Enjoy the current installment of “Weekend Reading For Financial Planners” - this week’s edition kicks off with the news that the SEC has issued a new bulletin clarifying the responsibilities of brokers under Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI). The guidance indicates that, despite early fears that Reg BI was ‘overly accommodating’ to the brokerage industry, the Commission is expecting that reducing conflicts of interest should be an ongoing task for broker-dealers rather than a one-time compliance disclosure change, and that brokerage firms will want to ‘show their work’ when it comes to their compliance responsibilities (a potential best practice for RIAs, too!)!
Also in industry news this week:
- A study suggests that a significant number of brokers who are disciplined by FINRA are engaging in ‘regulatory arbitrage’ by moving to state-regulated insurance companies, making it more difficult for consumers to learn about their past infractions
- How the proposed “Inflation Reduction Act” will impact financial advisors and their clients
From there, we have several articles on advisor content marketing:
- How advisors can generate topic ideas for content to engage their target audience
- The best practices (and pitfalls to avoid) for advisors when crafting an email subject line
- Why campaigns that combine “sunk marketing” with “momentum marketing” can lead to greater results for advisors
We also have a number of articles on retirement planning:
- How the variability in annuity payouts across annuity providers has exploded in 2022, creating an opportunity for advisors to add value to clients by comparison shopping across insurance companies
- Why state long-term care insurance programs are driving demand for private policies, and the implications of these programs for advisors and their clients
- How advisors can support clients in choosing a Medigap policy
We wrap up with three final articles, all about the advisor regulatory landscape:
- Why better regulation of the insurance industry could make life easier for financial advisors
- What advisors need to know about the new IAR continuing education requirements
- Why pursuing title reform for financial planners is a worthwhile endeavor, even if it might be a bumpy process
Enjoy the ‘light’ reading!
(Mark Schoeff | InvestmentNews)
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)’s Regulation Best Interest (Reg BI), issued in June 2019 and implemented in June 2020, requires brokers to act in their clients’ best interests when making an investment recommendation, by meeting four core obligations: disclosure, care, conflicts of interest, and compliance. But because Reg BI is principles-based (i.e., the regulations themselves don’t specify precisely how broker-dealers must mitigate conflicts of interest), some industry observers have been looking for additional guidance – or the results of investigations – to get a better idea of the SEC’s expectations.
To fill this need for guidance, the SEC in March issued a bulletin that focused on account recommendations, stressing that brokers and investment advisers must consider costs and other investment options for clients when they make recommendations about opening accounts and rolling over retirement assets. And this week, the SEC issued a second bulletin that emphasizes that reducing conflicts of interest should be a regular task, rather than a one-time compliance change. SEC staff directed that client disclosures should be specific to each identified conflict of interest, be written in “plain English”, and be tailored to firms’ business models, compensation structures, and products, among other factors.
SEC staffers indicated that they want to dispel the notion that disclosure alone is enough to satisfy Reg BI’s requirements, while also acknowledging that eliminating all conflicts of interest might not be possible. The guidance suggests several potential ways to mitigate conflicts, including: avoiding compensation incentives for selling certain products (and in particular, ‘cliff’ grid schedules that provide significant bumps in compensation for crossing a sales threshold, that can unduly incentivize the incremental sale to get over the line); minimizing incentives for favoring one type of product or account over another (e.g., having different payouts for in-house or revenue-sharing solutions over others); looking carefully at limited “product menus” that could restrict brokers to only recommending a firm’s higher-cost in-house solutions; as well as monitoring recommendations or advice that result in additional compensation. In addition, the SEC urged brokers and advisors to document the measures they take to mitigate conflicts of interest as well as any internal periodic assessments of its policies and procedures.
Overall, this latest bulletin provides additional guidance on the practical steps broker-dealers can take to avoid running afoul of the SEC in its enforcement of Reg BI. And with the SEC bringing its first enforcement action under Reg BI in June and an increasing number of Reg BI-related arbitration cases being filed, the need to comply with Reg BI is moving from the hypothetical to having real-world implications for broker-dealers and their brokers. And for other advisors, the guidance suggests that the SEC will want firms to ‘show their work’ when it comes to enforcement of regulations for broker-dealers and RIAs, meaning that the full range of firms could benefit from reviewing their compliance documentation and policies (and making changes where necessary!).
(Diana Britton | WealthManagement)
Because of their significant impact on the lives of their clients, regulation of financial advisors and their firms is an important part of building a trusting relationship between advisors and consumers. But without common regulations (and a single regulator to enforce them), consumers can often be confused as to the responsibilities of the financial professional they are working with and whether they might have faced disciplinary action in the past. And a new study suggests that the patchwork of regulators has led some financial professionals to engage in a form of regulatory arbitrage, possibly in part to obscure their previous infractions.
According to a study published in the Stanford Law Review, thousands of brokers continue to provide financial advice after exiting the FINRA BrokerCheck system, primarily through state-level insurance regimes. Further, using a dataset of 1.2 million advisors across four regulatory regimes, the researchers found that a disproportionate number of these advisors had a prior history of serious misconduct and are more likely to commit misconduct in the future. They found that of the more than 395,000 advisors who exited the BrokerCheck system from 2010 to 2020, more than 50,000 registered as state insurance producers, of which 16.17% have histories of misconduct (more than double the rate of those who leave the industry altogether), and 12% of which have serious misconduct on their records (compared with 5.8% of those who exit FINRA and come under SEC oversight). These findings suggest that instead of reforming their behavior under the auspices of their current national regulator, some advisors are moving to the insurance channel, which is largely state regulated.
Because this practice could make it more difficult for consumers to learn about their advisor’s previous disciplinary problems, the study’s authors suggest the creation of a single, searchable database of all individuals providing financial advice in the United States. They also suggest stricter national oversight of insurance professionals, perhaps through a federal regulator (similar to the SEC) or a national self-regulatory body (similar to FINRA). Ultimately, because the identified practice of regulatory arbitrage creates challenges for both advisory firms (who might consider enhanced due diligence of potential advisors across the range of regulators) as well as consumers, the kind of coordinated regulation and information-sharing identified by the authors could make it easier for firms and the broader public to identify the ‘bad apples’ in the industry!
(Jeff Levine | Twitter)
The arrival of the Biden administration in 2021 led many to expect significant changes to the tax code that would affect both advisors and their clients. And the administration’s “American Families Plan” released in September, 2021, proposed a range of major changes, from increasing the top marginal tax rate to new Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) requirements for those with high incomes and large account balances. But over the course of negotiations on the proposals, many of these measures were whittled down, to the point where the latest version of the legislation released last week and dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act”, has very few financial planning implications.
For most planners, the most meaningful changes in the bill are those related to Medicare and prescription drugs. For example, the bill would limit Medicare Part D premium growth to no more than 6% per year during the years 2024-2029 and would also implement negotiated prices for certain high-cost drugs. Further, the bill would extend the current enhanced Affordable Care Act credits through the end of 2025, which would mean lower out-of-pocket costs for those with more modest incomes and no ‘cliff’ once income reaches 400% of the Federal poverty line.
In addition, the bill allocates more than $3 billion to the IRS for taxpayer services, which could lead to reduced wait times on the phone for planners with client-related questions for the agency. The bill also includes more than $45 billion for IRS enforcement, which could lead to a significant uptick in the number of taxpayers audited (even if the total percentage of taxpayers audited remains low).
In the end, while the original proposals under the American Families Plan would have represented a tidal wave of changes in tax policy in the United States, the much-slimmed-down Inflation Reduction Act is a mere ripple in the water for most taxpayers. And while it remains to be seen whether the latest bill will become law, it appears that there will be few planning implications for advisors and their clients.
(Kristen Luke | Advisor Perspectives)
Content marketing can be a powerful way to reach clients in an advisor’s target niche. Whether it is blog content, podcasts, videos, or other media, creating content that speaks to a prospective client’s pain points and demonstrates the advisor’s expertise in the niche can establish credibility for the advisor and show the prospect that the advisor has the solution for their problems.
For those advisors looking to create content, the first step is to choose a topic. And the best topics are often those that answer the questions that are a constant concern for the target client. For example, if an advisor works with clients who have received an inheritance, a topic could be, “Common Tax Mistakes People Make With Their Inheritance”. It can also help to insert the prospect into the title, so an advisor who works with business owners could title an article, “Three Mistakes Business Owners Make When Selling Their Business That Can Damage Their Retirement Plans”.
Other potential ways to generate topics for content marketing include: triggering events (writing about what would happen in the prospect’s life that would make them reach out to an advisor); the target audience’s primary financial concern (e.g., a person going through a divorce might want to know whether they will have enough money to maintain their lifestyle); their goals and aspirations; as well as the services and solutions that the prospect might need (and the advisor can provide). Importantly, whatever topic is chosen, avoiding financial services industry jargon and framing topics in a way prospective clients can grasp are important to ensure that readers understand what the advisor has to offer.
Altogether, content marketing can be a powerful tool for an advisor serving a niche. By identifying the pain points for individuals in the target market and explaining how the advisor can solve their problems, an advisor can get their attention and (hopefully) convert them into clients!
(Crystal Butler | Advisor Perspectives)
Email marketing can be an effective tool for advisors, particularly ‘drip’ marketing campaigns that offer valuable content to prospects that have taken the initiative to sign up for the advisor’s email list. And because the first thing individuals typically look at when they see an email in their inbox is the subject line, getting this part of the email correct can mean the difference between the email being opened or ignored.
There are several styles of subject lines that will make it more likely that the email will be opened. For example, by using the phrase “How can I help?”, an advisor can show that they have a genuine desire to make the prospect’s life easier (as opposed to just trying to sell them a product). Another option is a one-word subject line, which can stand out against wordier messages in a prospect’s inbox. For instance, an advisor could use the subject line “Tomorrow” for an invitation to a webinar they are hosting the next day. Another tactic is to put the recipient’s name in the subject line, which can help the message stand out from more anonymous messages in their inbox. Other good options for subject lines include mentioning a mutual connections name (only with the connection’s approval) or alerting the client to a potential unforeseen problem with the subject line “What would happen if…”.
Advisors will also want to take care to avoid potential subject line pitfalls. These include using spam filter trigger phrases and sensational language (e.g., “your income”, “investment decision”, or “no fees”), as well as excessive punctuation, emojis, or using all capital letters (all of which can come across as unprofessional). In addition, ‘clickbait’ subject lines that overpromise what the email has to offer, as well as subject lines that create a false sense of urgency, can break the trust between the advisor and the email recipient. Finally, advisors will want to avoid boring subject lines that blend in with other inbox messages; to prevent this problem, advisors can A/B test different messages (i.e., sending out the same message with one subject line to half of the recipients and a different subject to the other half) to see which subject lines resonate the most with their audience.
The key point is that in a world where email is ubiquitous, being able to stand out from the pack is crucial to increase the likelihood that an advisor’s email is opened. But by creating pithy, personalized subject lines that show the advisor cares about the client’s needs, advisors can improve the return on their email marketing investments!
Financial advisors are in the business of selling their expertise to clients who can benefit from it. Of course, connections between advisors and clients do not happen automatically, which means that advisors have to market their services so prospective clients understand what expertise the advisor offers and how it can help solve their problems.
Several marketing methods can be categorized as “sunk marketing”, meaning that, once completed, the effort generates ongoing value that declines significantly or even goes to zero. For example, email blasts, advertising, mailers, and seminar marketing can all pack an initial punch, but do not provide for lasting engagement with prospective clients.
On the other hand, the output of “momentum marketing” tactics creates lasting value that can compound over time. Examples of this approach include authentic content creation (e.g., blogs, podcasts, books, white papers, and videos), consistent social media engagement, search engine optimization, and the firm’s website. With momentum marketing, not only can each blog post or podcast be accessed over time, but each additional post or episode further builds the advisor’s credibility.
And while both sunk and momentum marketing can be effective in isolation, creating synergy between the two can create even more powerful results. For example, cold contacts invited to a webinar (an example of a sunk marketing tactic) might be skeptical of the advisor, whereas inviting listeners of the advisor’s podcast (a momentum marketing tactic) to attend the webinar can create significantly more engagement during the live event than either of the tactics individually.
So for advisors looking to demonstrate their expertise to their target clients, considering how their marketing tactics can work together synergistically, rather than in isolation, could be the key to driving increased engagement (and converting a greater number of prospects into clients!).
(David Blanchett and Branislav Nikolic | ThinkAdvisor)
Single Premium Immediate Annuities (SPIAs) offer purchasers the opportunity to lock in monthly annuity payments for the rest of their lives in return for a single, upfront premium payment. Because the monthly payment is determined at the time of purchase, getting the highest possible payout rate (i.e., the annual income divided by the premium) is crucial. And while there has been limited variability in the monthly payments offered by annuity providers over the past several years, the recent spike in interest rates has significantly increased the gap between the companies offering the highest payments and the lowest.
Blanchett and Nikolic analyzed data on SPIA payout rates for a 65-year-old male annuitant from March 2013 to July 2022 to see how the variability of payout rates among insurers has changed over time. Broadly, payout rates were highly correlated to changes in interest rates throughout the period (with higher interest rates being linked to higher payout rates), but until 2022, there was not a similar relationship between the level of variation between companies and interest rates. But while the median and average variability over the entire period has been approximately 10%, by July 10, 2022, the variation had jumped to 33.7%, with a minimum payout rate of 5.5% and a maximum payout rate of 7.35% (suggesting that some insurance companies have been slow to change their pricing in the rising interest rate environment)!
This analysis indicates that in the current environment, advisors can add significant value for their clients by ‘shopping around’ for annuity quotes rather than relying on a limited number of providers. And this value is likely to increase if interest rates were to increase further, as clients could benefit not only from the increased payout rates that are associated with higher interest rates, but also from finding the insurance companies that are offering the best quotes in response to rising rates (while also considering the financial health of the annuity providers!).
(Tom Riekse | LTCI Partners)
As longevity has increased for Americans, Long-Term Care (LTC) insurance policies have become more popular. Given that long-term care costs can add up to tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, these policies provide clients with a pool of money that can be used to defray these costs and potentially avoid draining their savings (which is particularly helpful when the individual needing long-term care is married or has significant legacy desires). But amid rising LTC insurance rates, the growth in the popularity of these policies had slowed, at least until 2021.
Because of the relatively high cost of LTC policies, some states have considered creating a public LTC fund that citizens could tap without having to purchase a private policy. The first state to implement such a program was Washington, whose Washington Cares Fund offers Washington residents an LTC benefit of $100 per day for up to 365 days, or a total benefit of $36,500. This fund is funded by a 0.58% payroll tax on employees (so a worker making $100,000 per year would pay $580 annually).
A key part of Washington’s program, though, was that individuals who currently own private LTC policies could be exempt from the payroll tax. And given the many highly paid technology workers in the state, many elected to purchase private policies to avoid the tax. However, there was so much interest that, after issuing thousands of policies, many carriers decided to suspend new sales in Washington until after the November 1, 2021, deadline to secure coverage and be eligible for the payroll tax exemption (as the carriers were concerned that new policyholders would drop the policies after receiving the tax exemption). In the end, almost half a million Washington residents were approved to be exempted from the tax.
Washington is currently the only state that has enacted such a program, but 13 other states (including high-population states such as California and New York) are currently considering similar measures. And while it is unclear whether any of these states will elect to enact a similar payroll tax with an exemption for those privately insured, advisors could consider whether they have clients in these states that might have high enough incomes that purchasing a private LTC policy could be cost effective (given the possible exemption from payroll tax and the benefits of the policy itself). Because given that the rush of interest in Washington made purchasing LTC policies difficult for some, having a plan prepared in case such a program is enacted could result in significant savings for clients!
(Mark Miller | Morningstar)
Nearly all American seniors have Medicare coverage, meaning that dealing with Medicare will be a common issue for advisors working with older clients. And given the wide range of options for Medicare coverage, advisors can add significant value to clients by ensuring they are on the best plan given their financial situation and medical needs.
While Medicare Parts A and B offer coverage for hospital stays, doctor visits, and other medical expenses, they do not have a built-in cap on out-of-pocket costs, leaving seniors potentially exposed to significant medical bills. Because of this, many individuals choose to enroll in either a Medicare Advantage or a Medigap plan to limit their costs (while some seniors will receive similar supplemental benefits from a former employer or from Medicaid). Medicare Advantage plans can cost as little as $0 in additional premium, but typically have higher out-of-pocket caps and typically used managed-care provider networks that can restrict an enrollee’s flexibility, which leads many seniors to choose Medigap plans.
Medigap plans offer a range of options for seniors, with plans varying in their premiums, coinsurance, and deductibles. The plans are labeled by letter and seniors have up to 10 different policies to choose from, depending on where they live. Notably, the benefits are standardized across the United States; for example, all insurers offering Medigap Plan D in Ohio must offer an identical plan, and a Plan D policy in Ohio must offer the same level of coverage as a Plan D policy in California. In addition to assessing the tradeoff between premium cost and benefits across different plans for a client, advisors can also help clients shop for plans among the different insurance providers, as there is often substantial variation in premiums for any given plan letter among carriers in a local market. It is also important to consider whether the insurance company has hiked rates in the past.
In the end, Medicare provides seniors with flexibility in how they want to be covered, but the range of choices (and the potential consequences of making the wrong choice) can be overwhelming for consumers. And while there are a range of non-profits and brokers who can provide guidance to seniors, financial advisors have the advantage of knowing their clients’ full financial picture, creating an opportunity to help their clients pick a Medigap policy that is aligned with their broader financial plan!
(Michelle Richter | WealthManagement)
The financial advisory industry includes a range of fee models, from fee-only advisors who sell their advice to brokers and insurance agents who sell financial products (e.g., investment or insurance products) and receive commissions. In addition to the different fee models of financial advisors and insurance providers, regulation of financial advisors and the brokerage and insurance industries varies greatly, with advisors typically regulated nationally and insurance professionals regulated on a state level. Further, while advisor regulation covers both the provision of advice and product sales practices, insurance regulations are focused on the latter.
The significance of these distinctions is that, at the most basic level, RIAs sell a “verb” (the process of giving advice) while brokers and agents sell a noun (the investment or investment product). Which is important, because the regulation of verbs (which focuses on the service and process) is fundamentally different from the regulation of nouns (which focuses on the product itself and its appropriateness).
Viewed from this lens, Richter highlights notable gaps that have emerged in the insurance landscape in particular, because of the lack of its verb-oriented activity. For instance, fiduciary financial advisors often struggle to find fiduciary advice and guidance on insurance, because the whole regulatory framework for insurance is built around the noun of insurance products and isn’t really built to handle the verb of insurance advice. More broadly, these differences can outright weaken the entire business of insurance itself (by focusing on products rather than holistic advice). Therefore, professionals in both industries, as well as consumers, would stand to benefit if insurance regulation were adapted to support a model of providing ongoing, fee-based advice – to support verb-based advice in insurance, not just noun-based product sales.
For Richter, the key point is that comprehensive financial advisors do not just manage their clients’ assets (typically the purview of investment management), but rather their overall wealth (which includes both asset and liability management). Because of this, financial advisors have much to gain from being able to access objective advice on insurance products, and so the development of fee-based insurance advice (with reduced conflicts of interest as a result of not also selling insurance products) could ultimately allow financial advisors to provide better recommendations and find better insurance product solutions to their clients!
(Todd Rosenfeld | InvestmentNews)
One of the fundamental principles of being a professional is that, as a professional, you’ve acquired a specialized body of knowledge in your profession. But over time, that body of knowledge changes and evolves with new research, new discoveries, and new best practices. Consequently, to ensure a ‘minimum’ level of ongoing competency, it’s a standard requirement for professionals to be required to obtain continuing education.
And as the professionalism of financial advisors has increased, so too have the requirements for continuing education. In the early years, continuing education was primarily confined to state insurance and FINRA CE obligations, which mostly revolved around the products used with clients, and relevant (insurance and securities) laws. As advisors increasingly sought out professional designations – such as CFP certification – and joined membership associations more focused on lifting professional standards (e.g., NAPFA), the requirements for the number of hours of annual continuing education also increased.
In late 2020, after several years of background research and seeking public comment from investment advisers, NASAA (the North American Securities Administrators Association, an association of state investment regulators) put forth a Model Rule that would, for the first time, add an annual CE obligation to the investment adviser representatives (IARs) of RIAs – specifically, 12 hours of continuing education each year, including 6 hours of “Products & Practice” and 6 hours of “Ethics & Professional Responsibility”.
Technically, though, because NASAA is an association of state regulators, it doesn’t actually control the regulations of the states – which typically requires each state’s legislature to draft its own laws or the state’s regulator to go through its own formal process for implementing new rules (ideally using NASAA’s Model Rule as a template). As a result, while NASAA implemented its Model Rule in the fall of 2020, individual states are still rolling out their IAR CE requirements, one state at a time. Though as long as the advisor is registered as an IAR in that state – whether it is their home state, or an additional state in which they’re registered – the IAR CE obligation will apply. Currently, three states (Maryland, Mississippi, and Vermont), have implemented the requirement, and several other states and the District of Columbia are planning to implement the IAR CE requirements in the next year.
The key point is that advisors acting as IARs will want to be aware of this new CE requirement and whether it applies to them (as IARs who fail to complete the required training by the annual deadline will first have their IAR status set to CE inactive, and, if the requirement is not completed by the end of the following year, will be unable to renew their registration). But with a variety of ways to fulfill the requirement, advisors can not only avoid running afoul of regulators, but also ensure they are maintaining the knowledge needed to properly serve their clients!
(Bob Veres | Inside Information)
Titles can convey meaningful information to consumers about a professional’s implied competency and trustworthiness. But in the world of financial advice, there so far has been little regulation on advisor titles (unless someone tries to call themselves an “investment counselor”, which ironically is still regulated under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940). This means that anyone can hold themselves out as a “financial advisor” or “financial planner” (as Veres highlights, even a monkey in a suit) – regardless of how much advice or planning they actually give, or the amount of training or experience they have – creating confusion among consumers.
With this in mind, the Financial Planning Association (FPA) announced in July that it is launching a new advocacy initiative with the goal of achieving title protection of the term “financial planner” to ensure that “anyone proclaiming to be a financial planner meets minimum standards that protect consumers and advances the financial planning profession”.
Longtime industry observer Veres notes that while this will be a worthwhile endeavor, it will be challenging to bring together the various parts of the financial planning community (including NAPFA, the CFP Board, and the AICPA, as well as XYPN that last year filed a petition with the SEC to enact title protection for financial planners as well) to agree on a way forward. For example, the industry might look to the government for regulation, but some might be concerned that the government will intrude deeply into what kind of advice can legally be provided. And while the FPA itself emphasizes that it doesn’t want to increase regulatory burdens, ultimately title protection by definition will necessitate some regulatory intervention to stipulate the requirements that must be met to use the title, and enforce regulatory consequences against those who use the title without meeting those requirements. Alternatively, the industry could look to self-regulate, just as doctors, accountants, and attorneys do. However, the history of Self-Regulatory Organizations (SROs) in the financial services industry has been fraught; for example, Veres notes that FINRA started as an SRO for broker-dealers, but ultimately became a powerful lobbying organization with influence over regulatory policies (many of which, some would argue, are too focused on protecting broker-dealers themselves and are against the interests of consumers).
Ultimately, the key point is that title reform is an important part of the development of financial planning into a profession, and the FPA’s efforts are the first step in this direction. But while the road to title reform might be bumpy (with conflicting views among stakeholders, and the risk that it results in even more layers of regulatory burden on top of an already-highly-regulated advice industry), ensuring that professionals who hold themselves out to be financial planners are qualified to give advice will not only lift the standards for the industry, but also help assure consumers that the planner they hire is truly qualified to provide financial advice!
We hope you enjoyed the reading! Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts, or make a suggestion of any articles you think we should highlight in a future column!
In the meantime, if you're interested in more news and information regarding advisor technology, we'd highly recommend checking out Craig Iskowitz's "Wealth Management Today" blog, as well as Gavin Spitzner's "Wealth Management Weekly" blog.