Understanding the Differences Between Financial Advisors and Brokers

Advice Channel
Advisors Channel

As a fee-only financial advisor, I am surely biased to this type of advisor. I do think everyday investors are much better off if they have someone in their corner who is recommending a particular investment product because it actually is the best product for them, given their circumstances and life stage. Not because there’s a commission on the sale at the end of the day.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you shouldn’t be mindful of possible issues – and that’s for any financial advisor, whether fee-based or full-service brokers. For that matter, you also should be mindful of potential drawbacks to other options that may seem (superficially, at least) appealing.

Let’s look at the options.

Fee-only financial advisors are considered advantageous because there’s no inherent conflict of interest as there can be with full-service or commission-based brokers. Brokers often recommend investments owned by their company, which is an inherent conflict.  You simply have to consider whether the products recommended are going to be best for your personal financial goals.

What you pay for is financial guidance, planning and assistance. This may be a flat fee. Some advisors charge a percentage of your account’s assets. You may be able to negotiate the amount. But, the fees you pay do not fluctuate according to the type of investments that are being recommended. What you get with this approach is objectivity and investment advice that’s unbiased. Your interests and your advisor’s are aligned.

The commission-based approach to financial advisory services is less the norm today than in the past. You open an account or buy a stock or bond and your advisor gets a percentage. Recurrent trading may also be encouraged – which may not be good for investors with a longer-term perspective. This all can pose a conflict with your best interests and goals.

And on the do-it-yourself front? Well, as attractive as this might sound on the surface, consider the relevance of the saying about the attorney who represents himself. For investment purposes, you might find good information online, but it’s just as likely you’ll find speculative information, if not real fake news. Investing is a risky business; if you don’t have the time or the expertise to do an adequate job of qualifying research, get a professional to help. Your future – financial and otherwise – depends on it.

Speaking of your financial future, it’s never too early to start planning for it. That means Millennials – and even the oldest Generation Zs who are just entering the workforce – should be putting money aside as they think about their long-term financial goals. It’s a challenge, of course, especially for those who are still trying to pay off college. Retirement is maybe too much to think about, right?

With that said, I’ve developed a service package to make it less painless. My new Robo-Advisor Professional service package is specifically targeted to the needs of Millennials and utilizes an in-depth financial data collection sheet, as well as a plan discussion with myself, to collect essential information about your financial background and goals.  This provides a strong base of understanding for clients to invest in ETFs through WealthSimple with a superior portfolio manager with a track record of beating the index.

ETFs are ideal for those with more limited resources, as a “wrapper” around a group of securities. They have a cost advantage over individual stocks and can be traded commission free. They’re similar to mutual funds, but with more flexibility as they can be traded throughout the day, not just once.

Banks own the investment industry! A good thing?

Let’s face it!  In the battle for investment dollars the Canadian banks are clearly the winners!  Is this a good thing?

Once upon a time, the investment business was more of a cottage industry.  Portfolio manager and investment broker were ‘professions’ rather than jobs.  Smaller independent firms specialized in looking after their clients’ savings.  There were no investment ‘products.’  The landscape began to change dramatically – in 1988 RBC bought Dominion Securities, CIBC bought Wood Gundy and so on – when the banks decided to diversify away from lending and began their move into investment banking, wealth management and mutual funds.

Take mutual funds for example.  Over the past few decades Canadian banks have continued to grow their share of total mutual fund sales* – this should not surprising since by acquisition and organic growth in their wealth management divisions they now own the lion’s share of the distribution networks (bank branches, brokerage firms, online trading).

An added strategic advantage most recently has been the capability of the banks to successfully market fixed income funds since the financial crisis. Risk averse investors want to preserve their capital and have embraced bond and money market funds as well as balanced funds while eschewing equity funds altogether. With waning fund flows into stock markets, how can equity valuations rise?  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Many of the independent fund companies, born decades ago during times when bonds performed badly (inflation, rising interest rates) and stocks were the flavor of the day, continue to focus on their superior equity management expertise.  Unfortunately for the past few years they are marketing that capability to a disinterested investing public.

The loss in market share* of the independent fund companies to the banks continues unabated. Regulatory trends also make it increasingly difficult for the independent fund companies to compete.  Distribution networks nowadays (brokers, financial planners) require a huge and costly infrastructure to meet compliance rules.  Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but once a financial institution has invested huge money in such a platform does it make sense to then encourage its investment advisers and planners to use third party funds?  Not really! Why not insist either explicitly (approved lists) or implicitly (higher commissions or other incentives) that the bank’s own funds be used?

Stricter compliance has made it extremely difficult for investment advisers to do what they used to do, i.e. pick individual stocks and bonds.  In Canada, regulators have made putting clients into mutual funds more of a burden in recent years.

To a significant degree, mutual fund regulations have contributed to the rapid growth of ETF’s (Exchange-Traded Funds).    An adviser will be confronted by a mountain of paperwork if he recommends a stock – suitability, risk, know-your-client rules) or even a mutual fund.  An ETF is less risky than a stock, and can be purchased and sold more readily in client accounts by trading them in the stock markets.  Independent fund companies that introduced the first ETF’s did well enough for a time but not surprisingly the banks are quickly responding by introducing their own exchange-traded funds.  For example:

TORONTO, ONTARIO–(Marketwire – Nov. 20, 2012) – BMO Asset Management Inc. (BMO AM) today introduced four new funds to its Exchange Traded Fund (ETF)* product suite.

In fact, the new ETF’s launched by Bank of Montreal grew 48.3% in 2011.  When it comes to the investment fund industry, go big or go home!  You’d think that Claymore Investment’s ETF’s would have it made with over $6 Billion in assets under management (AUM) but alas the company was recently bought by Blackrock, the largest money manager in the world with $29 Billion under management.  It will be interesting to see if the likes of Blackrock will have staying power in Canada against the banks.  After all RBC has total bank assets twenty-five times that figure.  Survival in the business of investment funds, and perhaps wealth management in general depends on the beneficence of the Big Five.

Admittedly, the foray of insurance companies  into the investment industry has been aggressive and successful for the most part.  With distribution capability and scale they certainly can compete, but the banks have a huge head start.  Most insurance companies are only beginning to build out their wealth management divisions.  I can see a logical fit between insurance and investments from a financial planning perspective, but then the banks know this and have already begun to encroach on the insurance side of the equation.  Nevertheless I would not discount the ability of the insurance companies to capture signficant market share.

So, is it a good thing that larger financial institutions own the investment industry?  Consider the world of medicine.  No doubt a seasoned general practitioner will feel nostalgic for days gone by when patients viewed them as experts and trusted their every judgement.  The owner of the corner hardware store no doubt holds fond memories of those days before the coming of Home Depot.  Part of me wants to believe that investors were better served before the banks stampeded into the industry but I’d just be fooling myself.  Although consolidation has resulted in fewer but more powerful industry leaders, the truth is that never before have investors had so wide an array of choices.  Hospitals today are filled with medical specialists, while banks and insurance companies too are bursting at the seams with financial specialists.

It is not fun becoming a dinosaur, but this general practitioner has to admit progress is unstoppable.

Malvin Spooner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*The industry charts are courtesy of the third quarter Scotiabank research report Mutual Fund Review.  The annotations are my own.