• May. 27, 2017, 5:59 pm

Retail retirement market war brewing

The following is a guest post from Dara Albright, noted fintech and crowd finance speaker.

Dara Albright

Dara Albright

In the Fall of 2016, I penned an article entitled, “Modernizing the Self-direct IRA – The Trillion Dollar FinTech Opportunity” – the first in a new series of articles that focuses on next-generation retirement planning. The piece underscored how fintech will mend America’s flawed retirement system and foster the growth of “digital” investing.

This initial report drew attention to the growing necessity for a low-cost, high speed, autonomous retirement solution that would meet the demands of today’s alternative micro-investor. Most significantly, the piece summarized the two distinct individual retirement account prototypes – the Brokerage IRA and the Trust Company IRA – which are vying to become the self-directed IRA exemplar and dominate the $14 trillion retail retirement market.

Sometimes I feel like I am the only one sensing a war brewing in the retail retirement market. But then again, I am somewhat clairvoyant.

Perhaps the majority of America’s retail investors are too busy reluctantly allocating their retirement dollars to sanctioned bond funds – many of which yield more clout than performance – to even notice the race to create a next-generation retail retirement product that will economically custody coveted micro-sized alternative investment products and, in doing so, ensure that a greater number of Americans maintain more properly diversified retirement portfolios.

Maybe most old-school financial professionals are just too preoccupied chasing the “whale” to realize the imminent colossal impact of the rising micro-alternative investor.

No matter the rationale, the fact is that this battle to produce a next-generation retail retirement vehicle is likely to go down as the largest industry duel in the history of commerce – dwarfing the cola and software wars by trillions.

The victorious retirement product stands to inherit the power to redirect $14 trillion dollars of mutual fund assets and disrupt long-standing retirement asset monopolies – thus paving the way for a superior breed of investment products to emerge (download: http://www.slideshare.net/smox2011/the-trillion-dollar-fintech-opportunity).

Unlike previous corporate clashes, the winning IRA model is easy to predict. The frontrunner will be the one possessing the most optimum technological and regulatory framework to accommodate the needs of the modern retail investor. Today’s retail investor is not looking for another mutual fund. He is not begging for ETFs. Nor is he interested in day-trading stocks. Instead, he is craving yield, and he is demanding access to the same level of returns that institutions have been enjoying for years through alternative asset diversification. Simply put, modern investors are looking for a self-directed retirement vehicle that enables them to readily, easily and affordably spread tiny increments of retirement capital across a broad range of asset classes.

Except for the possibility of a sudden legislative change, hands down, the trust company based model will emerge as the clear victor. The Brokerage IRA is bound by too many compliance constraints to enable it to efficiently and cost-effectively facilitate micro investments into alternative asset classes such as P2P notes or crowdfinanced offerings.

The Trust Company IRA, by contrast, operates under a much more favorable regulatory scheme, and any technological shortcomings are presently being addressed and conquered (see: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/ira-services-launches-p2p-lendings-first-cloud-based-api-driven-retirement-investment-solution-at-lendit-2016-300247413.html).

Because it is faster and easier to overcome a technological deficiency than it is to amend regulations, the Trust Company IRA will continue to amass a significant advantage. This is especially true as technology becomes less and less of a commodity and the political climate becomes more and more contentious.

There are simply too many compliance-related obstacles that FINRA-regulated BDs would need to surmount in order to formidably compete with the trust company based model. Perhaps one of the most pressing is the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule which is scheduled to take effect in April.

Under the new DOL rule – which expands the definition of a fiduciary to include commission-based brokers – brokerage firms that handle retail retirement accounts will find themselves facing additional and unwelcomed liability.

In the wake of the DOL rule, retail brokerages have already been seen scrambling to adjust their existing retail retirement product lines. Merrill Lynch has announced that it will be closing its commission-based retirement business altogether, and Edward Jones pronounced that it will simply stop offering mutual funds and ETFs as options in commission-based retirement accounts.

Yes, you read that correctly. Retail brokerages would prefer to limit access to investment products or exit the retail retirement business altogether than to deal with the regulatory headaches of helping small investors prepare for retirement.

Instead of being able to access “prepackaged” diversified investment products, Edward Jones’ retail clientele will either have to self-diversify across stocks, bonds, annuities and CDs, or move to a managed account that charges an asset-based management fee. Since the typical retail investor’s account is too small to properly self-diversify using individual investment products such as stocks and bonds, and since asset-based management fees tend to be much more expensive than one-time commissions, once again retail investors are getting the shaft.

According to CEI finance expert John Berlau, “The DOL fiduciary rule will restrict access to financial advice and reduce choices for lower and middle-income savers. The restrictions can deter companies from serving middle-class savers, creating a “guidance gap” that could cost an estimated $80 billion in lost savings.”

As the DOL Fiduciary Rule succeeds in eliminating both financial advisors and investment choices from the traditional retirement planning equation, smaller investors will be forced into taking a more autonomous stance to retirement prep – leading to a seismic shift in both retail assets and retirement vehicles.

This will have widespread implications on the financial services industry that will include a mass exodus from brokerage IRAs into Trust Company IRAs as well as a flock to robo-advisors, marketplace finance and well as P2P and digital investing – a trend in retail investing that is already well underway.

As the battle for the retail retirement account unfolds, I am going to be reveling in the irony of how once again needless regulatory oversight is helping fuel the fintech revolution.

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