Exclusive Interview: AARP’s David Certner says of DOL’s Proposed Fiduciary Rule: “Disclosure Alone Not Enough”
For some time, AARP has been active in promoting the fiduciary standard. On the heels of the DOL’s new “Conflict-of-Interest” (a.k.a. “Fiduciary”) Rule, AARP set forth to collect petition signatures in favor of the proposal. We are therefore delighted to have been able to feature David Certner, the Legislative Counsel and Director of Legislative Policy for Government Affairs at AARP, as the FiduciaryNews.com exclusive interview for this month.
David has been with AARP since 1982, and is a member of AARP’s Leadership team. He serves as counsel for the Association’s legislative, regulatory, and policy efforts, as well as for litigation opportunities before the courts. Prior to assuming his current role in 2007, Mr. Certner had served as Director of AARP’s 25 person Federal Affairs shop, where he headed up all federal legislative and regulatory activity. In both roles, Mr. Certner has testified numerous times before both Congress and regulatory bodies, and has made frequent appearances on TV, on radio, as well as in print publications.
Mr. Certner also previously served as chairman of the ERISA Advisory Council of the Department of Labor, and was appointed as a delegate to the 1998, 2002, and 2006 National Summits on Retirement Savings. He is currently a member of Bloomberg/BNA’s Benefits Practice Resource Center Advisory Board, and is a Fellow of the American College of Employee Benefits Counsel. Mr. Certner, an attorney, received his law degree from George Washington University.
FN: David, tell us a little about yourself. What experiences have led you to where you are today? How did you come to make it your mission to, among other things, seek to, more broadly, help retirees and, specifically, protect the interests of retirement savers and investors?
Certner: I have been advocating for the health and economic security of older Americans for over 30 years in various capacities at AARP. Early on, I become involved in retirement income issues, and I have seen and heard first hand from our members and most Americans about how hard it is to prepare for retirement, and how important it is that we have in place mechanisms and laws that can help people achieve their goals. Most people rely on Social Security as the largest source of their retirement income, and as we look into the future, we don’t see that changing. We need to help people do more, and today that means helping people invest and save, primarily through their retirement plans.
FN: AARP’s been involved in supporting the fiduciary standard for quite some time. When did it first get involved? What are some of the activities AARP has done? What has been the feedback from the policy-makers you have spoken with?
Certner: AARP has been involved in fiduciary related issues for decades, and getting retirement savers quality, non-conflicted investment advice has been an important issue for at least the last 15 years, both through legislation in Congress and regulatory work in the agencies. We have worked with policymakers directly, other stakeholders, and of course, AARP members and other older Americans. We have sought to educate our members and the general public, as well as get feedback from them. Many individuals have expressed confusion and little financial literacy. Most policymakers agree saving and investing are essential in today’s world, but differ on the best way to do that, especially to help all individuals at different income and education levels.
FN: Much has been said that the investing public either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care to understand the meaning and purpose of serving as a fiduciary. Why do you think this is so and what do you think can be done to inspire greater public understanding?
Certner: Through our survey research, we have learned that the public is generally unaware that there are different types of investment advisers, and that different types of advisers are under different standards when providing investment advice. The public generally believes that advisers should be acting in their best interest, and generally assumes that all advisers currently have a fiduciary-type standard and are already acting in their best interest. Indeed, many advisers in the marketplace have helped create this confusion, and also benefit from it. Hopefully this debate will not only ensure a “best interest” standard for advisers, but also help inform the public.
FN: What other organizations have you worked with or planning to work with in promoting the fiduciary standard?
Certner: We have worked with a number of groups that represent workers and consumers in general, as well as those in the financial planning world who agree that a “best interest” standard is the right standard and is long overdue. We are also part of a coalition that you can find more info on at http://saveourretirement.com/
FN: You’ve just submitted a petition in support of the DOL’s new initiative. Tell us a little bit about that process. What inspired AARP to do this? What was the process? How long did it take? What do you hope will come of it?
Certner: AARP has, so far, delivered over 50,000 signed petitions from AARP members (and other members of the general public) to both Congress and the Department of Labor in support of the Department of Labor’s new proposed rule to establish a best interest standard for retirement investment advisers. Given that the new rules were put out for public comment, we believed it was important for consumers to weigh in on the importance of the rule to them personally. The petitions helped raise awareness of the new rule, as well as let people weigh in with policymakers directly. In addition to the petitions, there have been tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mails to members of Congress. We believe these petitions and other contacts are a public demonstration of support for the new rule.
FN: What other initiatives does AARP have any planned to promote the fiduciary standard? How is AARP helping to educate its members regarding what it means to be a fiduciary?
Certner: AARP will continue to work with outside media, as well as use all of our communication channels – including direct mail, social media, our website, our publications, and member and volunteer meetings – to inform our members and the general public of the importance of updating the rules to protect retirement investors. We will also continue to meet directly with policymakers and reach out to stakeholders to ensure adoption of a strong rule to protect retirement plans. In addition, AARP has put a calculator on our website, which can be found at https://action.aarp.org/site/SPageNavigator/CloseTheLoophole_Calculator_Test.html, to help people see how bad [conflicted] advice can negatively impact their retirement assets over time.
FN: What any thoughts or ideas have AARP members offered regarding fiduciary matters and retirement investing in general?
Certner: AARP members have made clear that retirement saving is hard and every dollar counts. They have also been clear that they fully expect that financial professionals that are providing them investment advice should be acting in their interest, not the adviser’s interest.
FN: You’ve written about the concern of conflicts-of-interest eroding retirement savings. What can the DOL do to help protect retirement savings regarding this? Is disclosure enough or does the DOL need to have more teeth in their current proposal?
Certner: Given the confusion and lack of understanding in the marketplace, it is clear that disclosure alone is not enough. The retirement investment landscape has changed dramatically in the last generation. The current rules were basically adopted before individual account plans like 401k-type plans and IRAs were in existence. Most Americans with retirement savings now rely on individual account plans, and therefore the responsibility for investing the plan assets falls on the individual. The rules must be updated to respond to this change, and to ensure that all retirement plan advisers act in the “best interest” of the individual investor. Failure to act will continue to cost Americans billions of dollars each year out of their retirement savings – money that they cannot afford to lose.
FN: When it comes to saving for retirement, many retirees say, “If only I knew then what I know now.” What can AARP do to help – either directly or through their members – to get the message of the importance of saving as early as possible for retirement?
Certner: AARP is a strong proponent of saving early and often, and it is a message we deliver as often as we can through our various channels and retirement tools, including our retirement calculator, at http://www.aarp.org/work/retirement-planning/retirement_calculator.html. [Editor’s Note: FiduciaryNews.com also offers a retirement readiness calculator which you can access by clicking this link.] Regular saving started at an early age is a good habit, and one that can help ensure a more adequate level of savings in retirement. We encourage people of all ages to save and plan for retirement, and we have been a strong proponent of improving workplace retirement coverage so more employees have a convenient and simple way to save at work. Right now we are also working at the state level to promote payroll deduction retirement plans for those employees and small businesses who don’t currently have a pension plan.
FN: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to leave our readers.
Certner: Social Security will remain the critical base of retirement income security, but we need to encourage and improve other forms of retirement savings to supplement Social Security. For those who are saving and trying to do the right thing for retirement, but need professional help managing their money, we should make sure we have rules in place that ensure — regardless who they ask for advice — they are getting advice that is in their best interest.
FN: David, thank you so much for taking the time to share your veteran experience and insights with our readers. The subscribers of FiduciaryNews.com regularly seek to discover ways to improve retirement readiness and your thoughts will no doubt provide further enlightenment.