August 23, 2010
As an RIA I have thought long and hard about the debate that has been raging regarding the issue of a fiduciary standard of care in the financial services industry. In our business we operate under a fiduciary standard where we charge a fee for service to provide the best and most objective financial advice which we can. This is our business and how we have chosen to structure it. We could have chosen other routes where we charged commissions or charg for wrap accounts utilizing proprietory or preferred product for our clients, however knowing that a conflict of interest can and will arise under these arrangements, we chose otherwise. I view our client centered focus to be a competitive advantage when competing against brokers who choose the less objective, but possibly more lucritive, route of operating under the suitability standard.
I do not get frustrated at my broker competition because they operate under a suitability standard, but I do get very upset that the SEC and FINRA allow these brokers to hold themselves out to the public as something that they are not. Simply requiring brokers to disclose in small print that they may have conflicts of interest is useless in terms of making the public aware of the different standards of care. I have spoken publicly on the difference and the vast majority of my audience consistently do not know the standard of care difference between a broker and an RIA. Furthermore, brokerage clients who I have spoken to and pointed out the disclosure on their statements pertaining the potential conflicts of interest had never noticed that language.
So for me the issue is not whether a broker operates in a conflicted environment under the suitability standard, it is whether or not the public is educated enough to recognize that difference and make and intelligent choice. This issue could be addressed better by requiring that those who operate in that conflicted suitability environment use the proper client facing title of "broker" or "sales consultant". Those operating under the suitabilty standard should not be allowed to confuse the public with titles such as "financial consultant" or "investment advisor" or "investment counselor", etc.
The public should have a choice, but that choice should be in a non-deceptive environment.