It’s a story as old as time itself. A tabloid star forgets that he is merely a millionaire, not a billionaire, and the difference—a few zeroes—comes back to sell stacks of National Enquirers.
It’s easy to see some headline like “Nicolas Cage Still Paying Back $6 Million in Tax Debt,” roll your eyes and think, “Oh that crazy Cage did it again! I guess we’re gonna get another ‘National Treasure’ or some ridiculous ‘Paycheck Gig.’”
Stories like these pop up all the time, buoyed by the public’s insatiable appetite for watching the fall from the top. But looking past the schadenfreude (even the New York Times is not immune with a headline “Tyson’s Bankruptcy Is a Lesson In Ways to Squander a Fortune”), the stories become compelling illustrations about the dangers of money management today, which are central to a fierce political debate.
The question? Whether a financial advisor is obligated to act in your best interest.
To many, the answer is obvious. “Uh, I thought they were? What have I been paying them for?” Traditionally, that has been the answer to celebrities who find out that the money’s all gone. As the Times reported Tuesday, Johnny Depp, going through this very issue, filed a lawsuit against the firm that manages his money, claiming he thought his advisors were “behaving as a loyal fiduciary and prudent steward of his funds and finances,” which illustrates why the “fiduciary rule” is important to ordinary Americans, the Times says.
On the other side of that lawsuit are claims by the ex-managers saying Depp lived an unsustainable $2 million-a-month lifestyle.
In the realm of giving financial advice – like telling you what kinds of assets your retirement account should be invested in – “fiduciaries” are obligated to act in their client’s best interest, which helps prevent them from steering clients into less-favorable investments and decisions due to benefit the advisor. Like Willie Nelson, Nicolas Cage, Depp, and so many others before them, a lack of understanding of the wonky things a financial advisor does has plagued ordinary Americans.
In 2010, the White House reported that these conflicts of interest cost American retirees $17 billion each year. In 2016, the Department of Labor, which regulates retirement investing rules, put forth a rule enforcing a high “fiduciary” standard of advice from retirement investment advisors. Many financial advisors already serve as fiduciaries.
Celebrities suing their financial advisors isn’t quite the same thing as ordinary people failing to understand all the fine print and disclosures.
Just look at the Cage complaint, via CNN: “A countersuit to Nicolas Cage’s $20 million lawsuit against his erstwhile consigliere did not portray the Academy Award-winning actor as blameless. “Instead of listening to Levin, cross-defendant [Cage] spent most of his free time shopping for high ticket purchases, and wound up with 15 personal residences, most of which were bought against Levin’s advice. Likewise, Levin advised [Cage] against buying a Gulfstream jet, against buying and owning a flotilla of yachts, against buying and owning a squadron of Rolls Royces, against buying millions of dollars in jewelry and art.”
Here’s Depp’s response, according to the New York Times, when his accountants cautioned excessive spending: “I need to give my kiddies and famille as good a Christmas as possible.”
Obviously, there is a stark difference between ordinary people looking to retire and the $2 million a month budget of the “Edward Scissorhands” star. First off, the fiduciary rule would not have saved Captain Jack Sparrow’s booty. It would not probably not have protected his managers from allegedly plundering it, unless it was in a 401(k) or retirement investment vehicle, and it would not have capped his own spending for him and his “famille.” However, it’s no accident that financial advisors or managers lacking scruples can take advantage of people who simply aren’t educated in the argot of finance and don’t know enough to question the nice man selling them a confusing annuity who gave them a free dinner.
As the Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short” illustrated, the complex workings of finance are often so complicated that even the industry’s own fail to understand the situation, giving little hope for a civilian in the face of a fast-talking advisor.
Whether the unfinished fiduciary rule continues to move forward is unclear. Its future has been put into question by Trump advisor Anthony Scaramucci, who compared it to the Dred Scott decision and said it would move too much investments into passive management—which has consistently outperformed humans—as well as the recent executive order that promised significant rollback of regulations.
If the rule dies on the table, investors will have to hold themselves accountable, asking the right questions and doing proper research before moving forward with services. With many new investment platforms embracing passive management and fiduciary advice, old hands like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley voluntarily adhering to the higher standard, and easier access to financial advice and how-to info available online, that $17 billion might still be able to come down.