On July 29, the Wall Street Journal published an article which reported that nearly 10% of the certificants included on the CFP Board’s “Let’s Make a Plan” website, which the CFP Board makes available to consumers to find a CFP professional, have material public disclosures listed on the FINRA BrokerCheck site (including several with felony charges!). Notably, though, exactly zero of those “red flag” disclosures are included on the CFP Board’s own website. Which raises the question: How effectively does the CFP Board ensure its own professional standards of conduct are really being upheld, especially as it trumpets a consumer public awareness campaign advocating that those with the CFP marks are the “Gold Standard” that consumers should look for?
In this episode of #OfficeHours with Michael Kitces, we discuss the main issues raised by the WSJ article (as well as the CFP Board’s response), how the CFP Board’s public awareness campaign has unwittingly amplified the issues, some potential challenges the CFP Board faces in addressing these challenges, and explore what it might take for the CFP Board to close the gap between what it promotes in its public awareness campaign and the standards its CFP professionals are actually meeting.
While the CFP Board promotes its “Let’s Make A Plan” site as the “go-to” resource for finding qualified financial planners, the WSJ report pointed out that they have failed to disclose important background details (which even FINRA discloses on its own BrokerCheck website) that would be relevant to a consumer seeking a trustworthy professional. To which the CFP Board was quick to respond, referencing limited staffing and budget resources (70 employees and a $30 million budget, compared to FINRA’s 3,000 employees and $1 billion budget) and non-profit status (meaning that they can only certify and set standards for its certificants, as opposed to a regulatory agency’s official authority to investigate allegations against advisors), as reasons that the WSJ shouldn’t necessarily hold their “Let’s Make A Plan” site to the same standard as a bona fide regulator like FINRA.
The CFP Board also maintained that it is not their policy to publish allegations of wrongdoing, especially if the CFP Board hasn’t investigated them itself, and will only publish disciplinary actions against prohibited activities fully investigated by the Board (as contrasted with FINRA, that sometimes will publish information about client complaints, even if there was no ultimate finding of wrongdoing). Yet historically, disciplinary action against a CFP certificant has been taken by the CFP Board only after another regulator has found them guilty. And ironically, other regulatory bodies generally have less stringent rules of conduct. Which means in essence, the CFP Board is claiming a higher standard of conduct, but often only taking enforcement action based on other regulators’ lower standards… raising the question of how exactly the CFP Board can ever ensure its CFP professionals actually will uphold its proclaimed higher standards?
Despite this, the CFP Board acknowledged it could do better, promptly established an independent task force to “strengthen and modernize enforcement”, and has pledged to begin checking third-party regulatory records (e.g., FINRA and the SEC) every time CFPs renew their certification, instead of conducting an initial one-time background check and relying on self-disclosure in subsequent years.
Still, though, the question remains of how can the CFP Board possibly enforce the higher standards they have been advocating for nearly the last decade with their $10 million annual awareness campaign, if the CFP Board doesn’t have the capacity or authority to fully investigate allegations made against CFP certificants?
Perhaps the most straightforward path is, to the extent that promotion of CFP Board’s higher standards and enforcement of those standards are inextricably linked, the CFP Board’s public awareness budget itself could be (partially) reallocated to support efforts to uphold and enforce CFP standards as well? Or alternatively, the CFP Board could also be more proactive about collecting information already available from third-party regulators, make it easier for fellow CFP professionals to identify peers who violate the Board’s Standards of Conduct, and devise an improved investigative process to actually be able to review complaints and disciplinary issues.
Ultimately, the key point is that the CFP Board needs a mechanism to enforce the high standards CFP professionals are required to follow and that the CFP Board is so proactively marketing to consumers through its own public awareness campaign. And the need for better enforcement mechanisms is especially critical with the new CFP Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct going into effect in October, 2019, which will only increase the stakes further. Proactively reporting all disciplinary records and creating tools for consumers and CFPs to easily register complaints are simple steps, at least initially, towards improving oversight of financial advisors, until the new independent task force releases its recommendations for strengthening and modernizing enforcement of CFP standards.