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Americans are increasingly being asked to take responsibility for their own retirement security. However, many people are ill-equipped to make financial decisions and have turned to professional financial advisors for help. While financial advisors often provide valuable services, it can be difficult for individual investors to evaluate the advice they receive and to identify when it has been influenced by a conflict of interest. In this literature review, we examine if and how financial advisors are influenced by their compensation schemes and how this influence impacts retail investors' financial well-being. We find empirical evidence suggesting that financial advisors act opportunistically to the detriment of their clients. However, the current body of literature generally cannot account for selection issues and the intangible benefits financial advisors provide. In our broader review of conflicts of interest in the financial services industry, we find considerable evidence that investment analysts were excessively optimistic prior to regulation seeking to mitigate bias. There is mixed evidence on how this excessive optimism impacted investors, though the literature generally concludes that retail investors were more acutely impacted, as compared to institutional investors. We also find evidence that conflicts of interest extend to mutual fund management, with actively managed funds imposing sizeable trading costs and brokerage commissions which are not easily observed by retail investors. Regulation and disclosure are often suggested methods for reducing bias. We find evidence that regulation designed to mitigate conflicts of interest can help reduce the prevalence of biased advice, but regulation that penalizes bad advice may be less effective because bias may be unconscious. Disclosure is unlikely to be an effective strategy if employed in isolation, but may be an important part of a comprehensive mitigation strategy.

This paper series made possible by the RAND Center for the Study of Aging and the RAND Population Research Center.

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