For the past several decades, RIAs have increasingly differentiated themselves and their advice from competing broker-dealers by the “best interests” fiduciary standard that RIAs owe to their clients, from outright marketing themselves as fiduciaries, to signing “Fiduciary Oaths” for clients (that other broker-dealers wouldn’t and couldn’t sign).
The fiduciary distinction for RIAs wasn’t originally intended to be a marketing differentiator for advice, though. Its roots lie in the fact that RIAs were created from the start to be providers of investment advice, while broker-dealers originally were created to play a vital role in the capital formation and capital markets process (which included selling investments, in the form of stocks and bonds to prospective investors, often underwritten by the broker-dealer’s investment banking division). For which RIAs were subject to a fiduciary standard – as the providers of advice – while broker-dealers were subject to a lower suitability standard consistent with the sales-centric role they were created to fulfill.
But over the past several decades, as technology has increasingly commoditized the core functionality of broker-dealers, from “discount” brokerage reducing the price to execute trades (without a stockbroker to facilitate them), to online platforms making no-load funds available to consumers directly (without a broker-dealer to sell them), the RIA and broker-dealer channels have gone through a Great Convergence. To the point that today, a consumer may pay 1%/year for ongoing financial advice in the form of a fee-based wrap account, a C-share mutual fund trail, or an advisory fee, and not even make a distinction between the choices. Except from a regulatory perspective, these remain substantively different choices, given the (originally) different roles that broker-dealers and RIAs play.
In recent years, the Great Convergence has led to a flurry of proposals on new standards, as regulators have recognized that as the gap between broker-dealers and RIAs has been reduced over the years, so too did the gap in the standards of conduct between them need to be narrowed as well. Resulting in the release earlier this summer of the SEC’s new Regulation Best Interest, lifting the standard of conduct for broker-dealers to a “Best Interest” standard when making a recommendation to their customers.
Notably, in practice, the new Best Interest standard under Reg BI is not a full-scale fiduciary duty and only applies at the time of the broker’s recommendation itself (and not to the overall relationship). Nonetheless, Reg BI will grant – and in fact, require – that broker-dealers now explain their standard of conduct as being an obligation to act “in the best interests of the customer when making a recommendation.”
Which leaves little room for RIAs to market their fiduciary obligation to act “in the best interests of the client” as a differentiator when broker-dealers will be able to use substantively identical words. Raising the question: how will RIAs differentiate themselves in the future?
On the one hand, some RIAs may point out that there’s still a difference between being a “fiduciary at all times,” versus “just” being held to a Best Interest standard at the time of recommendation alone. Others may pursue and highlight voluntary designations like CFP certification, which itself has its own “fiduciary at all times” obligation (applicable to not only RIAs but those at broker-dealers as well). Some may even choose to pursue new terms of distinction, like “stewardship” as a higher standard above merely being a legally-obligated fiduciary.
In the long run, though, arguably the best path forward for most advisors will simply be to actually differentiate on their services and what they actually do for clients, rather than their standard of conduct in the first place. As the irony is that, the more fiduciary advocates push for higher standards across the industry… the less likely it is that being a fiduciary with higher standards will ever be an effective differentiator again in the future.