I can’t figure out if the DOL’s Phyllis Borzi is tougher than the SEC’s Mary Shapiro or just smarter. The evidence can go either way. Let’s take a look.

Last week Borzi showed her toughness when she went head-to-head with opponents of the DOL’s new definition of fiduciary. She decried the conflicts-of-interest inherent among non-fiduciaries and promised to move forward despite the outrageous slings and arrows being thrown at her and her department.

Contrast that to Shapiro, who only days before conceded things might be delayed in terms of the fiduciary standard. Well, actually she said the SEC would rule on the fiduciary standard by year end but harmonizing the rules between brokers and RIAs might take a little be more time. Why? Because we’re all having a difficult time agreeing on things.

Imagine that! Brokers don’t want to play by the same rules as RIAs, although they have no problem selling “advice” like RIAs do. The SEC promises to impose a fiduciary standard, but, without harmonization, what will it mean? RIAs are already under a fiduciary standard. Brokers aren’t. Will the SEC merely wave a magic wand and call what brokers do now the new “fiduciary standard”? They’ll have to if they don’t “harmonize” the rules.

And, speaking of harmonizing, the naysayers tell the DOL to slow things down to “harmonize” with the SEC. Tough-as-nails Borzi tells it like it is. She says the DOL will try its best to harmonize with “other” regulators, but, in so many words, she says, “this train ain’t waitin’ for nobody.” It makes you wonder if ol’ Phyllis didn’t grow up on a steady diet of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns.

Sure you can defend Shapiro by saying her job, thanks to Dodd-Frank, is highly partisan. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to have guessed the outcome of her ill-fated trip to Congress this past winter. First, the SEC’s Fiduciary Report came out with a wimper, not a bang. Then Shapiro, taking the already politicized report, marched to Capitol Hill and demanded a bigger budget or, by golly, these great regulatory changes just might not happen.

Let’s take a step back and go over this again. Shapiro’s department produces a report that her Republican colleagues vote down. She then goes to the newly installed Tea Party, er, Republican Congress – you know, the ones against more regulation and intend on spending less – and threatens to scuttle the fiduciary standard if those same Republicans don’t give her more spending cash. The Republicans must have felt elated by this. Just by not spending more money on the SEC the Chairman of the SEC had just promised not to carry through with new regulations. It represented the best of both worlds. And so, the Republicans decided to call Shapiro’s bluff.

Then a funny thing happened. Even the Democrats started piling on Shapiro. And dear old Mary, well, she’s painted herself into a corner. How could she reverse her testimony and say, “Oops! My bad! We don’t need to hire all those extra people to institute the fiduciary standard after all.”

 

Meanwhile, in early March in another part of town, the DOL holds its own set of hearings on its new definition of fiduciary. Borzi chairs these hearing and brooks no bull with the many industry advocates that testify. She asks hard questions – repeatedly when the answers get evasive. Since these hearings, with lobbyists continuing to try to sway all forms of media whenever they get the chance, Borzi has remained stalwart.

Like I said, Phyllis Borzi’s either a lot tougher than Mary Shapiro, or she’s just plain smarter.