You would think that the roles and responsibilities would be clear and there would be a strong line between individuals who call themselves financial advisers and those who call themselves stock brokers. The obvious answer is that advisers give impartial advice based on the best interest of the client and brokers sell products as a third party.
Advisers are sworn to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own, thanks to the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. This Act defines an adviser as, “Any person who, for compensation, engages in the business of advising others, either directly or through publications or writings, as to the value of securities or as to the advisability of investing in, purchasing, or selling securities, or who, for compensation and as part of a regular business, issues or promulgates analyses or reports concerning securities.” The Act also precludes brokers from being considered investment advisers.
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In that case, what is a broker? The act also provides this definition. A broker is, “Any person engaged in the business of effecting transactions in securities for the account of others, but does not include a bank.” The key word is effecting, which astute readers will realize is not the same word as affecting. Brokers make the trades happen. Today’s brokers are “broker-dealers,” meaning they make the trades happen, and they sell financial products to customers for a fee.
While advisers must act in their client’s best interest at all times, brokers do not face this requirement. Brokers must understand their client’s complete financial picture and must direct them towards appropriate products.
Generally, investment advisers sell their services with a fee; perhaps hourly or per service, either flat or as a percentage of assets (to make financial advice in reach for those without millions of dollars to investment). Brokers should be earning a commission for each product that they sell, just like your car salesman.
Here’s where the line gets blurred. Brokers have been offering a product called a “wrap account.” Basically, the broker takes care of all the details, selecting investments, making the trades, and charging a flat quarterly or annual fee to the client. The theory with these accounts is it will reduce unnecessary trading by the broker, because she is not collecting a commission for each purchase or sale of a security.
In the past, fee-based services were held in the domain of only investment advisers, but the SEC granted an exception for wrap accounts. Recently, a court ruled that brokers who are involved with wrap accounts must register as financial advisers. This would hold these brokers accountable for making only investment choices best for the investor.
Brokers say that wrap accounts have saved clients billions in commissions. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean brokers are always making the best decisions for their clients. The New York Post cited a suit to bring wrap accounts to the public’s attention, citing an example:
Last December, then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged UBS with devising a system to lure unsuspecting clients, even when there were lower-cost and more suitable options available. The suit cited an 82-year-old woman who paid $24,000 in fees but only made one trade.
It’s difficult to know who to trust, and blurred lines between advisers and brokers don’t help the average person to make informed decisions.
Updated October 16, 2015 and originally published September 21, 2007.