By Paul Atkins
Just as Washington is becoming more investor-friendly, some politicians are going back to fighting in favor of well-connected special interests over Mr. and Mrs. 401(k). The latest example? A policy rider (let’s call it what it is — an earmark) attached to an appropriations bill that would prevent a long-overdue effort to save retirees and investors more than $300 million a year by modernizing how mutual fund reports are delivered to shareholders.
Standing in the way of progress is a strange collection that includes paper and envelope industry lobbyists, postal worker unions, and Broadridge Financial, a vendor that is one of the largest shareholder communications providers in the country. Those powerful lobbies want to make sure you keep receiving clunky mutual fund shareholder reports sent in the mail at least twice a year — at your expense. Yet research shows that shifting to online delivery would save investors billions of dollars and improve financial literacy, because paper reports often go straight to recycling bins. Special interests have put those realities aside, focusing instead on the money they can make allowing these bulky reports to be the default shareholder communication method, rather than tailored online portals.
Enough already. Think about all the convenient, innovative ways technology is helping consumers engage with financial services. We invest, bank, and manage credit cards and insurance policies online. Policymakers should not force shareholders to pay for paper reports that all too often go into the trash.
The Securities and Exchange Commission recognized the waste of the status quo by proposing “rule 30e-3” in 2015. The rule would make online delivery of shareholder reports the default option for investors. So, if you own shares in a mutual fund, you would get a notice in the mail twice a year telling you where you can review the shareholder report online and providing you with a toll-free number to call if you want paper reports sent to you for as long as you own the fund. Let me repeat that — if you really want paper reports, then receiving them time and again would take just one call.
This rule, proposed by a Democratic-led SEC, makes so much sense that today’s Republican-led commission wants to carry it through. Why? Mutual funds are forced to waste money (and hurt the environment) by printing and mailing voluminous shareholder reports that few actually read. These costs are paid for by shareholders like retirees and parents who rely on mutual funds to pay for their kids’ education. By one estimate, defaulting to online delivery could save shareholders almost $2 billion billion over the next 10 years.
For a while, it felt like the stars were aligning to finally make default online delivery a reality. Earlier this year, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton included rule 30e-3 as a priority in the commission’s regulatory agenda. The Treasury Department also called for the SEC to finalize the rule, stating: “Regulatory requirements must adapt appropriately to advances in technology and increased access to the Internet.” But friends of the special interests have tried to halt the push for online delivery by sneaking an earmark onto a must-pass Senate spending bill that would forbid the SEC from working on rule 30e-3.
Such tactics threaten not only to line the pockets of special interests at the cost of American savers, but also to stifle financial literacy — which is already poor. Paper shareholder reports contain cookie-cutter tables and charts that provide an unhelpful, static overload of financial information. Shifting to a default of online delivery would improve the experience of investors viewing facts and figures related to their investments. Unlike paper reports, online reports can be interactive, responsive to user inquires and easily updated.
It is time to throw the anti-online delivery special interest earmark in the trash, along with the wasteful shareholder reports that are emblematic of special interest protectionism that plagues Washington. Congress should let the SEC go through with rule 30e-3, a rare instance of bipartisanship that would halt a quiet drain on the savings of America’s 100 million mutual fund shareholders.
Paul Atkins is chief executive of Patomak Global Partners, LLC, a financial services consultancy that provides industry and regulatory expertise, delivers value in an efficient manner and provides a competitive edge to companies navigating the global marketplace.