Choosing a financial advisor has always been a confusing, high-stakes decision, and critics say a recent regulation designed to help consumers may actually have made it harder to know whom to trust.
On its face, the new measure, known as Regulation Best Interest, sounds promising. Adopted in June by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), it says that broker-dealers must act in the best interest of their customers when recommending investment moves, and that they must disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Brokers sell stocks, bonds and mutual funds, and before they were held to a lower, "suitability" standard, meaning they were required only to recommend investments that are "suitable" based on the client's situation, goals and risk tolerance.
"Individually and collectively, these actions are designed to enhance and clarify the standards of conduct applicable to broker-dealers and investment advisers," the SEC said in a press release.
But consumer advocates warn the changes amount to little more than a new marketing slogan for brokers, as the SEC doesn’t define what it means for brokers to put clients first and allows brokers to disclose, rather than completely eliminate, conflicts of interest.
“The big challenge here is that the waters have become much muddier for investors, and it has become more difficult to separate those they can trust from who they can’t,” says Benjamin Edwards, an associate professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in securities law and consumer protection.
The rule applies to brokers only, not to registered investment advisors. The latter are already held to the highest level of customer care, the fiduciary standard, and as such are obligated to always act in the client's best interest. (While hiring a fiduciary advisor remains your best bet, investor advocates say the SEC’s enforcement of the fiduciary standard is weak and worry that these changes will further diminish it by allowing registered investment advisors to also address conflicts of interest through disclosure.)
A survey by Personal Capital in March found that confusion over fiduciaries abounds, with nearly half of Americans believing even before the new SEC rule took effect that all financial advisors are legally required to always act in a client’s best interest.
Amid debate about the new rule's effectiveness, it remains clear that consumers must do their homework when choosing an advisor. Here's how to protect yourself and your money:
Know the landscape
Below are some of the most common kinds of advisors you’ll encounter:
Robo-advisors: These digital automated services offer a simple and low-cost way to invest and receive financial planning advice. Most work by having a computer algorithm build you an investment portfolio based off your goals and risk tolerance. These digital advisors then monitor and rebalance your blend of investments. Some robos are what’s known as “hybrids,” meaning you can also consult with a team of human financial advisors at times. Last year, Money selected Betterment Digital as the best robo advisor for beginning investors, Schwab Intelligent Advisory as best for intermediate investors, and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services for advanced investors. Most robo-advisors charge an annual fee, typically 0.50% or less of the total assets they manage for you.
Brokers/stockbrokers: These professionals buy and sell securities, such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds, as well as other financial products for clients. They must register with the SEC and pass exams. They typically work at a brokerage firm or bank and may receive commissions from their employer in return for selling clients certain products. They may also be compensated through fees.
Registered investment advisors: These professionals give investment advice and recommendations to clients in return for a fee, typically a percentage (around 1%) of the total assets they manage for you. Some focus on creating and managing investment portfolios, while others offer more holistic financial assistance. RIAs must be registered with the SEC and state regulators. Some may also receive commissions or kickbacks for selling certain investment products, like a broker, but usually via insurance or annuities rather than stock trades.
If you don’t need consistent money management, consider hiring an hourly-fee planner like those in the Garrett Planning Network, as paying 1% of your total assets can add up, and you might not be receiving services equal to such a sum.
Certified financial planners: Both brokers and registered investment advisors can hold the rigorous certified financial planner designation from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. This means the advisor has at least several years’ experience in the field, has completed a comprehensive financial knowledge test and agreed to undergo continuing education and ethics classes.
To ensure you’re hiring an advisor who will act as a fiduciary all the time and with all of your money, Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, recommends asking them to sign a fiduciary pledge or oath like the one provided by the Committee for the Fiduciary Standard.
“It’s useful for two reasons: if they sign it, it could carry legal weight in a dispute, and it weeds out people who won’t sign it because they don’t want to be held accountable to that higher standard,” Roper says.
Verify the qualifications
Once you’ve narrowed the field, carefully vet the remaining contenders. One of the most important questions to ask a financial planner is, "how do you get paid?" says Gerri Walsh, president of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) investor education foundation. You should also ask what kinds of products they're authorized to sell you, and whether they're being paid to recommend any one product over another, Walsh says.
Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that the financial planner search tool of the Certified Financial Board of Standards, LetsMakeAPlan.org, included thousands of planners who had complaints lodged against them, or criminal or regulatory problems. Those red flags were visible to those who did more thorough vetting elsewhere, but since many people used LetsMakeAPlan.org exclusively, they missed that important information. While the board pledged to upgrade its scrutiny in the wake of the investigation, the lapse reinforces the need for consumers to do their own, thorough vetting.
Strong word-of-mouth references from friends or family aren’t enough, warns Blaine Aikin, executive chairman of Fi360.
“Too often people select an advisor based on word of mouth," Aikin says. "That can be a good thing if the other person has done their due diligence, or it can be bad in that it instills a sense of trust in someone who is maybe being deceptive. The risk is so enormous when dealing with a financial advisor.”
Before you trust anyone, run a thorough background check.
Brokers are legally required to register with FINRA, which maintains a database, called BrokerCheck, of such individuals including the broker's employment history, investment-related licensing information, and whether regulatory actions, complaints, or arbitrations have been taken against them. You can also check their name against the list of brokers barred by FINRA.
Visit BrokerCheck annually to ensure the people you work with are still registered and have not had any new or recent complaints filed against them, Walsh says.
The SEC Action Lookup tool will allow you to see any formal actions the agency has brought against an individual advisor, not just brokers.
Another handy tool to check an advisor’s record with is the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website, which includes data from the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as NASAA, the North American Securities Administrators Association, which has an advisor lookup tool.
Finally, a basic Google search never hurts. The above tools won’t tell you if an advisor has been involved in civil litigation that does not involve investments, nor will they disclose civil protective orders, or criminal matters (unless they are felonies or misdemeanors that are investment-related or involve theft).
Even if prospective advisors don’t have a black mark on their record, your job isn’t done. It’s important that you also verify that they do in fact currently possess the certifications or designations they claim to with the organization that administers them, Aikin says. Typically, you can easily do this with a member search on the certifying body's website or a call to the administrator. If your advisor is a CFP, discipline records are located here.
Lastly, always ask this key question of any professional you're considering hiring: whether they think they can beat the market.
As Edwards says: “Anyone who promises to beat the market or deliver abnormally profitable returns is lying to you, lying to themselves or running some kind of fraud.”
This story was updated to include advocate concerns over the weakening of the fiduciary standard and a more accurate description of Regulation Best Interest's intended impact on broker conflicts of interest.