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Financial Advice and Advisers

If you’ve been paying attention to financial news, you’ve probably heard mention of the fiduciary rule. This rule was approved last year under the Obama administration, with the goal of increasing transparency within the investment realm. It was designed to force advisors to suggest investment products to their clients that were more affordable, rather than being able to suggest ones that instead provided these advisors with higher commissions.

While the rule has not yet been implemented (it was slated to go into play this April), it looks like its run may be short-lived. Today, President Trump signed an executive order that is likely to halt the implementation of the rule, along with ordering a widespread review of the Dodd-Frank Act.

fiduciary rule

This has many up in arms, as the fiduciary rule seems to be a matter of common sense and integrity. Forcing ALL advisors to offer their clients less expensive investment products, rather than higher priced ones that may result in bigger commissions, seems like a great idea. Transparency throughout any industry should be mandatory… so why nix the rule?

Yes, There Is Already a Fiduciary Obligation…

For almost 80 years, a fiduciary obligation — called the fiduciary standard — has been in place. This was implemented with the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, intended to affect most types of investment accounts. This standard implements an expectation that advisors need to place their client’s interests ahead of their own. The advisor is always supposed to act in the best interests of their clients, in every situation, whether the client is aware of it or not.

The reach of this standard is far and wide. An advisor cannot, for example, make trades on a client’s behalf that would result in higher commissions or fees for himself or his firm. An advisor is supposed to make all efforts to ensure that the investment advice given is not only accurate, but complete. They are bound to a “best execution” standard, while dictates that the purchase and sale of securities should be completed with the best possible combination of low cost and efficiency. Advisors are also prohibited from buying securities for themselves before they buy them (or advise their purchase) for their client.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the existing fiduciary standard already prohibits the potential of conflicts of interest. In fact, if a potential conflict of interest is present, the advisor must disclose this to the client before any trades take place. Which begs the question…

Then, What Would the Fiduciary Rule Even Change?

As mentioned, the fiduciary standard already has provisions to avoid and prohibit conflicts of interest between advisors and their clients. This is, of course, the heart of the fiduciary rule… so why the new implementation?

Well, the difference primarily lies in the types of retirement account providers to which the existing rule applied.

As it stands today, the fiduciary standard does not technically apply to insurance reps, broker-dealers, and financial company reps (other than investment advisors). These individuals, instead, are bound by the suitability standard.

The suitability standard is much simpler and much less comprehensive. In a nutshell, it says that an advisor only needs to assess a client’s risk and tolerance before offering investment products and advice. Essentially, gathering a client’s preferences is enough, as long as the products the advisor subsequently recommends match those preferences. This opens up the possibility of a very large grey area… if an advisor simply believes that a product suits a client’s risk tolerance, it’s fair game.

The new rule, though, would make sure that everyone was bound to the fiduciary guidelines. Rather than having the freedom to pick financial products that simple lie below a client’s threshold, all advisors would need to first disclose the fees, limitations, conflicts of interest, etc. of the product. As of now, just the designated investment advisors are bound to such. The fiduciary rule simply hoped to expand this rule to anyone and everyone offering any sort of investment-related advice.

Why It’s Happening

Well, the argument seems to be that the fiduciary rule could actually harm many of the lower-income investors out there, in a number of ways. First, it would prevent advisors from recommending more expensive investment products to their clients when lower priced alternatives exist — even if the higher priced ones were a better match in the end.

Forcing advisors to be transparent about fees and compensation sounds like a great idea, unless the client then chooses their investment product based on this information alone. If an advisor puts three different funds in front of a client, with one having a noticeably higher rate of commission, the client is less likely to lean toward that fund. But what if it had a good chance of outperforming the others? To combat this, potential investors would need to take into account all components of a financial product, not just seek to avoid fees where they could.

Does limiting suggestions to lower cost financial products actually harm the client? Could narrowing their options actually be taking away their investment freedom, causing harm in the long run? Some fiduciary rule-protesters think so.

Another way that this rule could harm lower-income investors is through financial advisor services. Today, some companies are able to offer free or low-cost investment advice to their customers. The new regulations threaten to increase their fees for providing such, resulting in some of the smaller savers being denied advice or simply being unable to afford it.

The Impacts Overall

The fiduciary rule has also been challenged as detrimental to the smaller firms and dealer-brokers in the industry. The cost of compliance with the rule is expected to be high, with additional technology and compliance experts being an added, necessary investment.

As a result, we could expect to see many of these companies disband or be acquired. It’s actually already being seen, in the case of American International Group and MetLife Inc. brokerage operations. Both of these have already been sold off in anticipation of the fiduciary rule’s April 10 implementation date.

What does this really mean, though? Less diversity in the industry, for starters, as the independent companies disappear. Also, as the consolidation continues, it threatens to eliminate (or make difficult to find) advisors who will be able to offer smaller plans. Once again, this has the potential to greatly impact the lower-income investors.

It’s interesting to note that when the United Kingdom implemented a similar rule in 2011, their investment industry had exactly this response. Independent companies could not keep up or could not afford to comply with the technology and changes required. So, they forged paths with larger corporations. As a result, the number of financial advisors in the U.K. has dropped by a whopping 22.5% ever since, creating an even bigger guidance gap than had previously existed.

This effect makes it easy to see why the fiduciary rule has been referred to as “Obamacare for your IRA.” While the rule is necessary and important in many ways, its impact of narrowing the advisor industry down to fewer and fewer options is certainly a check mark in the negative column. Having options and healthy competition between companies is generally a big benefit for consumers.

All Hope Is Not Lost

For proponents of the fiduciary rule who are appalled to see its (likely) overturn today, I have some good news. Many of the financial services companies that were slated to be impacted by its April roll out are going to move forward with their new standards. They had already put new changes in place and believe that transparency is an important part of the advisor-investor relationship.

Companies like Morgan Stanley and LPL Financial Holdings, Inc. have both said that they still plan to move forward with the new standards that they have already worked to create. Hopefully, this idea of working in the best interest of the customer catches on and spreads, on its own, throughout the industry.

Until then, we wait and see.

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Last week, I walked into a hip coffee shop nestled between Ann Taylor Loft and Urban Outfitters. Located in a family-friendly Chicago neighborhood on a cheerful, bustling street, the cafe didn’t appear to be anything other than typical. However, I soon learned that Next Door Cafe was offering a lot more than your run-of-the-mill espresso.

ndcWalking in, I saw a long wooden bar flanked with a case of fancy pastries. The 25-year-old hipster barista casually asked if I wanted to open a tab, assuming that I was going to stay for more than one latte. I took out my laptop and settled into a picnic table on wheels (all the furniture is on wheels so that the layout can change week to week).

The wall behind me showcased paintings by local artists, all of which appeared to be on sale. Other whiteboard-covered walls were everywhere, filled with inspirational quotes and goals for a community winter coat drive. Everything in the store was temporary and configurable; perhaps as a reminder that ndc2we should always be evolving.

A hostess sat near the front door like a hotel concierge. Her job was to greet guests and coordinate walk-in appointments. Wait… appointments? At a coffee shop? You bet — Next Door Cafe is doing something really unique to help Chicagoans with their money.

Two full-time, on-site financial planners hold office hours during the week, as well as a few weekends a month. Appointments are held in pods, or giant cubes outfitted with two couches and a table (also on wheels). In the privacy of a pod, anyone can discuss personal financial goals such as budgeting, understanding car loans, paying off debt, and saving for retirement. Some topics are handled in a single session, while others take multiple visits. Everything is tailored to an individual, and unlike a traditional advising appointment, every session is free. It’s approachable and it’s inclusive.

More than just money

It’s not just for people seeking financial help, either. A woman sitting at my table was sketching in her journal while she waited for the How to Self-Publish a Book lecture to start. She comes to many events because she likes networking with other authors. Do so has shown her new ways to make her business more efficient; “Artists and entrepreneurs like me need help,” she explained.

Several days out of the week, the café holds lectures about money. Aside from that, local volunteers teach about entrepreneurship, social media, and self-development. I heard there has even been a yoga class. The classes are diverse because they are led by local professionals. These volunteers submit their ideas and agree to share their expertise for free.

Those who prefer more personalized attention can schedule appointments online for one-on-one advice. They can cover any topic in which they have a need, including setting up businesses, writing resumes, configuring WordPress, and even life-coaching — just to name a few. The café seems to understand that personal finance is more than just budgeting. Being financially successful encompasses knowledge, business skills, and the ability to manage stress.

People of varying ages and industries come together to learn from one another. For example, the coffee shop is also a pitstop for students. I spoke with a young PhD candidate who has been coming to the cafe several days a week, simply because she enjoys the staff and the atmosphere. She explained, “Most of the time, I just study. But, sometimes I reserve the conference rooms in the back for group meetings and study marathons. It’s really convenient.” Like everything else, the rooms are free and temporary walls can adapt from one large room to two smaller ones.

The café also uses this space to hold group sessions. Here, groups meet regularly to learn and support each other in reaching their individual financial goals, such as debt reduction and combining finances. The store manager told me that attendees often become good friends. They tend to have a lot in common, so they continue to hang out after the classes meet.

The café seems to believe that support is a foundation of success. They embrace the sharing economy and have found a way to create self-sustaining communities that continue outside of the café.

What’s the catch?

By now, you may be wondering how this is all possible. How can everything — except the coffee — be free? Well, Next Door Café is a marketing and research experiment funded by State Farm. In exchange for the space, baristas, and financial coaches, they collect endless insights about future customer needs and have an environment to float concepts and ideas.

While there is only one location and no public plans for expansion, the financial industry should take notice. For mainstream financial education and support, this model is working. Next Door Café is speaking to Millennials in a way that resonates with their values and appeals to their norms. They have made financial wellness approachable, holistic, and community-driven. I suspect that more companies will replicate the fundamentals of this model as a way to develop deeper relationships with their customers.

What do you think about the Next Door Cafe? If you’re in the Chicago area, have you visited yet?

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Congratulations to the owners of LearnVest, a financial planning start-up that is in the process of finalizing a deal with Northwestern Mutual wherein the latter will be acquiring the assets and business of the former. In a deal of more than $250 million in cash, a company that provided early funding for the start-up will now be the sole owner.

LearnVest entered the market as a service that put women in touch with resources, including financial planners, to help them reach their financial goals. The company later expanded its reach to men, as well.

But it’s quite probable, as Michael Kitces points out, that the value Northwestern Mutual sees in LearnVest isn’t in its small advisory clientele, it’s in the membership base for personal financial management software. This part of the business caters to more than 1.5 million customers.

The acquisition doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It behooves old financial companies to integrate businesses that have been successful in attracting younger customers. Millennials are more inclined to be customers of businesses that started online, use marketing that is catered to how the generation perceives itself, and are led by people who seem to have more in common with them.

But it’s those old financial companies that have the money, thus they provide capital funding for start-ups and are the most interested in making acquisitions like these. And you can be sure that the companies that provide the funding are those who benefit the most in an eventual sale and have influence in the management of the start-up companies during their funding periods.

But where does this leave LearnVest advisory customers? Are they now clients of Northwestern Mutual? In short, yes.

There is a legal regulation that prevents this from happening automatically. In order for one financial advisory to turn clients over to another which is the case in this acquisition, the Investment Advisors Act requires that customers give consent to the change.

And LearnVest is making this “easy” for customers. Any customer not taking an action is considered to have given his or her consent; in order to refuse consent, a customer must close his or her account. While LearnVest claims this is to make the change easy for customers, it’s really just an “opt-out” option, assuming customers agree with the change even if they don’t know about it.

This is the same tactic that consumer groups have fought against in other areas. Many services require an “opt in” confirmation of subscription, or even multiple confirmations just to be safe.

It’s unlikely that much will change immediately with this acquisition. Customers will likely retain their membership as is, and will be assigned to the same advisers. But if one of the reasons for becoming a customer with LearnVest was the opportunity to get financial advice from outside the “establishment,” financial industry’s old guard, and work with a company that seemed to be geared to you, you may not be interested in being a part of this new evolution of the start-up.

And LearnVest hasn’t yet communicated the acquisition to all of its customers. The company has presented a few social media posts with a link to a list of answers to frequently asked questions, and I expect emails to customers will be forthcoming. One of LearnVest’s Twitter posts was the first I heard of the acquisition, and that led me to check the news for the details.

Considering LearnVest has only managed to obtain 10,000 advisory customers over six years, this does not seem to be a huge concern for the company.

Born in 1976, I don’t quite fit the description of the Millennial generation (or Generation Y), yet I probably have more in common with the generation than I do with Generation X. It’s hard to say. Like Millennials, I’ve lived most of my life with technology like email, but only because I was a geeky kid and ran bulletin board systems from my house, learned how to code in various programming languages on my own, and built my first website in college when the cast majority of colleges didn’t even have their own websites.

Yet I hate text messages. So I obviously can’t be a Millennial.

I prefer desktop Quicken to Mint.com and other online personal finance management software — but I do have dreams about designing a successful financial mobile app that Millennials — and I — would want to use. I prefer talking in person to a financial advisor over allowing algorithms to suggest my financial actions. This would make LearnVest better for me than other “automatic” or “robo” advisers.

LearnVest’s advisory might be something I would explore if Vanguard didn’t present me with access to a Certified Financial Planner any time free of charge and if I didn’t have friends and colleagues with the CFP designation all happy to offer me their advice.

Northwestern Mutual plans to keep LearnVest’s operations separate, at least for the immediate future, so potential and existing advisory clients shouldn’t be too concerned about the change. The source of the company’s funding is still and has always been the financial industry and venture capitalists, except for the $75,000 CEO Alexa von Tobel reportedly invested with her own money.

The influence within the company doesn’t change much other than giving other investors a cash distribution to exit their ownership and leaving Northwestern Mutual with complete control. Maybe that’s a big change. Maybe it will mean very little. But if it’s affecting only 10,000 of the 1.5 million LearnVest customers, I think the bigger question is what the insurance company will be able to do with any data stored by the personal financial management software.

Are you a customer of LearnVest? Do you think this is a move in the right direction for the company?

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Over the last year, a friend of mine has been trying to convince me to move my financial assets.

I currently have a taxable investment account at Vanguard, and my portfolio consists of a mix that includes a domestic stock index fund, an international stock index fund, and tax-advantaged municipal bond funds. This friend believes that I should be approaching my investments somewhat differently.

He is a real estate broker, so he likes to think in terms of leverage. My asset level qualifies me for so-called “private banking” at most retail banks, and one of the things banks like to do for wealthier clients is hold onto their assets while offering special terms like reduced banking fees and great interest rates on a substantial line of credit.

I’ve had no need for such things thus far, but there may come a time where I want to use leverage to invest in a business, so I’ve been exploring the idea.

So far, I’ve talked to two firms. The first was the one recommended by my friend, as he manages the assets of his wife, who is a member of a prominent family that has seen success through generations in New Jersey. That’s Merrill Lynch. The other is a branch of my local retail bank, Wells Fargo Advisors.

I spoke to both separately, and they both put together proposals. Wells Fargo presented me with a team of people ready to take over my banking, while the Merrill Lynch adviser initially thought my plan was solid. Both parties drew up a proposal for me, and the two were very different. I had a much longer initial discussion with Wells Fargo, so their proposal took into account my preference for low-cost index funds, at least partly.

Neither of these teams of advisers are financial planners. They are salespeople, or stockbrokers, or financial advisers, or investment advisers, and they have products to offer. People in these roles can go by any variety of names and can be misleading to customers.

The price I pay for these products, in addition to the fees baked into investments that eat into net investment results, is generally a 1% fee for assets they manage. There are certain times when paying 1% of a portfolio’s balance every year — whether the portfolio gains or loses money — could be like paying someone’s salary. It’s far higher than the expense ratios embedded into my mutual funds.

In theory, even salespeople, whether they earn money from commissions, from kickbacks from fund managers, or from a combination of the two, should want to offer what’s in the best interest of the client. If they don’t, the client would leave, theoretically, and find a better salesperson. But I’m not so sure this theory works out in practice. Given two roughly similar investments, wouldn’t a salesperson want to offer the one that provides him with a little more income?

Legally, advisers must only sell investments that are appropriate for the investor based on the customer’s time horizon and risk tolerance. A financial planner, particularly one who is certified, is held to a different standard. A financial planner must give advice always with the customer’s interest in mind. That’s the fiduciary standard, and it would be the difference between a planner recommending a low-cost portfolio of index funds and an adviser or salesperson making decisions based on what’s more lucrative for the firm.

President Obama wants to change the regulations so all financial advisers, everyone who works for a bank and offers advice on investment decisions, are held to this fiduciary standard. This probably has more of an effect on what happens when you call up your employer’s 401(k) plan sponsor to ask for investment advice.

It’s clear why banks have no interest in adhering to a fiduciary standard. If stockbrokers were unable to sell all but the lowest-cost investments, it would change the entire nature of Wall Street. In order to stay in business, managers of active mutual funds would need to find a new way to sell their products. Banks would have to make up the income previously generated through incentives or kickbacks in other ways.

This is why the industry has reacted to the fiduciary standard proposal by claiming that the requested regulation would make it more difficult for the middle class to get financial advice. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. It might make investment sales at a bank less accessible to those without sufficient assets for the 1% fee to generate worthwhile revenue.

But that’s not the financial advice most people should be seeking — and I found that out when I attempted it myself. The middle class, whoever that may be — the not wealthy, who may be dealing with a growing retirement investment account, a house, and maybe some additional taxable investments — needs little in the way of investment sales and more in the way of basic financial planning advice. Maybe financial coaching.

Maybe there’s a different solution. More retail banks could offer financial planning or coaching, where the employees abide by the fiduciary standard, much like independent Certified Financial Planners. The model must work because Vanguard offers this service to its customers; there’s no reason why retail banks can’t figure out how to make sure the same type of service would be profitable.

If customers really believe the best place to go for financial advice is their local retail banks, those institutions can do a better job of meeting those needs rather than just putting them in front of salespeople. If financial planners can stay in business independently, banks should be able to find a way to incorporate that type of service into their offerings.

Employers may want to follow this example, as well. When I worked for a financial company, a company whose own subsidiary managed employee’s 401(k) accounts, employees were encouraged to talk to a company-provided financial expert. It was never clear — especially to me, thirteen years ago, before I knew about fiduciary standards and financial planners — who I was talking to or how they determined their recommendations and advice.

When you walk into a car dealership, you know you’re talking to a salesperson, and you know the goal of the salesperson is to sell you something. You also know that the salesperson has incentives to sell you cars, related products, and services that generate the most profit for the dealership.

For most customers, this isn’t as clear when you enter a retail bank. For some reason, customers believe that bank employees want to help and are financial experts who offer advice. The proposal of new fiduciary standard regulations could make sure that customers can walk into a bank and get the real advice they’re seeking.

The fiduciary standard isn’t a guarantee. As Walter Updegrave pointed out in a recent article for Money, an adviser and a client can never have completely aligned motivations. A financial planner would need to give advice that is in the best interest of his or her client, but must also be concerned about earning future business from each client, winning new clients, and staying in business.

No one, not even a fiduciary, can look out for yourself better than you.

And I understand that the general reaction to that fact is that we need to educate everyone more about managing their own finances, so they know to avoid brokers who try to sell customers what’s in the company’s best interest instead of what’s best for the clients. But this is a message that doesn’t get through completely, and especially not to the people who need to message the most.

Financial planners and coaches can keep trying to make it clear that they’re better resources for most people and we can continue pushing useless and harmful money management and financial literacy classes in high school, or we can make some industry changes to ensure that the professionals people are most likely to encounter when they need help are the right type of financial planners.

I’m going to go back to the bank. I may eventually move my assets to the bank to take advantage of access to credit, but only if I can do so on my own terms, investing how I want to invest, with no additional fees.

Do you think all brokers and financial advisers should be held to a fiduciary standard?

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Three More Invalid Criticisms of David Bach’s Latte Factor

by Luke Landes
Coffee - Latte Factor

I recently appeared on the Stacking Benjamins podcast to talk with Joe Saul-Sehy about the Debt Avalanche and the Debt Snowball, two very similar methods of paying off existing debt — usually applied to situations that involve mutiple credit cards. They two approaches differ in one important aspect, and I’ve discussed that in detail on […]

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Two Invalid Criticisms of David Bach’s Latte Factor

by Luke Landes
Latte Factor

More than seven years ago, I encouraged readers to forget about the Latte Factor. The Latte Factor — a registered trademark — is the core marketing message from personal finance guru and author David Bach. The concept uses a daily morning latte as a metaphor for all small, habitually repeated expenses, that add up to […]

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Why I Don’t Make Your Financial Decisions For You

by Luke Landes
Sheep

Some feedback over the nine years of writing about money on Consumerism Commentary indicates that there are some readers — not necessarily daily readers and fans of a website, but those who are searching online about some finance-related topic and are at best passing by any particular website — are looking for quick answers. People […]

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My Future Investing Strategy

by Luke Landes

Last week I met with a Certified Financial Planner for the first time. This was a free service provided by Vanguard, so it was a good opportunity to speak to a professional about my specific situation. For many years, I’ve been relying on mostly generalized advice, whether from books, large communities like the Motley Fool […]

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Meeting With a Financial Planner From Vanguard Flagship Services

by Luke Landes

On Tuesday, I had a phone consultation with a Certified Financial Planner from Vanguard. It was an initial meeting, wherein we talked about each other, focusing on my goals. I tried to take into account many of my own suggestions for working with a financial adviser, but in preparing for the meeting, I realized — […]

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The Best Financial Advice I’ve Ever Received

by Luke Landes

People frequently ask me to share the best piece of financial advice I’ve ever received. Most recently, this was a common theme at the Financial Blogger Conference in Chicago. One company in attendance, creditcards.com, filmed and edited a video of various personal finance bloggers sharing their best piece of financial advice. I think it’s important […]

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