The need to manage conflicts of interest is a central issue in meeting an advisor’s fiduciary obligation to clients, whether it’s part of an RIA’s fiduciary duty under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, or any financial advisor’s obligation when serving any retirement investors under the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule. Yet the reality is that prospective conflicts of interest go beyond just those that financial advisors may face with the product compensation they receive for implementing various insurance and investment products. In fact, financial advisors often face direct conflicts of interest with the very platforms they’re affiliated with, particularly when it comes to practice management advice in how to grow their own business and serve their clients!
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, we discuss the conflict of interest that exists between RIA firms and their RIA custodian platforms (as well as between brokers and their broker-dealers), and why advisors should perhaps be a bit less reliant on their platforms for financial planning education and practice management insight, given the “conflicted advice” they’re receiving!
A straightforward example comes up in the context of whether financial advisors should aim to serve “next generation” clients – in particular, the next generation heirs of their existing clients. Concerned about the assets that might leave their platform, RIA custodians regularly encourage and urge advisors to build relationships with the heirs of their clients, so that the assets don’t leave. Yet ultimately, that just emphasizes that to the custodian, the “client” isn’t even the client – it’s simply their pot of money, that the custodian wants to retain, regardless of who owns it… which means pursuing the assets down the family tree. By contrast, financial advisors who are focused on their clients – the actual human beings – would often be better served by simply focusing on who they serve well… which means if the firm is retiree-centric, the best path forward is not to chase pots of money to next-generation heirs when their retired clients pass away, and instead is simply to go find more new retirees! In other words, advisors are getting advice from their RIA custodians to pursue next-generation clients is often based more on what’s in the custodian’s best interests, not necessarily what the advisor’s best interests for their practices!
Another way that RIAs sit in conflict with their RIA custodial platforms is that in the end, one of a fiduciary advisor’s primary goals is actually to proactively minimize the profit margins of our RIA platforms! Thus, advisors try to minimize transaction costs, lobby for lower ticket charges on trading, pick the lowest-cost share classes that don’t have 12b-1 fees or revenue-sharing agreements, find the optimal balance in selecting No Transaction Fee (NTF) funds versus paying transaction fees based on the size of the clients’ accounts and what will be cheapest for them, obtain best execution pricing regardless of order routing kickbacks, and minimize client assets sitting in cash. And all of this matters, because how do RIA custodians actually make money? Ticket charges, revenue-sharing from asset managers, getting basis points on NTF funds, order routing revenue on execution, and making a 25+ basis point interest rate spread on money market funds. Which means the better the job that the RIA does for its clients, the less profitable they are for their RIA custodian (a fact that advisors are often reminded of by their RIA custodian relationship managers!), and RIAs have a fundamental conflict of interest between being “good advisors” for their custodial platform and watching out for their clients’ best interests.
Notably, this phenomenon is not unique to RIAs. It’s perhaps more noticeable because we usually talk about RIAs as being fiduciaries that are minimizing their conflicts of interest, but it’s equally relevant for those who work on a broker-dealer platform as well. Because as product intermediaries, broker-dealers ultimately make their money off of transactions, and it is impossible to sell financial service products without a broker-dealer! Yet the challenge is that the B-D can make more when they are offering both compliance oversight and getting a slice of GDC on all transactions, as opposed to just a compliance oversight slice of advisory fee business. Which means that while a fee-based business model may be more stable and valuable in the long run for a financial advisor, able to grow to a larger size and sell for a higher multiple, B-Ds are often at risk for making less money as their advisors shift to fee-based business that makes more for them (or alternatively, forces the B-D to increasingly try to reach into the advisor’s fee-based business with ever-expanding “compliance oversight”).
The point is not to paint every B-D or RIA custodian in a nefarious light – as they’re just trying to run their businesses – but it’s crucial to understand that in many situations, what’s best for the broker-dealer or RIA custodian is not necessarily best for the advisor on the platform. Which is concerning, because too many advisors don’t seem to acknowledge these inherent conflicts of interest, especially since advisor platforms are often the primary place they go for financial planning education and practice management insight, not realizing the conflicted advice they are receiving. And so, while it can be great to take advantage of some of the resources that these platforms provide, advisors should still be careful to consider whether the advice they receive is really in their best interests as an advisor, or ultimately about maximizing revenue for the platform instead!