Brokers Rally as Obama's Retirement Rules Seen as Lenient

  • Primerica, Ameriprise, LPL shares gain in New York trading
  • Rules are `not as onerous as feared,' Barclays analysts say

Companies that manage money for retirement savers rallied after investor protections championed by President Barack Obama appeared weaker than expected.

Insurer Primerica Inc. and brokers including Ameriprise Financial Inc. and LPL Financial Holdings Inc. that recommend investments to 401(k) plans or IRAs gained Wednesday. LPL rose 5.7 percent to $24.59 at 1:45 p.m. in New York while Primerica climbed 8.8 percent to $46.67, the biggest gain for the insurer since 2010. Stifel Financial Corp. gained 5 percent to $29.57.

While the Obama Administration contends the rules will help protect investors from conflicted advice and high fees, analysts said the changes aren’t as sweeping as expected. Both LPL and Primerica faced some of the biggest challenges under earlier versions of the rule since they sell investments that generate commissions. But the rule announced today allows commissions if brokers disclose conflicts of interest and put clients’ best interests first.

“The summary of what’s come out so far is a bit more lenient and has more changes than people were anticipating,” said Michael Wong, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. in Chicago, who’s still reviewing the details. “It will probably preserve more of the profits of the wealth management firms than expected.”

Scaled Back Rules

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez also scaled back the proposal issued last year by making it easier to notify customers of the new obligations, setting a final implementation date of January 2018, and making allowance for firms to recommend their own in-house products.

In 2015, LPL dropped 4.3 percent and Primerica slumped 13 percent amid speculation that the rules could crimp sales and increase compliance costs.

Ameriprise, which climbed as much as 3.6 percent, and insurer Principal Financial Group Inc. were the two biggest gainers in the 90-member Standard & Poor’s 500 Financials Index. Charles Schwab Corp. rose 1.1 percent.

The final rule, which was “not as onerous as feared,” may help eliminate some of the negative pressure that weighed on life insurance stocks, according to Barclays Plc analysts led by Jay Gelb.

LPL said it was encouraged by the Labor Department’s “willingness to listen to concerns about protecting choice for investors,” according to a statement. LPL has already reduced some prices to better position the company.

More Benign

“Relative to the initial proposal some of the requirements are a bit more benign and that’s where you’re seeing some positive outcome for stocks,” said Devin Ryan, a managing director at JMP Securities LLC. “Longer term the rule is still going to make life more difficult for the industry.”

Financial firms that create proprietary products investments and recommend them to clients will be more challenged than advisers who don’t sell their own investments. So will managers that receive money from the placement of certain investments in retirement accounts. That’s because the rule forces disclosure of such third-party payments, according to Morningstar.

To adapt, some firms may develop different product lines for retirement accounts, compared with taxable ones, or create separate share classes for IRAs, Wong said. Many will have to change how their advisers are compensated and devote additional resources toward complying with the rule.

Primerica has more than 106,000 sales representatives that sell life insurance, mutual funds and annuities to middle-income households. Sellers can earn commissions on deals, a system that puts them at risk of increased compliance costs. About 59 percent of its total client assets were held in U.S. qualified retirement plans at Dec. 31, according to a February regulatory filing.

Banks Better Positioned

Shares of BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, rose less than 1 percent Wednesday. Similar firms that provide low-cost index and exchange-traded funds will benefit because the regulation scrutinizes the recommendation of high-fee products, Wong said Tuesday.

Big banks including Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley with wealth management units were little changed in trading today. They are better positioned than some independent brokerages to adapt to the rule because of their resources to re-train advisers and comply with additional paperwork required, Wong has said.

The Labor Department guidelines weren’t positive for all companies. American Equity Investment Life Holding Co., a seller of annuities, dropped 17 percent, the most since 2008. Indexed annuity sellers may face more “onerous legal requirements," according to Randy Binner, an analyst at FBR & Co. The product accounts for more than 90 percent of AEL’s sales, he said.

AEL was the second-biggest seller of the product at the end of 2015, and Allianz SE’s North American unit is the largest, according to data from industry group Limra.

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