What did we learn from the fiduciary crowd in 2016? (Photo: Getty)

Trends can be funny sometimes. They can surprise and startle you all of the sudden even though they’ve been lurking right in front of your eyes all the while. Why is it that some people can “predict” trends while others can’t see them coming? Perceptive people pay attention to their immediate surroundings. They observe and note all the ever-changing “dots” along the landscape. But that takes them only part of the way. True trend spotters connect those dots in ways less obvious to the casual onlooker.

Related: 2016: The year of the rise and fall of the fiduciary rule

What are some of the most important dots you can connect? Since my teenage years I had subscribed to the three major newsweeklies (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report). For at least a short span in the late twentieth century, those three periodicals did a great job measuring the pulse of America. By noting similarities in cover stories (and other popular articles), it was easy to spot trends. At one point I thought this mosaic of news might offer a stealthy edge when it comes to picking winning stocks. It turned out Ben Graham was more reliable, but I was on the right track. Today, most acknowledge the special insights of crowdsourcing and the value of understanding behavioral economics.

Related: The most amazing 401(k) participant conversation

You might think collecting these dots might take a lot of time. Furthermore, having collected said dots, it might seem connecting those singularities in any meaningful way represents a hurdle too high for the average person to leap (whether in a single bound or several lunges). You might be right. But, then again, you might not have seen this article: “10 Most Read 2016 FiduciaryNews.com Articles for the 401k Plan Sponsor and Fiduciary,” (FiduciaryNews.com, December 20, 2016).

Think about those newsweekly cover stories from 30-40 years ago. The publishers of that era held their editors’ feet to the fire. Those cover stories had to generate enough interest to sell magazines. That meant a lot of people had to read them. Now, this could sound like a “chicken-and-egg” type of question: Did the audience read the articles because they were on the cover or were the articles on the cover because the audience wanted to read them?

Things are a lot easier today. The internet is filled with literally thousands of “cover story” type articles on any particular subject. Like those newsweekly covers, nearly every internet story must entice the eyes of the ever surfing audience. The difference is, today, it’s no longer a “chicken-and-egg” question. It really is an honest game of Survivor – at least as it pertains to journalism. And, thanks to the wonder of analytics (as opposed to search engines), it’s not that hard to see where the crowd is going.

What did we learn from the fiduciary crowd in 2016? And how could that knowledge help us “connect the dots” in a way that reveals the possible trends for 2017?

Sure, the fiduciary rule got all the headlines. As a result, if we judged our crowd sourced data simply by the raw numbers, we would say, “Hey, it’s all about the fiduciary rule.” Yes, the fiduciary rule will likely lead the news in at least early 2017. It’s been trending and it’s likely to trend in the near future. That’s a no-brainer.

But what we’re looking for, though, is the really juicy stuff.

We can place what most interested the fiduciary crowd in 2016 into two categories: Tips for Retirement Savers and Potential Red Flags for Plan Sponsors.

The emerging trend for retirement savers is to win by not losing. Ironically, the growing interest in markets and investments only helps to fuel this trend. While the savings-first focus continues, the Trump Rally has provided the instant gratification that positively reinforces this savings behavior. That’s good. On the other hand, that’s bad. What goes up must go down. The higher the market goes, the more concern retirement savers will have about the downside. But not before there’s more demand for returns. It’s the classic lesson of market psychology – the behavior of investors.

That’s one thing about trends. They tend to repeat themselves every so often. So, just as investors chase performance, savers concentrate on avoiding the common mistakes and paying attentions to warnings others ignore. It all comes full circle when the markets have fallen to the point where it is too late.

Then, just as they wanted to squeeze every ounce of return from an overbought market, they will want to recover losses that can never be recovered. As Vonnegut so aptly put it, “so it goes…”

For plan sponsors, it’s all about the fallout from the ghost of the fiduciary rule. In a sense, this, too, is on the periphery tied to the market, specifically, falling markets. Sour returns generate sour feelings. And sour feelings generate desperation. And desperation often leads one to a lawyer’s office.

So what has the 2016 crowd told us about fiduciary liability? By popular demand, it’s all about conflict-of-interest fees.

I know what you’re saying, “But isn’t that just the official name of the ‘fiduciary’ rule?”

Yes it is, but here’s something about the fiduciary rule that’s underreported: It has nothing to do with the regulators, it has everything to do with the tort bar. The DOL never intended to enforce the rule. They didn’t need to. An army of class action attorneys stands at the ready.

And where do they find their ammunition? From the crowd. The most popular articles tell us it is 12b-1 fees, revenue sharing, and how these intertwine with supposed safe harbors.

It is this latter item that represents the potential 2017 trend. The trend line of conflict-of-interest fees has been with us for some time. What’s new is how it might morph into a more perilous movement involving supposedly safe matters like QDIAs.

And if plan sponsors can no longer rely on safe harbor for safety, what can they turn to?

That may be the most unexpected trend of 2017.