By Karen Lynch | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | April 1, 2022 in Money
How much do you know about your financial advisor and their obligation to protect your interests when you invest?
Fiduciary rules require certain types of financial advisors to act in your best interest, but those rules are still evolving.
It’s mainly up to individual investors, though, to find the right fit with a trusted financial advisor.
Many individual investors rely on financial advisors to ensure a healthy return on their investments – sometimes without knowing very much about the advisor or institution they’re entrusting with their nest egg. As an investor, you may be doing your homework on market trends, economic indicators, tax laws, company performance, and the like. But it’s worth knowing more about your financial advisor and their requirements, too.
For several years new rules have been evolving, in Washington and state capitals nationwide, that could help answer one of the most critical questions about financial advisors: Do they protect your interests? But the rules won’t provide all you need to know. In the end, it’s up to you as an investor to ask the right questions, read the fine print, and think twice before entering what could be considered one of the most important relationships in your financial life. Here’s what could be at stake:
Simply put, fiduciary financial advisors are expected to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. The challenge is, who is and isn’t a fiduciary has sometimes confused small investors for many years. The rules are still evolving, but currently there are two main types of fiduciaries:
Registered investment advisors manage clients’ portfolios of investments over time for a fee that is typically a percentage of the invested assets. While some only earn this one fee – “fee-only advisors” – others also earn commissions from the sale of financial products. Investment advisors have had a longstanding duty to act as fiduciaries under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940.
Brokers typically sell investment products to clients for commissions. They have been required to adopt fiduciary principles only as of 2020 under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) Regulation Best Interest, which is not considered as strict as the fiduciary rules for investment advisers.1 Until 2020, brokers worked under a “suitability” standard, which only required that a recommended investment be reasonably suitable for a client.
The potential confusion for small investors stems from the question: What is motivating a financial advisor to do what they do? Is it your best interests? Or something else?
In other words, do your financial goals drive your financial advisor’s recommendations to move your money into and out of stocks and bonds – or mutual funds, exchange traded funds, annuities, or some other investment? And/or, if your advisor is earning commissions for selling you investment products, as many do, how big an influence do these incentives have on the recommendations you’re given?
This is where the word “fiduciary,” derived from the Latin word for “trust,” comes into play, because not all advisors are legally required to follow fiduciary standards. So, a debate over fiduciary standards has lasted for decades.
“Financial advisor” is an umbrella term, and most don’t fit neatly into one of those two fiduciary categories – investment advisor or broker. In fact, many finance professionals register as both, go by various titles including asset manager, investment counselor, wealth manager, and financial planner, and may provide additional services such as budget planning.
What’s more, you might have multiple retirement and brokerage accounts at a single firm, which may leave it up to you to determine which is advisory and which is not – in other words, which is held to the stricter fiduciary standards.
Fortunately, there are several ways individual investors can protect their best interests, from using the SEC’s “customer relationship summary” form, asking the right questions, and using online tools.
Carefully read Form CRS. The SEC’s 2020 fiduciary rules introduced a “customer relationship summary,” or Form CRS.2 Investment advisors and brokers are now required to provide investors with this form, on which the SEC requires the following information:
Ask questions. The SEC has produced a list of questions you can ask your financial advisor to help clarify how well your interests are protected, including3:
Use online tools. Various regulators, professional associations, and advocacy groups have tools and standards to help protect investors’ interests. Here are some examples:
Even as you research financial advisors, you can expect them to be asking a lot about you. According to the SEC, “to develop a reasonable understanding of a retail client’s objectives, an adviser should, at a minimum, make a reasonable inquiry into the client’s financial situation, level of financial sophistication, investment experience, and financial goals.”10
You might think that protecting your interests would be a financial advisor’s top priority, but legally that isn’t always the case. As fiduciary rules evolve, and with your life’s investments at stake, it’s a good idea to ask questions of your financial advisor to be clear about their role. This article provides information – and steps you can take – to help you understand your financial advisor’s requirements and make informed choices when you work with them.
1 “Labor Department Proposes Fiduciary Exemption for Retirement Plans,” Wall Street Journal
2 “Form CRS,” Securities and Exchange Commission
3 “Hypothetical Relationship Summary,” Securities and Exchange Commission
4 “Investment Adviser Public Disclosure,” Securities and Exchange Commission
5 “IAA Standards of Practice and Fiduciary Duty,” Investment Adviser Association
6 “Fund Analyzer,” Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
7 “Fiduciary Oath,” Committee for the Fiduciary Standard
8 “How We Rate Advisor Quality,” Paladin
9 “Welcome to Find an Advisor,” National Association of Personal Financial Advisors
10 “Commission Interpretation Regarding Standard of Conduct for Investment Advisors,” Securities and Exchange Commission
The material made available for you on this website, Credit Intel, is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal, tax or financial advice. If you have questions, please consult your own professional legal, tax and financial advisors.