Sunlight Is Still The Best Disinfectant
Yesterday a disturbing article came across my desk. From Bloomberg, it was titled “It Just Got Even Harder to Trust Financial Advisors” and is a brief summary of a new report out of the United States that suggests that there is wide spread misconduct within financial services. Far from being an isolated number of financial advisors, the scale of the disciplinary actions is extensive and has encompassed some of the largest banking institutions in the United States (for those mistrustful of the Wall Street crowd that may not be a big shock) including some well known names like Wells Fargo and UBS.
Being disciplined within the world of financial services is controversial and being reprimanded does not necessarily denote contrition from advisors. The two chief complaints from investors, both in Canada and the United States, revolves around suitability of investments and subsequent fees. Those might seem like straight forward complaints to have, but many investors have a difficult time wrapping their heads around “risk”, showing great comfort in investments that can rapidly rise, while expressing dismay when they fall just as rapidly back to earth. Thus investors and advisors can mistakenly assume that they are on the same page with each other, only to find that at a later point that they have badly misunderstood one another.
Regulators have correctly understood that the problem is a misalignment of education and comfort. If investors knew more about investing they would be better at understanding risk. If that were the case though investors would be unlikely to need the services of financial advisors. Thus financial advisors are expected to treat their clients as though they know little, and should be expected to challenge investors, even reject investor requests if the investment is deemed too risky by the advisor.
What regulators want is for advisors to understand their role now as “risk managers” rather than product floggers and order takers. In an industry where the average age is north of 55, most advisors got their start and built their business around exactly that, selling interesting and exciting ideas. The transition from that to telling investors that they can’t do what they want with their money (it’s their money after-all) has not been simple.
One move, cited in the article, is to move to a fiduciary model to rectify outstanding issues around fees in particular. There is a persistent fear that advisors might choose high fee-low returning investments when cheaper and better performing options exist. Curiously, in Canada at least, there is not much evidence to suggest that this happens. But even if this avenue resolves such a problem many within the industry fear that “high fee/low return” will not be apparent until well after the fact, opening up practitioners to hindsight litigation.
The simple fact is though that regardless of the nuances and difficulties that surround properly managing and regulating the financial services industry, no good can come from a growing sense of mistrust in an industry that has become so essential to the retirement plans of so many. So what should investors know that will protect them from bad decisions or unfair fees?
First, be familiar with the nature of fees:
- There is a tendency to assume that the best fee is the lowest, but costs frequently correspond to the complexity of the investments, the size of the assets under management and the support around the product. Be sure to find out what the MER (management expense ratio) is and find out whether it is comparable to other similar products. It’s fair to have questions about what products cost and whether those costs make sense.
Second, be more than a number:
- The article contains one of those slights of hand when people try and diffuse blame, pointing out that it isn’t “just small dealers” that have been guilty of misconduct. This suggestion that small is typically the problem seems challenged by evidence. Big problems require scale, and it isn’t uncommon for some brokers in the banks to have thousands of clients. Brokers aren’t happy with that arrangement and neither are investors, but it is very common. It shouldn’t be surprising that misconduct can come from large banks seeking easy solutions with proprietary product.
Third, independent options are better than proprietary ones:
- A frequent issue I come across are investors who have been sold a proprietary product when other better options exist. It strikes me that there are real conflicts of interest in companies that both manage people’s assets and sell investments for that purpose. Most brokers I know have all felt better knowing that their responsibility is to a client sole, without having to hit bottom line targets for other interests. A wide range of product offerings doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the best product, but does remove the threat someone will deliberately sell you the wrong one.
Fourth, be Canadian:
- The concerns of America and Canadian regulators are very similar, but the good news is that Canadians have a better system. Despite complaining Canadians have some clear advantages. First, performance disclosure rules favour investors here. Rather than show returns with costs yet to be deducted, returns in Canada are shown net of all costs, meaning you see accurate performance. Second, the use of commissions and deferred sales charges, the source of ire for regulators and critics, have been dropping for years. Many financial advisors now rely on exclusively trailers or disclosed fees. Third, even trailers aren’t that bad. Where as there has been an outstanding concern is that embedded trail fees could unduly influence advisors to make poor choices. But while there is some truth to this statement, the vast bulk of investments within Canada have standardized their fees, with companies paying bigger payouts to entice sales having become the outlier.
Fifth, be with us:
- As part of a small and independent firm one of the things we pride ourselves most on is to be in the right place to help Canadians. An open shop, we have both the luxury of picking the best investments from across the industry while offering investors competitive fees. But most importantly, we value transparency and clarity in managing your retirement savings.
As a family business that has been around for nearly a quarter of a century, the essential difference between being a number and receiving personal care is whether you have someone to work with that doesn’t just know your name, but comes to know you as well.
Also they should have a blog.
Give us a call if you are looking for some personal guidance in dealing with difficult markets or have questions about protecting your accounts.