By definition, a fiduciary is a person or an organization who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with another person or organization. Typically, this has to do with the responsibility or duty in a financial sense. As an adjective, it gets defined by the Oxford dictionary as “involving trust, especially with regard to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary.” The word gets most commonly used when stating that a company has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders. In practice, this means that the company has an ethical and legal responsibility to act in the best interest of its investors. For example, the company and its executives need to protect a shareholder’s financial investment in that company and is an example of a duty of loyalty. Included also is a duty of care, which indicates that a fiduciary will not back away from their responsibility.
Fiduciary duties do not just relate to the financial sector. For example, a lawyer has a fiduciary duty to their client to act in their best interest, but we will focus on the financial sector. Fiduciary responsibility in finance is a relationship between two non-governmental entities. In contrast, a regulatory requirement is a rule that a government or government-related organization imposes and enforces onto an organization.
Many governmental organizations impose regulations on the financial sector, like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or the Federal Reserve Board. The governmental-related organizations are the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We have previously discussed the regulations passed by both FINRA and the SEC in preceding blogs, which detail those processes well.
Both fiduciary responsibility and regulatory requirements can result in legal action if there is a breach in conduct, but the actors and stage are different. With fiduciary responsibility, the beneficiary of the fiduciary duty would file suit against the trustee in civil court who knowingly or unknowingly failed in their duty. This is a relationship between non-governmental actors, so in this case, a person litigating against an organization or vice versa.
On the other side, regulatory requirement gets dictated by a government entity like the SEC or OCC suing a company or individual for failing to comply with the law. This suit would land in criminal court, with punitive fines, damage to their reputation, and sanctioning. For example, in California, you need to be a registered broker-dealer for a Regulation A+ offering. If you decide as a company to ignore this law, the state regulator can, and will, require you to return all money raised, and you can get barred from raising money in the state. You will get labeled as a bad actor, which will damage the reputation of your business.
While fiduciary duty and regulatory requirements are different in terms of the responsibilities, actors, and negative consequences involved when failing to comply, they are critical to follow and maintain.