One of the most important ways to find competent and trustworthy investment advisers is to be sure they owe you a fiduciary duty. This means the advisers’ legal and ethical responsibility is to act in your best interests, not their own or their employer’s.
An ongoing legal case featured in an October 31 article by Ann Marsh in the online Financial Planning magazine highlights both the importance and the difficulty of finding a fiduciary adviser. (Disclosure: I am one of several advisers quoted in the article.) The whistleblower case against J. P. Morgan involves an adviser and former J. P. Morgan employee, Johnny Burris, who says he was fired after refusing to give in to pressure to sell some of his employer’s high-priced products that he did not believe to be in his clients’ best interest.
Here is why this case is important to anyone looking for financial advice: many advisers at investment firms like J. P. Morgan hold the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation. According to the website of the CFP Board of Standards, the organization that awards the certification, CFP’s are required “to put your interests ahead of their own at all times and to provide their financial planning services as a ‘fiduciary’—acting in the best interest of their financial planning clients.”
This sounds straightforward enough. Since 2008, the CFP Board has positioned the CFP designation as an indicator that an adviser will put clients’ interest first.
Unfortunately, that isn’t quite accurate. Here is the tricky part: Advisers who sell financial products are allowed to “wear two hats” in their interaction with consumers. Any time they are giving financial advice and acting as financial planners (as defined by the CFP Board), they are expected to act in the best interest of the client/customer. Yet if they don’t give any financial advice other than what is ancillary to the sale (a very confusing concept) of financial products to the same client/customer, that fiduciary requirement does not apply. The consumer is apparently expected to have the exceptional discernment and knowledge to know which hat is being worn at any given time.
As a consumer, you can assume advisers holding the CFP designation have completed many hours of education and passed tests to assess their professional competence. However, because of the CFP Board’s hairsplitting, you cannot assume “CFP” equals “fiduciary.” You still have to ask two essential questions.
The first is “In this engagement with me, who are you primarily responsible to, me or your company?” An adviser employed by a brokerage house or investment bank is very likely to be held most responsible to their company and expected to sell that firm’s financial products. This sets up a conflict of interest, in that the products with the highest fees will make the most money for the firm and the adviser, while those with lower fees may well be in the best interest of the clients.
A CFP adviser who works for an independent financial planning firm may be less likely to be pressured to sell a given line of products. They also may do enough financial planning to be required to be a fiduciary. However, you still need to ask the second question: “How do you get paid?” Any adviser who receives income from selling financial products cannot fully represent clients as a fiduciary without first overcoming an inherent conflict of interest.
An adviser who doesn’t sell any products, who gives investment advice, and whose income comes solely from client fees is answerable and responsible to those clients as a fiduciary. You can trust that such a fee-only adviser will genuinely put your interests first.