Economists have long studied the importance of property rights in a wide range of settings. From collectively avoiding circumstances that may lead to an inefficient use of resources (e.g., the “tragedy of the commons”), to simply understanding what conditions best promote the development of a wealthy and prosperous society, property rights are an important economic concept that can be applied in many contexts. Of interest to financial advisors, a recent study by Chris Clifford and William Gerken examined whether and how who “owns” a client relationship in a financial advisory firm – the firm, or the advisor themselves – influences that financial advisor in the future, based on the behavior of financial advisors at firms that joined the Broker Protocol (versus those that did not).
In this guest post, Dr. Derek Tharp – a Kitces.com Researcher, and a recent Ph.D. graduate from the financial planning program at Kansas State University – takes a deep dive into this recent Broker Protocol study, examining how “ownership” of a client relationship in a financial advisory firm impacts not just the success of the firm, but whether and how much the advisor reinvests into themselves, consumer well-being and advisor misconduct rates, and even the development of the advisory industry as a whole!
The development of the Broker Protocol was significant because it, for the first time, formalized exactly what information brokers can (and cannot!) take with them when changing from one firm to another, which not only helped provide a pathway for brokers to change firms without getting sued, but effectively shifted the “ownership rights” of the client relationship from the firm to the advisor (who can now take the information and relationship with them when switching to a new firm). Accordingly, Clifford and Gerkin utilized publicly available data on broker-dealers in conjunction with their timing of joining the Broker Protocol to evaluate how broker behavior changed before and after being given greater ownership over the client relationship. The astounding results: giving a greater level of ownership in the client relationship to the broker resulted in less broker misconduct, more broker investment in their general human capital, and an increase in firm revenue, client assets, and the number of client accounts (even though brokers did invest less into firm-specific human capital along the way).
Notably, the dynamics which led to the creation of Broker Protocol among broker-dealers largely exist within RIAs as well. Restrictive covenants commonly found at RIAs (such as non-solicits, or, less commonly, non-competes), can influence the level of advisor “ownership” over client relationships. Of course, both firms and advisors can have good reasons to accept such agreements (e.g., firms may be hesitant to give inexperienced advisors opportunities to work with clients if they could just “steal” clients without recourse), but it’s important to understand and carefully consider the implications of such arrangements. As ultimately these arrangements impact factors such as the level of advisor talent across the entire industry (as advisors are more inclined to invest in their own human capital when they have greater ownership of cleint relationships), firm success (as a more talented workforce can be a net improvement for firms, even if employee turnover is higher), consumer well-being (as policies which restrict advisor mobility keep talented advisors “trapped” in lower-quality firms, which ultimately leads to lower service for consumers), and even industry regulatory and ethical concerns (as consumers themselves may not be aware that restrictive covenants may influence their abilty to work with their trusted advisor, and consumers may not consent to such arrangements if they were disclosed).
Ultimately, there are steps that firms can take to reduce the harmful elements of restrictive covenants… from adopting an RIA equivalent to Broker Protocol, to regulatory intervention to restrict certain practices, and even pre-arranged terms for buying an advisor’s client base if they wish to a leave a firm… but the key point is to acknowledge that advisor ownership of client relationships does influence advisor behavior in important ways, and that while it may be scary for a firm to vest more ownership in the client relationship to their advisors, the data shows that doing so is on average a benefit to both the advisor and their firm, as well as the consumer, and the industry as a whole!