So across the wealth management industry there has been a gnawing and anxious debate that may be keeping advisors up at night—does the fiduciary rule mean that advisors need to always offer the lowest cost funds to clients? Well, one lawyer’s opinion is a resounding “no”. Citing the rule itself, the DOL says “Adviser and Financial Institution do not have to recommend the transaction that is the lowest cost or that generates the lowest fees without regard to other relevant factors”. That other relevant factor could be a myriad of things, such as the other holdings in a portfolio or whether one fund has higher performance than another or a different fee structure and so on.
FINSUM: We have personally seen a lot of debate on this issue, and while many do realize that they do not have to offer the lowest cost investments, fear of regulatory trouble pushes them to do so.
If you were an advisor at Wells Fargo who wanted to move to its independent arm you would face a big barrier—a so-called “tax” on compensation for two years. The tax was faced by brokers who wanted to move to the Wells Fargo Advisors Financial Network, or FiNet. The system is unique among brokers in that it lets brokers go without Wells Fargo totally losing them. However, the two-year tax on compensation was a big barrier. Now, the bank is considering getting rid of the tax so long as advisors sign a two- to three-year contract to stay at FiNet.
FINSUM: This seems a smart move to us as the tide of advisors going independent is only going to grow stronger.
InvestmentNews has run a very ominous article. The piece cites recent evidence published by the Wall Street Journal showing that large discount broker-dealers often mislead clients by saying they do not have incentive fees when they do. Firms like Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade often brand themselves in a very positive light, saying things like being “champions of investors" and putting clients first etc. However, such misleading behavior may lead to the current or future fiduciary rules being extended to cover broker-dealers entirely, not just regarding disclosing conflicts of interest.
FINSUM: We don’t think the current DOL rule is going to be extended in any way, but it does seem likely that the SEC might take this into account as it creates a new, more comprehensive rule.
Speaking at a large ETF conference yesterday, the head of Vanguard has a big warning for all advisors. He said that the industry needs to change rapidly or face a huge loss of jobs. Citing evidence that almost 60% of advisor jobs may be lost to automation. He argues that portfolio construction and rebalancing are now super cheap commodities and that advisors should instead focus more on managing client behaviour, which will be a continued niche.
FINSUM: This was a pretty grave warning for advisors. We are not sure the outlook is so bleak.
Morgan Stanley’s wealth management can be described as nothing other than an unmitigated success in the fourth quarter. The numbers are in, and the data show that the unit is minting cash as the broker enjoys the transition from commission-based to fee-based accounts as provided by the fiduciary rule. Revenue increased a whopping 10% and the profit margin rose from under 10% the previous year to an eye-watering 26% in 2017.
FINSUM: We realize the importance of fiduciary duty, but how is a transition to much more expensive fee-based accounts—which are hugely boosting net profits to big firms—in the ultimate best interest of clients?
Like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch is in the middle of a big bet on its wealth management unit The broker has decided to focus less resources on hiring senior advisors and more on training younger staff. Accordingly, its staff costs have shrunk despite growing its advisor base by 2%. By some accounts the early signs for the experiment are good, but it will take a long time to see how well it plays out.
FINSUM: The whole industry has a bit of an inheritance problem right now, since there are herds of baby boomer advisors who are set to retire in the coming years, and as yet, a dearth of young advisors to take their places.