The Sentry Scandal & Unethical Sales Practices

For the past week I’ve been tinkering with a piece around the allegations that TD’s high pressure sales tactics had driven some staff to disregard the needs of their clients and encourage financial advisers in their employ to push for unsuitable products, and in some instances drove employees to break the law.

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The drop in the value of TD shares following the allegations reported by CBC (from Google Finance)

My general point was that the financial advising industry depends on trust to function, and runs into problems when those that we employ for those jobs serve more than one master. The sales goals of the big banks are only in line with the individual investor needs so long as investor needs serve the banks. In other words, clients of the banks frequently find that their interests run second to the profit and management goals of Canada’s big five.

Yet I was having a hard time getting the article together. Something about the message was too easy; too obvious. No one who read the reports from the CBC was in any doubt about the ethical dubiousness of TD’s position, and forgetting the accusations of illegality, I doubt most people were surprised to find out that banks put their corporate needs ahead of their average Canadian clients.

But then yesterday something truly shocking happened. One of Canada’s larger independent mutual fund companies had to pay a $1.5 million settlement to the OSC for “non-compliant sales practices” (you can read the actual ruling by the OSC HERE). Effectively the OSC was reprimanding a company for giving excessively large non-monetary gifts to financial advisers, rewarding them for being “top producers”.

For the uninitiated, Canada’s mutual fund industry can seem a little confusing, so let me see if I can both explain why a mutual fund company would do what it did, and how you can avoid it.

First, there are several different kinds of mutual fund companies:

  1. There are companies like those of the banks, that provide both the service of financial advice and the mutual funds to invest in. This includes the five big banks and advice received within a branch.
  2. There are also independent mutual fund companies that also own a separate investing arm that operate independently. Companies like CI Investments own the financial firm Assante, IA Clarington owns FundEx, and the banks all have an independent brokerage (for example TD has Waterhouse, RBC owns Dominion Securities and BMO owns Nesbitt Burns).
  3. Lastly, there are a series of completely independent mutual fund companies with no investment wing. Companies like Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, AGF Investments and Sentry Investments all fall into that category.

The real landscape is more complicated than this. There are lots of companies, and many are owned by yet other companies, so it can get muddy quickly. But for practical purposes, this is a fair picture for the Canadian market.

In theory, any independent financial adviser (either with a bank-owned brokerage, or an independent brokerage, like Aligned Capital) can buy any and all of these investments for our clients. And so, the pressure is on for mutual fund companies to get financial advisers to pay attention to them. If you are CI Investments, in addition to trying to win over other advisers, you also have your own financial adviser team that you can develop. But if you are a company like Sentry, you have no guarantee that anyone will pay attention to you. So how do you get business?

Sentry is a relatively new company. Firms like Fidelity and Franklin Templeton have been around for more than half a century. Banks have deep reserves to tap into if they want to create (out of nothing) a new mutual fund company. By comparison, Sentry has been around for just 20 years, and has had to survive through two serious financial downturns, first in 2000 and then 2008, as an independent firm. By all accounts, they’ve actually been quite successful, especially post 2009. You may have even seen some of their advertisements around.

 

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Over the past few years independent mutual fund companies have increasingly turned to public advertising to try and encourage individual investors to bug their advisers about their funds.

 

But while Sentry has had some fairly good performance in some important sectors (from a business standpoint, it is more important to have a strong core of conservative equity products than high flying emerging market or commodity investments) it has also had some practices that have made me uncomfortable.

For a long time, Sentry Investments paid financial advisers more than most other mutual fund companies. For every dollar paid to an adviser normally, Sentry would pay an additional $0.25. That may not sound like much, but across enough assets thats a noticeable chunk of money. And while there is nothing illegal about this, it is precisely the kind of activity that makes regulators suspicious about the motives of financial advisers and the relationships they have with investment providers. Its no surprise that about a year ago Sentry scaled back their trailer to advisers to be more like the rest of the industry.

The fact is, though, that Sentry is in trouble because of their success. No matter how much Sentry was willing to pay advisers, no-one has a business without solid performance, and Sentry had that. The company grew quickly following 2008 and has been one of the few Canadian mutual fund companies that attracted new assets consistently following the financial meltdown. When times are good, it’s easy for companies to look past their own bottom line and share their wealth. That Sentry chose to have a Due Diligence conference in Beverly Hills and shower gifts on their attending advisers was a reflection of their success more than anything else.

And yet, from an ethical standpoint, it is deeply troubling. I have always been wary of companies that offer to pay more than the going market rate for fear that the motives of my decision could be questioned or maligned. Being seen to be ethical is frequently about not simply following the law, but doing everything in your power to avoid conflicts of interest (Donald Trump: take notice). The financial advisers attending the due diligence (who would have paid for their own air travel and hotel accommodation) probably had no reason to believe that the gifts they were receiving exceeded the annual contribution limit. But now those gifts cast them too in the shadow of dubious behaviour.

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This is a man who has a hard time creating the impression that he is above ethical conflicts.

So how can you protect yourself from worries that your adviser is acting unethically, or being swayed to make decisions not in your interest? First, insist that your adviser at least offers the option of a fee for service arrangement. While the difference between an embedded trail and a transparent fee may be nominal, a fee-for-service agreement means that you have complete transparency in costs and full disclosure about where your advisers interests lie.

Second, if an embedded trail is still the best option, ask your adviser what the rationale was behind the selection of each of the funds in your portfolio, and what the trail commission was for each of those investments. This is information that you are entitled to, and you shouldn’t be shy about asking for.

Lastly, ask what mutual funds have given your adviser, but be open to the answer. Gifts to advisers are meant to fall into the category of “trinkets and trash”, mostly disposable items that are visibly branded by the company providing them, though gifts can be moderately more expensive. The difference between receiving cufflinks from Tiffany’s and cufflinks that bare the logo of a mutual fund firm is the difference between ethically dubious and openly transparent.

Regulators in Canada are pushing the industry towards a Fiduciary Responsibility for financial advisers. While that may clarify some of the grey areas, it will certainly create its own series of problems. Until then though, investors should not hesitate to question the investments they have, and why they have them. It may be unfair to expect the average Canadian to remember all the details about the types of investments that they have, but you should absolutely expect your financial adviser to be able to transparently and comprehensively explain the rationale and selection method behind the investments that you own.

If you would like an independent review of your current portfolio, please don’t hesitate to give us a call. 416-960-5995.

 

How To Invest In Energy When You Hate Volatility

***This post will refer to both a mutual fund company and a particular fund. This post should not be construed as endorsing that fund. We always make sure that we cite our sources and in this instance our source is a fund company, and we are not suggesting in any way that you should invest in or purchase this fund. If you are interested in any fund, please consult with your financial advisor first for suitability, especially if that financial advisor is us!*** 

frackingSince the price of oil dropped there have been lots of reasons to be excited. First the price of gas at the pumps is so low that I don’t hate going there anymore. Second, investments in energy have suffered since oil lost close to $30 in value.

WTI price over the last 6 months. From NASDAQ.com
WTI price over the last 6 months. From NASDAQ.com

And while energy stocks have recovered somewhat from their low points, they are still way off where they were earlier in the year. I’m not going to get into the finer points about the nuances of energy producers and the various types of oil and  costs of production. It’s a worthwhile article, but will take up too much time here. Instead I wanted to focus on a different way that Canadians can participate in the energy sector.

Commodities can be volatile but also a valuable element of a portfolio. So how can Canadians play the energy sector while being mindful of the risks associated with it?

The answer may be by investing in what is called “Midstream MLPs”. Midstream MLPs (Master Limited Partnerships) are American operators that transport energy from the producers to the consumers. It’s a capital intensive business that is federally regulated but traded on the stock market. It therefore provides consistent cash flow while offering liquidity to investors. But Canadians already have opportunities for energy infrastructure, so why should they care about this in the United States?Midstream2The answer has everything to do with the rising levels of oil production in the United States combined with what federal regulators are willing to do to encourage new growth.

That brings us to the growth of the shale revolution in the United States. Newly discovered reserves (of significant size), improved technology and a dropping costs of production have set the US on a course to be the largest global energy provider in the coming years. This combination of efficiencies means that the United States is going to continue to increase its oil production over the next decade, while dropping the cost of extraction for each additional barrel. But each barrel produced has to go somewhere.

Projected Oil Growth in the United States
Projected Oil Growth in the United States

In the United States, Midstream MLPs are responsible for moving that oil. But it’s a sector that also must grow. Infrastructure to move oil efficiently from shale producers doesn’t exist yet, and regulators are eager to get MPLs in place with new development. New infrastructure is costly, and while the business model for an MLP doesn’t require a high price for energy to be profitable, it does need assurances about the consistency of the volume of oil to be moved. To encourage that growth regulators are allowing the price that MLPs charge to rise at a rate faster than inflation. Why are they doing that? Much of the shale oil is having to be shipped via rail to get to its right home. This causes price disparities that reduces producer margins and rankles federal governments.

 Pipelines in the US. Most of the pipelines direct energy to Texas, which isn't set up to handle the ultra light crude from shale projects. that energy, coming out of North Dakota, needs to get to New Jersey. The lack of pipelines means it is being shipped by rail to Chicago and then via pipeline.

Pipelines in the US. Most of the pipelines direct energy to Texas, which isn’t set up to handle the ultra light crude from shale projects. that energy, coming out of North Dakota, needs to get to New Jersey. The lack of pipelines means it is being shipped by rail to Chicago and then via pipeline.
The various prices of oil. Oil from Canada is sold at a discount while Brent crude is sold at a premium to WTI. Improving infrastructure would rectify this problem and equalize prices. (The WTI price is listed from the summer). Click on the image to see it larger.

 

Currently there is only one fund option in Canada that we are aware of for investing in MLPs. We had an opportunity earlier this week to meet the managers of this fund and were greatly impressed by what they had to show us. I am already a big believer in the growing Shale Revolution, and am particularly pleased by the arrival of new opportunities for investment. Growth in the Canadian and American energy sectors is good news for not just investors, but also citizens. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and a host of other despotic and semi-despotic regimes have been able to get by on the high price of oil. Now they are feeling the pinch of a decreasing price that has the benefit of bringing jobs back to North America while weakening their influence. In all, this is a good story for everyone.

Want to talk oil? Send us a message!

 

 

Why I Just Bought A BlackBerry

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In the hunt for returns in the jungle of investing we rarely talk about “quality of life”, but it should be remembered that the whole reason for investing is precisely that; to preserve and improve one’s quality of life, either through retirement savings, covering and planning for education or making purchasing a house feasible. That’s what this is all for.

So it’s easy then to get lost in the mechanics of investing. At the charts (see #MarketGlance) the news and the conferences:

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This tends to create a disconnect between how we experience the world and how we want our investments to work. For instance I am a big believer in Apple products. (AAPL). I like their phones and computers, I’m in their ecosystem, and as an investor I am impressed at their success as a company. But as a user of an iPhone I’ve started to wonder just how much time I waste under the pretence  of having a highly capable phone.

Apple Stock over the last ten years
Apple Stock over the last ten years

When the iPhone first came to Canada I was struck by the idea that I could look up directions easily, check the internet quickly for information and have access to my emails. When first introduced the iPhone was a tool of productivity. Since then the smart phone market has been flooded and “feature creep” is definitely a term I would use to describe what many of these phones can now do. Meanwhile productivity has taken a backseat to a host of other competing and primarily entertaining functions. In short, I was tired of wasting time on my phone doing nothing.

And along came Blackberry offering, in some ways, a phone that promises to do less fun stuff, and do more work stuff. And while I had shunned Blackberry for years, based largely on my own terrible experience with the older models and their tiny screens, the new Passport seemed to offer me not simply a useful phone for doing work, but also terrible one to watch Netflix on. Because why am I watching Netflix on my phone in the first place?

Are angry birds really the best use of your time on a $1000 phone?
Are angry birds really the best use of your time on a $1000 phone?

We live in an age of giant flat TVs with instant movie watching capabilities, but for reasons beyond me I’ve taken to watching stuff on my phone. So while I love Apple, and believe that they have a great company, I’m hoping that I can improve my quality of life by degrading my phone experience somewhat.

Maybe there is hope for Blackberry yet.

Recommended Read: The End of Absence: What We’ve Lost in a World of Connection by Michael Harris

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