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The Middleman Financial Advisor - A Former Stockbroker Unveils Wall Street's Parrots

Witten by Ethan S. Braid, CFA on 2 - 03 - 2013

The Middleman Financial Advisor – a Former Stockbroker Unveils Wall Street’s Parrots

 

Who is the Middleman Financial Advisor?

 

A parrot is known for repeating lines it hears, over and over, with surprising authority. The middleman financial advisor, much like a parrot, delivers influential sound bites to clients in the form of very well rehearsed sales lines. The middleman financial advisor brings exceptionally little value to the table for his clients relative to the fees those clients pay. Often, the client is completely unaware of this void in value. These advisors, who tend to be very successful and have prestigious titles at their respective firms, are nothing more than grossly overpaid salespersons. To the untrained eye, spotting the middleman financial advisor can be difficult. The middleman financial advisor is an expert at confusing his clients with industry jargon (that he himself sometimes doesn’t fully understand). However, once you have read my article, spotting this group of folks will be almost as easy as seeing a herd of elephants on the side of the road – you won’t miss them! Avoid all business dealings with the middleman financial advisor, regardless of how charismatic they may be. In the long run, hiring the middleman financial advisor can be a very costly mistake.

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How do Financial Advisors get Paid?

Written by Ethan S. Braid, CFA on 8 - 05 - 2012

How do Financial Advisors get paid? 

 

For over a decade, I worked as a stockbroker (my card said financial advisor) at two of the largest Wall Street brokerage firms. During my time with these sales institutions, I don’t think I can count the number of times that clients and prospective clients asked me, “How do financial advisors get paid?” Back then, I would go to lengths to explain the 21 page Financial Advisor Compensation Plan. The end result? I think my clients greatly appreciated my attempt to provide transparency while working in an extremely nontransparent business. My clients trusted me and that was what was most important. However, I also felt that they never fully understood just how stockbrokers get paid and were always skeptical of the firm. This article will attempt to shed some light on a very confusing subject and provide a look at some of the hidden fees stockbrokers and their firms earn.

 The Grid

 

This is a term used to describe a chart that includes breakpoints for stockbroker production levels. The example below is applicable to stockbrokers who are employees of large traditional Wall Street brokerage firms. Grid payouts for independent stockbrokers are significantly higher. Production is a term for fees & commissions. Hitting breakpoints on the grid allows one to receive a greater percentage of her production. For example, a grid may look like this:

 

Trailing 12-month production (fees & commissions)  

 

 

From

To

Grid Payout Percentage

Wrap/Insurance/Annuity Percentage

$3m

+

44%

47%

$1.75m

$2.99m

43%

46%

$1m

$1.749m

42%

45%

$750,000

$999,999

41%

44%

$600,000

$749,000

40%

43%

$400,000

$599,000

38%

41%

$300,000

$399,000

34%

37%

$250,000

$299,000

32%

35%

$200,000

$249,999

29%

32%

$0

$199,000

27

30%

To simplify an example, suppose a stockbroker produced $1,000,000 of production for 2012. Her W2 Income would look like:

 

2012 production

$1,000,000

Grid payout

X 42%

Pre-tax W2 income for the stockbroker

$420,000

 

 

But what if the stockbroker instead only sold the higher paying products like insurance, annuities, et al? Then her income would increase by $30,000 per year! Instead of getting paid 42%, she would be getting paid 45%. Welcome to conflicts of interest 101. Some firms pay their stockbrokers a higher percentage payout on certain products vs. others. This compensation strategy will incentivize the stockbrokers to push some products over others, whether the products are the best for the client or not. I can personally attest to the fact that having known over 100 stockbrokers at several of the largest firms, how they get paid is their number one priority. I call it a reverse Pareto Principle. You know the old 80/20 rule? Only in this case, you have to work to find the 20% of stockbrokers who will give you a fair deal because 80% are only thinking of themselves!

The other glaringly obvious problem with this compensation scheme is that by instituting breakpoints with higher payouts, there is an obvious pressure on stockbrokers to produce more so that they can get a higher payout. Now let me be the first to say that incentivizing your sales employees to sell more is a great idea and many successful companies have been built in this very fashion. However, we are talking about providing financial advice to wealthy families, not selling electrical equipment, software or automotive parts. Thus, you can now see that the stockbrokers at most of the traditional brokerage firms are nothing more than high paid salespeople.   Welcome to conflict of interest 201. Do you want your estate planning and investment guidance given to you by someone who is so tangled up in conflicts of interest?  

 

Annuities, Annuities, Annuities…that will be 7% thank you very much! 

 

If I had a dollar for every investor I have met over the years who didn’t understand how the commission structure of an annuity worked, I would have at least a few hundred extra dollars in my bank account. I have met with hundreds of investors over the years who owned annuities and NOT ONE was able to explain to me how much in commission the agent who sold them the policy was paid. Let me repeat that statement. NOT ONE was able to tell me how much commission was paid to the agent. Nearly every time, the investor would just about fall out of her chair when I explained what the commission and fee structure looked like. You see, when you buy an annuity, the commission amount is buried in that huge prospectus the agent gives you. If you are very good at reading complicated documents, you will find the percentage commission. But what you won’t receive is a statement showing the absolute dollar amount of commission from your policy that was paid to the agent.

 

To illustrate a typical annuity commission, let’s begin with what the broker generally receives. 7% is a common commission amount for variable annuities. The commissions on some products can even be as high as a whopping 10%. For this article’s sake, we will assume that we are looking at annuities from large, reputable insurance companies and in that world the standard commission is around 7%.  

Variable Annuity purchase amount

$500,000

7% commission factor

X 7%

Stockbroker’s commission

$35,000

 

 

But wait there is more! If you thought that the gravy train ended there you are wrong, dead wrong. Most annuities also pay a trailer commission. With many of today’s annuities the trailer commission is around 1%. That means that the agent will get paid a residual payment every year that you own the annuity.  

And still even more…Some stockbrokers are highly skilled at flipping their clients from one annuity to the next about every 4 – 7 years, depending on when the back end charges wear off. The good news here is that regulators scrutinize these 1035 exchanges to protect investors from being churned. The bad news is is that the insurance industry is constantly coming up with new features for an old product so stockbrokers use the latest feature on the then current hot annuity and conveniently get around regulatory hurdles.

 

As a final note on annuities, let me also say that annuities themselves are not all bad and some can be highly beneficial to a client in certain circumstances. The problem lies in how stockbrokers are paid to sell them. 

Life Insurance…I will take 100% commission if you let me! 

 

So if you were surprised by the annuity commissions, how about life insurance? Would you be shocked to know that many life insurance policies pay up to 100% in commission for the first year’s premium? That’s right; whatever you wrote a check for in the first year of the policy, a good rule of thumb is that up to 100% of that amount was commission. The agent may or may not receive all of that commission depending on where she is employed. For an employee of a brokerage firm, the firm is paid the entire commission by the underwriting insurance company and then gives the stockbroker her cut of the goods. Some agents, those who are independent, will get the entire commission.

 

Talk about conflict of interest! The next time that your stockbroker or insurance agent is trying to talk to you about an estate planning strategy, hold on to your wallet!  

We all know that life insurance can be an extremely valuable component of your wealth transfer strategy. What the average investor doesn’t know is what type of policy (VUL, UL, Whole Life, Term, etc.) is most appropriate. Other important decisions are how to own the insurance (individually vs. a trust) and who the beneficiaries should be.

 

The best advice here is to have a trusted estate planning attorney, CPA, or fee-only investment advisor involved in your insurance planning. It pays to have another set of eyes watching over this type of transaction, especially if those eyes are not getting any of the commission involved. 

Structured Notes anyone?

Wall Street’s latest spread play. By spread I mean that they sell you something that has an embedded commission in it – similar to a used car. Years ago bonds would carry as much as 5% embedded commission. Over time competition from discounters and the availability of market data has pushed bond commissions down significantly. In a search for revenue and new ideas for clients, structured products have been developed. Many new issue structured notes have 3 – 4% commissions embedded in them. Buyer beware! When your stockbroker trys to show you a leveraged play on the stock market with principal protection keep in mind that there could be a significant commission behind that trade. Because her investment bank is manufacturing the product (structured note), the commission is built into the price and may not be that obvious to you.  

How about some IPOs or New Issue Closed End Mutual Funds?

Similar to structured notes, IPOs and closed end mutual funds (new issue) carry an embedded commission. Close End Fund commissions for new issues tend to be about the same as structured notes, up to 4%. Equity IPOs tend to smaller, typically 1% or less. In either case, the commissions may not be so obvious because they are embedded in the underwriting process. Some stockbrokers are highly skilled at selling these new issues to clients and then flipping them to buy more. Be very careful when dealing with stockbrokers who specialize in new issues. Chances are that they have perfected a churning operation that while legal, is certainly not in your best interest. 

I will have some Limited Partnerships please.

The last decade of market performance was not very good for most stock market investors. However, a number of alternative investments, hedge funds in particular, faired exceptionally well. Since most investors buy performance (and Wall Street knows this fact), the Wall Street marketing machine is pushing alternative investment limited partnerships like never before. A number of limited partnerships can give you access to private equity, real estate, hedge funds etc., all of which can be valuable in your portfolio. What you have to watch out for is a commission driven sale. Many of the limited partnerships sold though stockbrokers carry exceptionally high fees. Do your homework before you buy! Another way to look at these limited partnerships is that you are paying the stockbroker, her sales manager, her firm’s shareholders, the firm’s dedicated limited partnership consultant (who teaches the stockbrokers how to sell the investment), and last but not least the managers running the money. Wow, that is a lot of people to take care of!  

You can expect that the stockbroker will receive a 1 – 5% commission (and sometimes up to 10%) to put you into the partnership and then a 1 – 2% annual trailer commission.

 Margin Interest & Credit Lines...no-one told you? They get paid on those too.

 Many firms will pay their stockbrokers a cut of the margin interest and loan interest from credit lines, mortgages, etc. Brokerage firms like to change the payouts on these products frequently so it is anyone’s guess as to what exactly your stockbroker is truly getting paid – just know that she is getting paid and that alone should raise some flags on whether the advice to take out the loan was a good idea or not. In fact, it is important to note that credit lines in particular are exceptionally profitable to brokerage firms. So much so that many brokerage firms have campaigns (letters, call nights, etc.) to notify their customers of the availability of credit lines.

Negative Consent Letters…yes they can use those and even promote them. Watch out!

This is a nasty little trick that some brokerage firms like to teach their stockbrokers. The game works like this: The stockbroker sends a letter to her client outlining all of the good work she has been doing for her client. In the letter, she states that she has decided to raise the client’s fee from for example 1.50% to 2.0%. Since she knows how much her client values all of her hard work, unless she hears from the client this fee increase is going to be ok and will become effective on some stated date. Welcome to how do you trick em 101. Negative consent letters allow stockbrokers to raise their fees without having a conversation with the client. I know of one firm that promoted a team of stockbrokers who sent out nearly 300 negative consent letters to clients and only received 4 phone calls resulting in just one objection to the fee increase! With a negative consent letter, the firm and the stockbroker are betting you don’t read your mail and/or you don’t fully understand exactly what they are doing regarding the fee you pay them. Know that this is an easy way for a stockbroker to raise your fee.

Ok so how do I get away from this Wall Street driven sales culture and get a fair deal?

Fee-only registered investment advisors (RIAs) don’t sell products, don’t accept commissions and operate as fiduciaries. The key is to find someone who promotes themselves as fee-only. In order to hold yourself out as a fee-only advisor, you cannot also sell life insurance, annuities or any other investment for commission. Note that a large number of advisors are fee-based and not fee-only. Fee-based is not the same thing as fee-only. Knowing the difference between fee-only & fee-based is very, very important. A fee-based advisor can also sell you investment products for commission, life insurance etc. Thus, if you want to get away from the headaches and uncertainties associated with most financial services providers, find a fee-only registered investment advisor. By working with a fee-only RIA you will have the benefit of knowing that you are working with someone who is legally obligated to put your best interests ahead of hers. Additionally, you will be able to sleep at night knowing that the only compensation that your advisor is receiving is the fee that you are paying her - transparent, easily understandable, and fair.  

To find a fee-only RIA a good place to start would be your attorney or you’re CPA or possibly a friend or family member.   You may also want to conduct an internet search of fee-only RIAs in your area. Interview several and then make your decision. You won’t regret leaving the Wall Street sales machine behind not even one bit.

 

 

About the author of this article. 

Ethan S. Braid, CFA is the founder of HighPass Asset Management – an independent, fee-only, registered investment advisory firm with a fiduciary duty to the clients it serves. Mr. Braid has been passionate about managing client investment portfolios and providing customized financial planning advice since he started working in the investment industry 14 years ago. Mr. Braid earned a BS in Finance from Robert Morris University, an MBA from Cleveland State University and he is also a CFA Charterholder.

 

Mr. Braid is devoted to being an expert in the field of wealth management for high net worth individuals and families and for many years, has read one book per month on subject areas such as: estate planning, retirement planning, investment analysis, mergers & acquisitions and behavioural finance. Mr. Braid also has a passion for business history with a focus on the late 19th & early 20th centuries. 

When Mr. Braid is not helping clients, he enjoys: cooking, wine, exercise, his yellow Labrador retriever, fly fishing, hiking, travel, playing guitar and duck hunting.

 

 

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Employee Forgivable Loans (EFL) - Many Stockbrokers (Financial Advisors) have them and why you should be extremely cautious.

Written by Ethan S. Braid, CFA on 8-03-2012

Employee Forgivable Loans (EFL) – Many Stockbrokers (Financial Advisors) have them and why you should be extremely cautious.

 One of the lesser known, but very serious conflicts of interest plaguing most of the Wall Street brokerage firms these days is the employee forgivable loan. An employee forgivable loan (EFL) is a bonus payment, often over $1 million dollars, given to many stockbrokers by their employer. These bonus payments are often structured in ways that can encourage stockbrokers to churn their clients and/or put their own interests ahead of their clients’ interests. EFLs are given to stockbrokers for various reasons and a large percentage of today’s veteran Wall Street stockbrokers are currently under EFL contracts. Generally speaking, EFLs are provided to stockbrokers for one of two reasons:

 

  • To keep stockbrokers from leaving their firms.
  • To entice stockbrokers to switch firms. 

Some of the typical triggers for providing an EFL to a stockbroker :

 

  • Stockbrokers switching firms.
  • One firm acquires another firm.
  • Significant disruption in the financial markets (think financial collapse of 2008).

 

When a stockbroker switches firms, most of the time she will be offered a significant financial incentive to make the move. For example, a stockbroker is currently employed at firm A and firm B is trying to recruit her to leave firm A and join firm B. In order to induce the stockbroker to leave firm A and move to firm B, firm B will offer her an EFL. The EFL is provided to her by firm B the day she lands at firm B. Many of today’s EFL deals are worth millions of dollars.

 

When one firm purchases another firm, EFL payments are usually handed out to most of the stockbrokers of the firm that was acquired. These payments are made to the stockbrokers of the acquired firm in an effort to prevent them from leaving. For example, Firm B purchases firm A and provides EFLs to the stockbrokers of firm A as a way to keep the brokers happy and ensure they don’t leave. Firm B expects that if the acquired stockbrokers are provided with very large bonus payments, then those stockbrokers will be a lot less likely to leave. The old adage, “fat, dumb, and happy” rings true. Additionally, today’s EFL deals contain a great deal of legal restrictions, often in the form of non-solicitation clauses that can make it difficult for a stockbroker to leave her employer once she has accepted the bonus payment.

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 many stockbrokers saw their personal investment portfolios shrink in value, their incomes drop, and at the same time were under significant pressure to defend the reputation of their firms. The combination of these forces influenced many advisors to change firms in an attempt to rebuild their own net worth and increase their income during the market’s meltdown. Recognizing the danger of losing large numbers of high producing stockbrokers, many brokerage firms provided EFLs to their larger producers in the hopes that the stockbrokers would not change firms. Oddly enough many of these EFL payments were made after these firms were bailed out with taxpayer dollars! 

What does an EFL deal look like?

Most EFLs are based upon two factors. How much in commissions & fees the stockbroker produces and how much in client assets the stockbroker manages. Each firm has a slightly different formula, but they are all very similar at the end of the day. In today’s market, an EFL deal for a stockbroker changing firms can be up to 330% cash payment to the stockbroker based upon her last 12 months fees & commissions. Often the deal is paid in stages with 125 – 150% upfront and the remaining 180 – 205% paid over the next two years.

 For example, a stockbroker decides to leave firm A & join firm B for a 300% EFL deal:

 

Stockbroker’s commission in last 12 months

$1,000,000

Upfront bonus payment multiplier

X125%

Upfront EFL payment

$1,250,000

The $1,250,000 payment to the stockbroker is typically all in cash. Additionally, there are no taxes withheld, instead, the stockbroker literally gets a check for $1,250,000 and then pays the taxes over the next 5 – 10 years, depending on the terms of the contract. Most of today’s EFL deals are 9 years long. Therefore, every year on the stockbroker’s anniversary date, 1/9 ($138,888 in this case) of the loan is forgiven and the stockbroker will owe taxes on the forgiven amount in that tax year. Thus, provided the stockbroker stays at her new firm for 9 full years, she will have had all of the EFL forgiven and ultimately earned the entire EFL bonus as W2 income. Should she decide to leave the firm prior to the 9 years being up, she will then owe the firm any balance outstanding that has not been forgiven. Hence, EFLs are sometimes referred to as golden handcuffs.

Now, one should also note that the typical stockbroker gets paid about 40% on average of her commissions and fees. So in the example above, a stockbroker generating $1,000,000 per year in commissions & fees will get paid about $400,000, pre-tax W2 income, by her employing firm. The other 60% goes to the firm’s managers, sales managers, overhead, shareholders, et al.

When switching firms, the average stockbroker will take about 70% of her clients & client assets with her to her new firm. Often stockbrokers will be able to retain most of their revenue when switching firms because the 30% that stays behind tends to be their least meaningful and lowest revenue bearing accounts. Therefore, by switching firms, a stockbroker stands to gain a significant windfall due to the fact that she will be able to duplicate her income stream at the new firm and also get a large bonus payment from the new firm. Faced with this financial opportunity, is it any wonder that stockbrokers change firms routinely?

The second stage of the broker switching firms EFL deal is the “back-end” payment, of which there can be several. These back end payments are generally made within the first two years after the stockbroker has changed firms. The back end portion of the EFL deal is based upon the commissions & fees produced at the new firm and the amount of client assets that followed the stockbroker to the new firm. Sticking with the example from above: 

Stockbroker’s commissions in year 2 at new firm

$1,100,000

300% deal multiplier

X300%

Final EFL payment to the stockbroker:

$3,300,000

Less original upfront payment

($1,250,000)

Net check for 2nd EFL payment

$2,050,000

 

 

Total of both EFLS (paid to the stockbroker)

$3,300,000

I give you a $1; you give me $3.30…Sound Good? 

  • Significant churning can take place in the year prior to a stockbroker switching firms and in the two years following a stockbroker switching firms.

 

Most stockbrokers will spend months and sometimes years planning their move from firm A to firm B. Knowing that they will get paid up to $3.30 by the new firm for every dollar of commission they generate at the old firm, there is a significant incentive for a stockbroker to grow his or her revenue as much as possible in the months leading up to her departure from firm A to firm B. Getting paid $3.30 per commission dollar in addition to the standard 40% of each commission dollar is an incredible way for a stockbroker to leverage her commissions!  As a result of this deal structure, a stockbroker may be more likely to churn her clients and/or sell big commission products like life insurance, variable annuities, structured products and limited partnerships in the year leading up to her employment switch. Because stockbrokers are not fiduciaries and are held to the lower standard of care in the investment world, also known as the suitability doctrine, they can more easily get away with this type of behavior. In other words, this is a form of churning that can take place and it will not show up on the regulators’ or brokerage firm managers’ radar because the investments were “suitable” for the client. In fact, the stockbroker will likely be congratulated by her employer for increasing her commissions!  For example, selling a variable annuity to a client who is interested in “guarantees on principal” is a 100% compliance approved activity…never mind the fact that annuities usually pay a 7% commission that the client doesn’t see while bank CDs (also principal guaranteed) pay about .10% commission…hey the stockbroker found a “suitable” investment product for the client…it just so happened that “suitable” investment paid her the maximum commission. Add in some life insurance to the deal and now you are really cranking the commissions out. All of this is perfectly legal and comes under very little scrutiny with respect to the following question: was the commission driven sale(s) motivated to result in a higher EFL payment? The firm the stockbroker just left isn’t going to make a fuss because they benefitted from the recent sales she made. The firm that the stockbroker is going to isn’t going to say a word either because the sales manager at the new firm gets paid more for larger producing brokers. Unfortunately the whole system is geared towards how much can be squeezed out of the client. Hiding behind the suitability doctrine is something that stockbrokers and their sales managers have done since 1934 and likely won’t stop doing anytime soon…

 

Once the stockbroker lands at the new firm, she is once again incentivized to find ways to maximize commissions and fees. Again, all perfectly legal because under the suitability doctrine, she can show clients the investments that pay her the most commission provided the investments are “suitable.” Considering that over the course of the next two years at the new firm, the stockbroker is eligible to get paid up to 330% of the commissions & fees she produces, you can bet that she will look for every “suitable” way to generate as much in commissions & fees as possible.

 

As one who spent over a decade working as a stockbroker (financial advisor on today’s business cards) at two of the largest Wall Street firms, I can tell you first hand that the type of churning I have indicated in this article happens. In fact, the frequency with which this type of churning takes place is nothing short of alarming. I have personally heard stockbrokers make comments like, “I am coming up on my EFL anniversary date, and I need to put some structured products and annuities into clients’ accounts to max out my EFL deal!” No harm done as long as those non-transparent commission laden products are suitable right?

 

The intent of this article is not to demonize those in business who strive to produce more revenue year over year. Growing a business is what our capitalistic society is all about. Competition brings out the finest in all of us and it is that competitive spirit which makes America great. However, no-one likes to be taken advantage of. The current system that we have in place at most of the Wall Street brokerage firms is corrupt and stacks the odds against the client. Advice is often based upon the “YTB” an acronym for “yield to broker.” Put another way, stockbrokers always want to know what they will get paid before they talk to a client about a product or service. All too often the client ends up on the short end of the stick.

 

One way to eliminate all of this non-transparent, behind the scenes scheming is to work exclusively with fee-only registered investment advisors. Fee-only advisors have no products to sell, operate as fiduciaries and work on a very transparent fee. Note: do not confuse fee-only with fee-based. Fee-based is a product that can be found at all of the Wall Street brokerage firms. For example, your stockbroker offers you a “wrap account” and tells you that you will pay a fee based on assets. What you just got was an account product developed by her firm. She is still in position to sell you life insurance products, limited partnerships, hedge funds, structured notes, credit lines, etc., all for commissions which you may not see…don’t get fooled! Know the differences between fee-only and fee-based. A fee-only advisor cannot accept commissions and her only source of income will be the fees that she charges. All of which will be extremely transparent.

 

Ethan S. Braid, CFA

President

HighPass Asset Management

800 – 672 – 7916

www.highpassasset.com

 

 

About the author of this article.

 

Ethan S. Braid, CFA is the founder of HighPass Asset Management – an independent, fee-only, registered investment advisory firm with a fiduciary duty to the clients it serves. Mr. Braid has been passionate about managing client investment portfolios and providing customized financial planning advice since he started working in the investment industry 13 years ago. Mr. Braid earned a BS in Finance from Robert Morris University, an MBA from Cleveland State University and he is also a CFA Charterholder.                                                                                          

Mr. Braid is devoted to being an expert in the field of wealth management for high net worth individuals and families and for many years, has read one book per month on subject areas such as: estate planning, retirement planning, investment analysis, mergers & acquisitions and behavioural finance. Mr. Braid also has a passion for business history with a focus on the late 19th & early 20th centuries.

 

When Mr. Braid is not helping clients, he enjoys: cooking, wine, exercise, his yellow Labrador retriever, fly fishing, hiking, travel, playing guitar and duck hunting.

 

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When The Bond Market Blows Up

Written by Ethan S. Braid, CFA on 5-23-2012

 

The last time I saw investors behave the way they are now, it was 1999. Back then the mere announcement of an analyst upgrade would send stocks like Red Hat, Ariba, and Commerce One skyrocketing as much as 20 points in one day. Forgotten Wall Street fortune tellers like Abby Cohen, Mary Meeker and Henry Blodget ruled the media. At that time 100s of billions of dollars poured into equity mutual funds, especially those funds who concentrated in technology.  You couldn’t watch the T.V. for more than 10 minutes without seeing a Janus commercial touting their research abilities and outperformance capabilities.

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Conflicts of Interest in the Investment World

 

 

Conflicts of Interest in Your Portfolio?

 

 

 

What is a conflict of interest?

 

According to Merriam Webster, a conflict of interest is defined as:  a conflict between the private interests and the official responsibilities of a person in a position of trust.  In my experience in business, those in the legal profession seem to have the best understanding and provide the most disclosure on conflicts of interest.  For example if you hired an attorney to help you resolve a dispute with a company and the attorney had previously represented that company, then the attorney would be “conflicted out” from representing you.  Because the attorney had previously represented the company that you are now involved in a dispute with, he or she would essentially be on both sides of the fence if he/she were to represent you and would not be in a position to provide you with unbiased advice.  Also, the company in question would be extremely displeased that the lawyer they had hired in the past to represent them had now become an adversary on the other side of the table against them!

 

How do conflicts of interest show up in the world of investments?

 

If you are a client at a major Wall Street bank/brokerage firm, you are automatically exposed to significant conflicts of interest.  You are a client because you are looking for advice.  However, what you receive may be something very different.  These firms are in the business of selling products and producing a profit.  These products can be in the form of traditional brokerage services or investment advisory services (wrap accounts).  Advice from their salespeople (also called stockbrokers and financial advisors) is typically considered incidental to the sale of products they are promoting or helping you buy.  In other words, broker dealer firms are there to facilitate a transaction on behalf of the customer, with the focus on the transaction and not the advice.  While this may seem confusing, and it is, it gets even more confusing because many of the advisors at these firms are dual registered as both advisors and brokers.  Additionally, they may also be insurance licensed.  If you look closely at the business card of many of today’s stockbrokers, you may see the words:  advisory and brokerage services. Thus, providing objective advice to clients is exceptionally difficult for the salespeople employed at these firms.  The reasons can be attributed to three main factors:

 

  1. 1.Pressure from management to show certain products to clients (if deemed “suitable”).

 

  • When I worked at a major firm, I would receive multiple emails, daily, encouraging me to show certain products to clients if I considered the product to be “suitable” for my clients.

 

  1. 2.Pressure from management to produce revenues (i.e. fees and commissions from client accounts).

 

  • Managements’ bonuses are tied to many factors; one of those factors is overall commissions and growth in commissions.

 

  1. 3.Higher and lower commissions and fees on different products.

 

  • For example, annuities may pay a 7% commission while a structured note only pays 3% and a wrap account pays 2.0%.

In my opinion, while all three factors are bad, reason three has the most influence.  Salespeople at big Wall Street firms are typically not fiduciaries.  They are stockbrokers and thus they merely need to establish suitability for clients and can then sell the client whatever “product” they deem suitable.  So long as the products chosen are suitable, the advisor has done his or her job.  It matters not if the advisor shows and sells a client the most expensive, highest commissioned product as long as the product is suitable.  This type of sales culture produces obvious conflicts of interest.  Is the advisor selling the client products laden with the biggest commissions so he or she can maximize his or her paycheck?  Or is the advisor looking out for the clients best interests and selling them the best products with the cheapest costs & best return opportunities, irrespective of the advisor’s commission? 

To demonstrate just how deep the conflict can be, let’s consider an example.  Suppose that a woman named Sue recently sold her company and has decided to retire.  Her husband, Bob, a recently retired executive, has a pension that provides for most of the couple’s living expenses and they have no debt.    

 

Hypothetical Clients Sue & Bob

 

Age:                                                   65 years old

Children:                                             3                     

Grandchildren:                                    4

Total Investable Assets:                      $5.0 million dollars

Net worth:                                          $6.50 million dollars

Pension & Soc Security:                     $100k annually

Goal:                                                  $150k annually in portfolio income

 

To keep this example simple let’s just focus on what can happen when Sue and Bob walk into the office of a dual registrant, insurance licensed salesperson at traditional Wall Street Brokerage firm. 

 

Example options A & B (in terms of payment to the stockbroker):

 

  1. A.The stockbroker shows the clients a $1m variable annuity with a 7% commission and a $4m investment in bonds, limited partnerships & structured notes at an average of 3% commission.

 

Result is an immediate non-transparent commission of $190,000 to the stockbroker.

 

  1. B.The stockbroker shows the clients a $5m balanced wrap mutual fund advisory account at a 1% annual fee (paid at .25% quarterly)

 

Result is an immediate fee of $12,500 to the stockbroker.

 

You don’t have to be very good at math to see that by changing the product mix, the stockbroker can dial up or dial down how much he or she gets paidDoes the stockbroker want to get paid $190,000 or $12,500 this month?  What a dilemma! To add insult to injury, in many cases, especially with annuities and investment bank products, the commissions are not transparent and difficult to gauge.

 

This payment scheme should certainly cause you to think twice about where you get financial advice.  Caution should be exercised with dual registrants, especially those who are also insurance licensed.  Do your homework.  Ask lots of questions.  Be critical of anything with a huge prospectus – these investments generally enrich the stockbroker completely at your expense.

 

There is a better way to receive investment advice – work with a fee-only advisor who is subject to the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and operates as a fiduciary for clientsA fiduciary has a legal duty to act in the best interest of the beneficiary (client).   The fiduciary duty is a much higher standard than that of a stockbroker (Securities Act of 1934), which only requires suitability be established before products are sold.  A fee-only investment adviser can offer you transparent, easily understandable pricing that is not attached to product sales.  There is a great comfort that comes in knowing your advisor is putting your interests ahead of her interests and not merely selling you products for commission. 

 

 

 

Ethan S. Braid, CFA

President

HighPass Asset Management

800 – 672 – 7916

www.highpassasset.com

About the author of this article.

 

Ethan S. Braid, CFA is the founder of HighPass Asset Management – an independent, fee-only, registered investment advisory firm with a fiduciary duty to the clients it serves.  Mr. Braid has been passionate about managing client investment portfolios and providing customized financial planning advice since he started working in the investment industry 13 years ago. Mr. Braid earned a BS in Finance from Robert Morris University, an MBA from Cleveland State University and he is also a CFA Charterholder.

                                                                                            

Mr. Braid is devoted to being an expert in the field of wealth management for high net worth individuals and families and for many years, has read one book per month on subject areas such as:  estate planning, retirement planning, investment analysis, mergers & acquisitions and behavioural finance.  Mr. Braid also has a passion for business history with a focus on the late 19th & early 20th centuries.

 

When Mr. Braid is not helping clients, he enjoys: cooking, wine, exercise, his yellow Labrador retriever, fly fishing, hiking, travel, playing guitar and duck hunting.