September 11, 2017 / 8:33 PM / 2 months ago

Trump administration signals plans to defang retirement rule

NEW YORK, Sept 11 (Reuters) - The U.S. government will likely water down a key part of a landmark retirement rule, lawyers for the Department of Labor said, signaling that the government will offer an out for brokerages that would have been subject to class action lawsuits.

Thrivent Financial, a Minneapolis-based asset manager, has asked a federal court in Minnesota to block an anti-arbitration provision in the government’s fiduciary rule. The provision allows unhappy clients to sue their brokers, a first in an industry which has always required customer disputes be arbitrated.

In a brief filed last week, Labor Department lawyers wrote that their agency’s actions on the fiduciary rule “in the near future are likely to moot this case.”

“The department has stated its agreement with the plaintiff that the challenged provision is improper as applied to arbitration agreements,” the Labor Department said in its filing.

The Labor Department crafted the fiduciary rule during the administration of former President Barack Obama to require financial advisers to act in their customers’ best interests.

The administration of President Donald Trump put the rule’s implementation on hold after a welter of criticism from the financial services industry, which argues it will make retirement advice too costly and harm lower-income retirees in particular.

Big Wall Street brokerages like Morgan Stanley, Bank of America Corp’s Merrill Lynch and UBS AG’s Wealth Management Americas have already spent millions of dollars to make sure they are compliant with the rule, which took effect on July 1.

The Labor Department has faced nearly half a dozen lawsuits over the rule. But the change in outlook in Washington has prompted the agency to drop its defense of certain provisions of the rule.

Advocates for the rule’s clause on lawsuits, say that arbitrations are often ineffective and not transparent.

More than 70 percent of arbitrations, which are overseen by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, result in settlements. Neither the dollar amount the client receives nor the complaint the client filed are made public.

Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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