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Navigating the Financial Landscape: How Advisors Make Money

Posted September 26, 2019

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Understanding this can help understand conflicts of interest

The financial services landscape today is extremely complex. With many different financial companies offering services to individuals, it is hard for consumers to know what kind of financial professional they are dealing with. You might not know that is many companies’  intention. At the highest level, there are three types of financial professionals: registered representatives, life insurance agents, and investment adviser representatives. Because there are no regulations around job titles, registered representatives (they used to be called stockbrokers until that term went out of fashion) and life insurance agents now commonly refer to themselves as financial advisors, financial consultants, wealth managers, wealth advisors, and financial planners, muddying the water so that consumers don’t fully understand who they are speaking with.

To make the water even murkier, these advisors can be associated with all three types of companies. Depending on what product or service they are talking with you about, they are going to be “wearing different hats.” Depending on which “hat” they are wearing, these advisors can get paid in various ways and are held to different standards of care with vastly different kinds of protection for consumers. 

There are two standards of care when it comes to consumer protection. First is the broker-dealer suitability standard of care. Advisors that work for the broker-dealer are considered registered representatives and are sales reps for the broker-dealer. They are paid through commissions. The products and recommendations they provide must be considered suitable, which means the financial professional must only have an adequate reason to believe a recommendation fits the client’s financial situation, needs, and other investments. The advisor can recommend products that pay a higher commission instead of the best option because it fits the “suitable” definition.

A fiduciary duty is the second and highest standard of care. Fiduciaries are legally obligated to work in your best interest at all times and go through a prudent process to determine what’s in their client’s best interest. A common analogy is “Suitability is a salesman who sells you a suit that fits. Fiduciary is selling you a suit that actually looks good on you”.

Advisors that work for a Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) are referred to as Investment Adviser Representatives (IARs) and are individuals that are paid through fees for providing advice about securities to their clients. RIAs and their IARs provide investment management services and financial planning advice and are legally obligated to work as fiduciaries for their clients.

Advisors who work for life insurance companies work in the insurance company’s best interest as their agents. Agents that sell life insurance and annuities can be paid up to 100% of your first year’s premium in commission for life insurance, and annuities can pay up to 10% of the premium in commission (this can amount to tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions). Life insurance and annuities can be a critical part of your comprehensive financial plan. Still, you need to understand that there might be a major conflict of interest in why a product is recommended. 

I might be a little biased, but having been associated with all three of these different business models, the RIA channel (specifically as a fee-only RIA) is the only way to work in clients’ best interest. Being compensated in a “fee-only” capacity is critical to this relationship. A fee-only advisor is not paid differently based on their recommendations, whereas the introduction of commissions by human nature will interject major conflicts of interest into recommendations. Because the fee-only business has received such positive press over the last decade, registered representatives and insurance agents created the “fee-based” description to confuse consumers. In an attempt to fix this problem amongst CFP® professionals, the CFP Board restricts CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certificants from using the term “fee-based” and requires them instead to describe their compensation method as “fees and commissions.” While this certainly helps, only a small portion of the advisor population are CFP® professionals, and even fewer are fee-only. Hence, the rest of the industry is free to keep using this misleading term.

The CFP Board defines a fee-only financial advisor as someone compensated solely by the client, with neither the advisor nor any related party receiving compensation contingent on the purchase or sale of a financial product. This means that anyone associated with a broker-dealer or insurance licensed cannot call themselves fee-only and has major conflicts of interest in their recommendations and business model. They can obviously mitigate these conflicts of interest and find ways to work around them. Still, a fee-only advisor has chosen to eliminate these inherent conflicts of interest from their business model to serve their clients better.

Thayer Financial, L.L.C. (“Thayer Financial”) is a registered investment adviser offering advisory services in the State of North Carolina and in other jurisdictions where exempted. Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training. This website’s presence on the Internet shall not be directly or indirectly interpreted as a solicitation of investment advisory services to persons of another jurisdiction unless otherwise permitted by statute. Follow-up or individualized responses to consumers in a particular state by Thayer Financial in the rendering of personalized investment advice for compensation shall not be made without our first complying with jurisdiction requirements or according to an applicable state exemption.

All written content on this site is for information purposes only. Opinions expressed herein are solely those of Thayer Financial, L.L.C., unless otherwise specifically cited. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources and no representations are made by our firm as to other parties’ informational accuracy or completeness. All information or ideas provided should be discussed in detail with an advisor, accountant or legal counsel prior to implementation.

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