When we first launched the XY Planning Network in 2014, our vision was to expand access to financial planning for Gen X and Gen Y clients by championing a new financial advisor business model: getting paid for financial advice through an ongoing monthly retainer. A topic about which my co-founder Alan Moore and I literally wrote the book last year.
When we launched, we knew we would be at the cutting edge – or even the bleeding edge – of how financial advisors will get paid for financial planning in the future. What we didn’t know, however, is that we’d also find ourselves at the bleeding edge of regulation over how financial advisors are compensated for fee-for-service advice as well.
Because what we’ve learned in the 3 years since is that the word “retainer”, while relatively straightforward as an explanation to consumers of how services will be paid for – raises significant regulatory concerns. In some cases, we think the concerns are justified; while we’re confident on the value proposition of an XY Planning Network advisor to validate their ongoing cost, there will someday come a day where financial advisors begin to charge monthly retainers but don’t actually do any real work for clients. At that point, consumers become exposed to a new form of “reverse churning”, where similar to abusive AUM fees, the advisor might charge on ongoing fee (or even try to lock clients into an ongoing fee) but not actually provide any ongoing value.
Fortunately, the reality is that with a model like monthly retainers in particular, consumer risk is largely ameliorated by the fact that substantial fees aren’t actually being prepaid in advance (unlike a traditional long-term retainer arrangement); instead, consumers generally have the ability to terminate the advisor at any time, and immediately end what is effectively an ongoing monthly subscription fee they were paying to the advisor. Which is far better than paying an annual retainer fee, and then discovering one month later that the advisor is shutting his/her doors, and that the other 11 months of fees have been forfeited.
Nonetheless, even when paying on a monthly basis, there are still valid regulatory concerns about whether consumers will be protected. Should advisors be allowed to create longer-term retainer fee agreements as well? What kinds of notifications are necessary to ensure consumers are aware of and remember what they’re paying, which in turn helps to ensure the advisor remains held accountable for service and value? What needs to be done to ensure fee billing and the potential access to bank account or credit card numbers that may entail, doesn’t trigger custody of client assets? And how should regulators (and consumers) evaluate whether a fee is “reasonable”, particularly if it is primarily for non-investment purposes and bears no relationship to the size of investment portfolios?
The added complication is that because financial-planning-centric advisors may not manage portfolios at all, they will in practice be regulated predominantly by state securities regulators, which we’ve found over the past several years have quite varying views about the safety (or not) of charging consumers non-AUM fees (and in some cases, different opinions from different regulators in the same state!). In other words, there is little uniformity regarding the above regulatory issues about fee-for-service financial planning from one state regulator to the next. Accordingly, to the extent that the monthly retainer and other fee-for-service financial planning models are gaining momentum, perhaps it’s time for NASAA to consider a Model Rule that sets forth best practices in reasonable regulation and oversight of these new financial advisor business models?