Does A Fiduciary Standard Mean Advisors Must Be Buddhas?
April 18, 2016

Does A Fiduciary Standard Mean Advisors Must Be Buddhas?

Last April, I lived in a simple hut in northern Thailand. That’s where I met Grant Lindsley. To him, my hut wasn’t simple. It looked more like the Hilton. He had spent the previous five and a half months living with monks in Northeast Thailand.

Before coming to Thailand, the 26-year old Carleton college graduate had been working at a U.S. based management consulting business. He learned a lot. But many of those around him chased money and acquisitions. “I saw the lifestyles of the people above me in the company, and I knew I didn't want what they had, despite the prestige and cash. The work was their life, and the culture encouraged people to live in an unbalanced way.”

He wanted to experience something different. Grant flew to Thailand in 2014 so he could practice Buddhism in the Thai Forest Tradition. “It’s considered the most conservative tradition of the Theravada school of Buddhism,” he says.

Local villagers feed the monks. “They eat one meal per day,” says Grant. “They shave their eyebrows, and strictly adhere to the 227 precepts - or rules - as the historical Buddha himself laid down over 2500 years ago.” Each morning, he and the monks did manual labor jobs without pay. In the afternoon, they meditated. Grant slept in a cave by himself for the final two months. Each morning, he left before sunrise to do his unpaid work. He returned to his cave in the afternoon to meditate.

Such monks don’t seem real, from a modern perspective. They don’t care about money or possessions. “They eat, they help others, they meditate up to 8 hours a day and they sleep about 5 hours a night,” says Grant. “Their clarity of thought is amazing. Often, business people approach them for advice.”

These monks, if properly trained, might make the world’s best financial advisors. They could replace unpaid manual labor duties with building low cost portfolios of index funds for free. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. But under the U.S. Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, we could be moving closer.

Financial advisors who provide investment advice for retirement accounts will soon be held to a fiduciary standard. That means they’ll have to put their client’s interests ahead of their own. Brokers, insurance agents and most other finance professions can all call themselves “financial advisors.”

Most of them have been able to sell whatever they choose. Many put their personal interests well ahead of their clients by selling high fee products that pay them strong commissions. But if they’re providing advice on retirement accounts, this could all change.

Some might challenge what fiduciary really means. Could a financial advisor who’s managing an IRA account still stuff a client’s portfolio with high cost, actively managed mutual funds?

It’s possible. But if they try to do it with a large company’s 401K, they might be in for a battle. Large numbers of educated investors could hit them with a headache.

In 2013, Fidelity’s employees put Fidelity to task. The company’s 401K heavily favored actively managed fund selections. A group of Fidelity’s employees sued Fidelity for that reason.

At the time, company spokesperson Vincent Loporchio said, "We believe the lawsuit is totally without merit, and we intend to defend vigorously against it. Fidelity has a very generous benefits package that provides significant contributions to our employee's retirement planning."

But Fidelity lost that war. In August 2014, CNN reported that “Fidelity agreed to pay $12 million to settle the class-action suits, which alleged that the firm was profiting at the expense of its workers by offering high-cost fund options and charging excessive fees for a plan of its size.”

Fidelity offers some of the industry’s lowest cost actively managed funds. Their 401K also offered index funds. But 85 percent of the assets under the plan were invested in actively managed products.

Will financial advisors or 401K providers be broaching fiduciary standards by recommending actively managed funds for retirement accounts?

It will be interesting to see.

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