Retirees who lost big in the 2008 financial crisis have good reason to worry about President Trump’s new rollbacks of Wall Street regulations. So do the robots.
In an executive order issued today, Trump sought to undo parts of the 2010 Dodd-Frank act, which curbed some of the finance industry’s most egregious recession-spawning practices. In a separate memo, the president ordered a review of the “fiduciary duty rule,” which requires retirement fund investors to act in the best interests of their clients.
Democrats condemned the Trump administration for its short memory:
The Wall St bankers may be popping champagne, but Americans haven’t forgotten the 2008 financial crisis – and they won’t forget today.
The opposition may have an unlikely ally in this fight: , the segment of the tech industry trying to automate away so much of what Wall Street does.
In the wake of the financial crisis, a slew of so-called robo-advisors promised consumers a fully automated version of money management that purports to remove human error—and avarice—from the equation. Instead of a human broker making decisions about how to invest your money, companies like Betterment and Wealthfront let algorithms do it. Experts have speculated the fiduciary rule would benefit robo-advisors by making the compliance costs too great for money managers to justify holding onto smaller clients. Robo-advisors that can perform much the same function at a lower cost would likely gobble that business right up.
In a 2015 Congressional hearing, then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez repeatedly cited Wealthfront as the way of the future. “They have a platform that enables them to lower their fees, operate as a fiduciary and do well by doing good,” Perez said at the time.
‘Repeal means favoring the bottom lines of the financial services industry over the American people.’
“Today’s announcement of a rollback or freeze on some of those rules probably will shrink the market for robo-investing,” says former California state senator Sam Blakeslee, president of the broker-dealer Blakeslee & Blakeslee.
“This is a sad day for individual investors. Repeal of the fiduciary rule would imperil the retirement savings of millions of Americans,” Jon Stein, founder and CEO of Betterment, said in a statement. “Repeal means favoring the bottom lines of the financial services industry over the American people, who deserve financial transparency and honesty.”
In December, Betterment took out ads in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, both of which were written as letters to then president-elect Trump, urging him not to repeal the rule. “We hope that you will stand on the side of America’s 75 million retirement savers, not the firms with deep pockets who are lobbying you to protect their bottom line,” one ad implored.
Indeed, as Trump signed the executive orders today, former Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn—now director of the National Economic Council—stood just over the President’s shoulder—a stark symbol of who wins in this fight.
“The traditional industry has lobbied hard and spent a lot of resources to prevent this rule from moving forward,” says Joe Ziemer, vice president of communications and policy at Betterment, who himself spends lots of time in Washington.
It’s not just the delay of the fiduciary rule that concerns fintech companies. Dodd-Frank includes another rule known as section 1033 on which many financial startups rely. The rule protects consumers’ rights to their own financial data, data that fintech companies need to offer users advice on how to spend their money. If Dodd-Frank is dismantled, that rule could also go.
Fintech companies including Betterment, Digit, and Affirm (founded by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin) recently launched the Consumer Financial Data Rights Group, a trade association of sorts that will try to use its collective might to solidify consumer data access rights. “It’s our view that innovation is not a partisan ideology,” says Steve Boms, vice president of Yodlee, one of the companies in the group. “What’s happening in fintech is something both parties benefit from.”
In the meantime, the robots and would-be retirees will be watching to see if anyone beyond Wall Street benefits from these rollbacks at all.
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