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Archive for 2015

How to Draw the Bright Line Between RIA Fiduciaries and Product Pushing, Conflicted Competitors

By Kathleen M. McBride, AIFA®

As hundreds of RIAs gather in Boston for Schwab’s IMPACT 2015, the news that some Congressional Democrats are joining Republicans in an effort to head off the administration’s fiduciary rule on retirement accounts underscores a political reality: broker-dealers, banks, insurance companies and mutual fund companies still wield enormous influence in Washington.

The brokers, banks, insurers and mutual fund companies will spare no expense to win regulatory cover allowing them to assert claims – however unfounded – that they, too, act in their customers’ best interest.  They will continue to spend millions to destroy or dilute the impact of the DOL fiduciary rules and head off or cripple similar regulatory initiatives at the federal and state level.  This fight will likely continue into the next Congress and administration, as well as in the courts.

As a result, efforts to strengthen fiduciary obligations of brokers and insurance reps will make progress but the regulatory outcome will fall far short of perfection.  The distinction between the fiduciary standard and suitability will get even fuzzier.  Dual registration will continue to confuse and confound clients.

What does this mean for RIAs?

First, RIAs cannot count on the regulators to draw a bright line between RIAs’ client-focused business model and that of their product-pushing, conflicted competitors. More than ever, RIAs will have to lean into differentiating and validating their firms’ commitment to fiduciary excellence.

Second, some forward-thinking competitors – among brokers, banks, insurance companies and mutual fund companies, are already working to build a more fiduciary culture and appropriate product offerings and compensation models.  Instead of a race to the lower standard, we may have an outbreak of higher standards among some key competitors.

The good news is that the national debate on this issue has shined a light on the value of working with a true fiduciary.  We know the fiduciary model works – for both clients and firms.  There’s already evidence that prospective clients are asking about firms’ standing as fiduciaries.

In this environment, RIAs have an opportunity to distinguish themselves and build their practices.  If you’d like to talk about how to achieve that goal, please come by Booth 144 at IMPACT, where I can be found with my colleagues from the Centre for Fiduciary Excellence – CEFEX – and fi360.

Kate McBride, AIFA®, founder of FiduciaryPath, LLC is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst®; a CEFEX analyst with the Centre for Fiduciary Excellence, auditing fiduciary firms’ investment fiduciary practices for certification; and a consultant on fiduciary matters. Ms. McBride serves as chair of The Committee for the Fiduciary Standardkmcbride@fiduciarypath.com.

5 Ways Top RIA Firms Help Clients When Markets Are Challenging

By Kathleen M. McBride, AIFA®

When market volatility like the swings we’ve seen last quarter make clients uneasy, fiduciaries that have a framework of prudent fiduciary practices in place, can call on them to help ease clients’ fears and mitigate the risk of unhappy clients later.

As a CEFEX analyst, I get invited in to audit RIA firms’ investment fiduciary practices for certification by the Centre for Fiduciary Excellence.  Elite RIA firms that earn peer-reviewed CEFEX Certification, achieve public recognition for their investment fiduciary excellence, a very important differentiator for clients. CEFEX Certified firms grow faster – nearly twice as fast as non-certified RIA firms.

Certification is also a chance for firms to see where they have opportunities for improvement, or uncover a gap  – a risk that the firm can address now, before it causes a problem.

Here are a handful of the prudent practices I see at firms that have earned CEFEX Certification. The prudent practices are outlined in the handbook, “Prudent Practices for Investment Advisors,” available at www.fi360.com, and substantiated with discussions of regulation and law.  The basic framework forms a four-part circle: Organize, Formalize, Implement and Monitor.

On days when clients need their advisers most, a few simple prudent practices can make all the difference for client and adviser.

Elite, certified firms make sure clients are set for both tranquil and challenging markets:

  1. They already have a written, signed agreement and Investment Policy Statement (IPS) for each client, that discusses the client’s time horizon, risk tolerance, objectives, appropriate asset allocation and monitoring and replacement criteria.
  2. They keep these in client’s files, along with implementation notes and monitoring reports with review notes.
  3. Their clients’ portfolios are diversified, according to each one’s signed IPS.
  4. The portfolios are implemented with appropriate asset allocation (and documented) expertise, skill and due diligence, according to their IPS.
  5. They conduct regular portfolio reviews, to monitor investment performance and costs against appropriate peers and indexes, rebalance on a regular basis according to their criteria, and replace when necessary.

In times of market stress, they can help clients keep calm and carry on:

  • They stay in touch as many clients as possible via email, phone, or announcement.  These can be very straightforward conversations, such as:  “In accordance with your IPS, we’ve diversified your portfolio so that when some assets like equities are volatile, others will normally be more stable. You are appropriately allocated across asset types, in line with the IPS. This gives you your best chance for success over the long term. What is on your mind?”
  • When speaking or emailing with individual clients, they make sure to document what they’ve discussed, when, any decisions or next steps, and why. Certified RIA firms keep brief notes, reports and other documentation in the client’s file so if there’s any question later they can refer to the time, place circumstances, recommendations and any next steps.
  • These client notes can be short – but they are very important, especially if a client forgets what’s been discussed, recommended, and why:
  • SW Sue Brown re her jt act w Ted, they have long time horizon; advised no change right now & will touch base on next steps in 1-2 weeks (sooner if necessary).
  • SW Bob Jones, wanted to go to cash; discussed his IPS, noted he has some cash for immediate needs and we may want to make some rebalancing adjustments to his portfolio as the dust settles, but recommended not doing that today. He agreed to sit tight a few days. Advised I will check in next wk, and to call me if needs to speak sooner.
  • Dr. Jo Boone noted that some of the individual stocks in her mad money account were a concern – that’s the account she directs on her own, which I reminded her. She wanted to trim there, but not necessarily in her other portfolios we manage.  When I asked if she needed the cash from the self-directed account right away, she noted there’s an estimated tax pmt in 2 wks; I noted there’s a position she could harvest to offset some gains, and she wants to go ahead.  Order sent to trading.

RIA firms that have prudent practices in place build trust with clients because they deserve that trust. When they make the effort to have an independent, third party come in and verify that for clients, it is very meaningful for clients and prospective clients.  When an RIA firm has a well-thought-out, repeatable set of practices in place, clients are better served, the firm is better managed, and has more control over all operations, from client acquisition to investment management or manager selection, to compliance, back office and cyber security.  When firms are well managed, they keep more revenue, and tend to have better client outcomes over the long term.

And when markets get challenging, they are set to help clients get through them.

Kate McBride, AIFA®, founder of FiduciaryPath, LLC is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst®; a CEFEX analyst with the Centre for Fiduciary Excellence, auditing fiduciary firms’ investment fiduciary practices for certification; and a consultant on fiduciary matters. Ms. McBride serves as chair of The Committee for the Fiduciary Standardkmcbride@fiduciarypath.com.

Can Advise(o)rs Disclose Away Their Fiduciary Obligations?

Disclosure and its role in the advisory relationship became a major focus of panelists at a recent New York Society of Security Analysts/CFA Institute forum on “Wall Street’s Excesses: Bad Behavior and Over-Regulation.”  The topic surfaced in the first panel on enforcement, when the question was raised, “Can an advisor ‘disclose away’ her or his fiduciary obligations simply by surfacing all conflicts and fees?”

Blaine Aikin, chief executive officer of fi360 and a CFP board member, took up the question on our panel on the fiduciary standard: “The answer to the question can you disclose away a fiduciary obligation is that the devil is in the ‘can you?’  You could probably escape punishment, but is it acceptable under the fiduciary standard to ‘disclose away’ a fiduciary duty.  The answer is clearly ‘no.’”

“Disclosure is not a substitute for fulfillment of the duties of loyalty and care.  We have gaping holes in the way that the law is enforced today. [That’s why upholding professional standards] becomes a critical function for organizations like the CFA Institute and the CFB Board.”

“With the CFP Board, you have a disciplinary process that brings [certificate holders] before professionals in the field. If you have people who are well informed in terms of the obligations that are involved – which you do in the disciplinary process of the CFP board – then you apply those standards in a way that understands that you can’t ‘disclose away’ professional liability.”

For my part, I noted studies by such leading academics as Prof. Daylian Cain at Yale School of Management, which indicate that disclosures can have a perverse effect.

According to Prof. Cain’s research, when an advise/or makes a disclosure to an investor – even a well-meaning advise/or – the investor feels more confident that the advise/or is being forthright and is thus less likely to question that advice.  Moreover, the advise/or is more likely to give more aggressive advice that may tilt more to the advisor’s interests than those of the investor.

Bottom line: Disclosure and transparency are important but certainly no substitute for holding all advise/ors – registered reps, insurance agents and RIAs – to a strong fiduciary standard of care.

Kate McBride, AIFA®, founder of FiduciaryPath, LLC is an Accredited Investment Fiduciary Analyst®; a CEFEX analyst with the Centre for Fiduciary Excellence, auditing fiduciary firms’ investment fiduciary practices for certification; and a consultant on fiduciary matters. Ms. McBride serves as chair of The Committee for the Fiduciary Standardkmcbride@fiduciarypath.com.