The proposal for creating Shareholder Advocate positions at the nation’s mutual fund companies is designed to correct the inherent conflicts-of-interests that exist between the fund company’s sales organization and its own customers.
These conflicts of interest invariably are created when the inherent pressures to sell mutual funds clashes with the specific investment needs of an individual shareholder, including the need for the lowest possible total expense ratio, full disclosure of any hidden fees. and the necessity of receiving objective financial and investment advice.
Are Shareholders Customers or Victims?
To ensure the shareholder advocate’s independent authority, they should be empowered with the following:
1. The consumer advocate should either report directly to the Board or have ready access to the Board.
2. The advocate should not be an “at will” position. Rather, the advocate should be hired for a minimum of four to five years in order to have the job tenure needed to accomplish the needed cultural and organizational change.
3. Ideally, the advocate should be hired from outside the company.
4. The advocate should have the guaranteed freedom to file complaints with regulatory agencies if s/he is stone-walled by the company.
5. In the longer term, an independent body should establish a certification process for consumer advocates. This independent body should be comprised of representatives from the financial services industry, consumer advocates and financial regulators.
The original proposal for creating a shareholder advocate position was published in the “Other Voices” section of Barron’s on August 29, 2011 on page 45. The article is titled “Where Are the Customer’s Advocates?”