In response, the lobby group warns that costs are already shooting up in Britain, where millions of people could wind up as "financial advice orphans" as the result of new regulations.

Yikes. Is it really better to have a conflicted adviser peddling expensive funds to unsuspecting investors for personal gain? Frankly, I'd rather be an orphan.

Financial advisers regard themselves as well-trained professionals providing impartial advice based on their extensive homework and in accord with their clients' goals, incomes and levels of risk tolerance. Many do fit that description; the others could start by taking their murky compensation deals out of the shadows and committing themselves to putting their clients' interests first.

It's called fiduciary duty, and the industry should stop acting as if this would mean sure financial ruin. Other professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, have become quite prosperous with transparent fee-for-service arrangements.

Instead, Canadian advisers seem to prefer their role as well-compensated salespeople, raking in fat commissions for peddling securities that may or may not be in their clients' best interests, but most certainly are in theirs.

© 2007 The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.

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