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The Historical Origins of Fiduciary Duties

Posted by Jack Duval

Jun 21, 2018 8:36:41 AM

This post continues my blog post series on fiduciary duties and the changing regulatory landscape around a unified fiduciary standard of care for investors.

Accelerant - Jack Duval - Fiduciary Duties Expert Witness

Statue of Cicero

Given the tremendous amount of ink that has been spilled regarding the DOL Fiduciary Rule and now SEC Regulation Best Interest, I thought it would be useful to review the existence of fiduciary rules throughout history.

The idea of a fiduciary duty has existed from the beginning of humanity’s codification of the rules by which it would live.  Indeed, fiduciary duties have been central to the functioning of societies from ancient to modern times and from East to West.

In the most simple terms, a fiduciary duty arises when one person relies on another to perform a task or service for them.  The duty arises from the dependence of the one on the other.  In more modern language, trust and confidence is being reposed by the principal in the agent to carry out the agreed upon work.

Fiduciary Duties Throughout History

Perhaps the first known fiduciary duties exist in Hammurabi's Code from 1790 BC.[1]

Rules of agency, reflected in Hammurabi’s laws, developed along with commerce in Ancient Mesopotamia.  The laws primarily discuss situations in which a tamkarum, or principal/merchant, gives a samallum, or agent, either money to use for travel and for investments or purchases, or goods for trading or selling.

The Bible also has many fiduciary-related quotes, the most famous of which may be:[2]

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.  Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Jumping to the East, somewhere between 475 and 220 BC, Confucius wrote in The Analects a heuristic for fiduciaries: “In acting on behalf of others, have I always been loyal to their interest?”[3]

From Ancient Greece, Plato’s Republic could be read as a metaphor for the fiduciary duties of leaders to their constituents, and the whole education process of philosopher-kings as instilling these virtues. 

The Roman’s coined the term “fiduciary” in their laws and defined it to mean:[4]

a person holding the character of a trustee, or a character analogous of a trustee, in respect to the trust and confidence involved in it and the scrupulous good faith and candor which it requires.

Cicero also wrote of fiduciary obligations between agent and principal, known by the expressive terms: “mandatory” and “mandator”, respectively.  “An agent who shows carelessness in his execution of trust behaves very dishonorably and ‘is undermining the entire basis of our social system’.”[5]

Making a great leap across time, we come to Anglo-American law and the English Courts of Equity.  Scholars Aikin and Fausti write:[6]

Courts of Equity granted relief in numerous circumstances involving one person's abuse of confidence and, over time, concrete rules and precise terms related to fiduciary relationships began to form as Equity evolved.

The term "fiduciary" itself was adopted to apply to situations falling short of "trusts" but in which one person was nonetheless obliged to act like a trustee.

The second point makes sense because in non-trust fiduciary situations, the principle still owns the property, whereas in the trust situation, ownership of the asset(s) have been transferred to a trust which the trustee oversees.

Lastly, we get to American Law and Benjamin Cardozo, who, in Meinhard v. Salmon, wrote what are probably the most cited words on fiduciary duties:

Many forms of conduct permissible in a workaday world for those acting at arm's length, are forbidden to those bound by fiduciary ties.  A trustee is held to something stricter than the morals of the market place.  Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior.  As to this there has developed a tradition that is unbending and inveterate.  Uncompromising rigidity has been the attitude of courts of equity when petitioned to undermine the rule of undivided loyalty by the "disintegrating erosion" of particular exceptions. Only thus has the level of conduct for fiduciaries been kept at a level higher that that trodden by the crowd.  It will not consciously be lowered by any judgment of this court.

Interestingly, the undermining of “the rule of undivided loyalty by the ‘disintegrating erosion’ of particular exceptions” is what is now contemplated in SEC Regulation Best Interest.  The SEC seeks to dress up FINRA suitability rules in the raiment of fiduciary language without the “uncompromising rigidity” of fiduciary law.

_______

Notes:

[1]       Keith Loveland, JD, AIFA, CIDA.  Available at: http://solisinvicti.com/books/Law/Fiduciary%20Law.pdf.  Accessed June 19, 2018.

[2]       Matthew 6:24; KJV.  Available at: http://biblehub.com/kjv/matthew/6.htm.  Accessed June 19. 2018.

[3]       Confucius; The Analects; Translated by Arthur Waley; Routledge; London and New York; 1938; 84.

[4]       Blain F. Aikin et al; Fiduciary: A Historically Significant Standard; B.U. Law Review; 158.  Available at: https://www.fi360.com/main/pdf/BULawReview_AikinFausti_Fall2010.pdf; Accessed June 21, 2018.

[5]       Id.

[6]       Id. at 159.

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Topics: FINRA, Investment Suitability, dol fiduciary rule, fiduciary duties, SEC Regulation Best Interest

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