Phyllis Borzi spent decades helping invent ways to protect
people from unpleasant surprises in their health and retirement plans.
Never did she run into the kind of resistance finance firms have mustered
against her latest idea.
And rarely has the industry met a bureaucrat so difficult to
Borzi, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Labor Department,
has spent four years battling the full force of the financial lobby,
interference from the White House and pressure from lawmakers of both parties
over rules for individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans.
She has long argued that people’s retirement savings can be
eroded by high fees or imprudent investments recommended by advisers with
hidden incentives. She is pushing for brokers to be held to a legal standard
that they must act in a client’s best interest, an obligation known as a
Firms including Morgan Stanley and Fidelity Investments,
which say the change would hurt, not help, small investors, appeared to have
won the latest round last month. Yet neither side shows signs of backing away.
In speeches, Borzi invokes the movie Groundhog Day, in which events are relived
over and over. Financial lobbyists see it as a game of Whac-A-Mole. No matter
how many times they pound her down, Borzi keeps popping up.
“She does not pander to the industry,” said Barbara
Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America,
which backs Borzi’s effort.
Consumer advocates compare Borzi to Gary Gensler, the
ex-U.S regulator who clashed with Wall Street as he tried to make
private trading of derivatives more transparent. Roper said the comparison is
apt -- up to a point.
Gensler’s style “is more iron fist, velvet glove,” Roper
said. “Phyllis doesn’t bother with the glove.”
Industry groups say Borzi’s efforts are misplaced, because
if there are brokers who take advantage of clients, they’re a tiny minority.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, the states and self-regulatory
organizations already police the industry for such conflicts, they add.
“There is no evidence of a crisis, no evidence of a
problem,” said Kenneth Bentsen, president of the Securities Industry and
Financial Markets Association, known as Sifma, Wall Street’s largest lobbying
The story of Borzi’s quest shows how one individual in the
government can drive a policy forward by dint of her own will and conviction.
Yet her failure thus far is a lesson in what happens when that idea collides
with longstanding business practices that involve trillions of dollars.
Borzi’s most recent setback came late last month when the
Labor Department quietly issued a notice postponing her proposal until January.
It had been expected to be released in August. The move left her small band of
supporters outside government wondering if their chances for success were
“I don’t know how you put a happy face on it,” said Knut
Rostad, a compliance officer at an investment advisory firm and founder of the Institute
for the Fiduciary Standard. “If someone was going to be sober about it, they’d
say we are running out of years.”
Borzi (pronounced BOR-zhee) has been unusually silent since
the delay, which comes after she was forced to withdraw her original fiduciary
regulation in 2011. Her spokesman Mike Trupo didn’t respond to requests for an
for the full article in Bloomberg.