If you're looking for a financial adviser, these stats make clear why it's worth spending extra time to make sure you find the right person.
About seven percent of the financial pros listed in the BrokerCheck database had at least one incident of misconduct on their record between 2005 and 2015, according to a study put together by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which maintains the database. And at some firms the misconduct rate was more than 15 percent.
Then there's the issue that “past misconduct is predictive of future misconduct,” says Mark Egan, an assistant finance professor at the University of Minnesota who co-authored a different study with Amit Seru, now at Stanford University and Gregor Matvos of the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business.
Moreover, though about half of advisers with a misconduct record are fired by their employer, many find work at another financial service firm. “There is a 73 percent chance someone fired will be back working next year,” says Egan.
Getting a Top-Notch Adviser
If you're in the market for a financial adviser, here's what to look for.
Check for misconduct. “The simple step that everyone can take is to use BrokerCheck,” notes Egan, referring to the searchable database maintained by FINRA, the self-regulatory organization for the financial services industry. Given the recidivism rate of past offenders, if you find a disciplinary action on someone’s record, you should at the very least make sure you discuss it with any potential hire. BrokerCheck and the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure database maintained by the Securities and Exchange Commission are free.
Work with a fiduciary. In broad terms there are two types of financial pros: Those who are required to give advice that is in your best interest, and those who are held to a less rigorous standard of being required to recommend “suitable” products and strategies. The former is called a fiduciary, and is the preferable way to go to avoid potential conflicts of interest. The good news is that a new Department of Labor regulation that will take effect in April 2017 will hold anyone who advises you about your 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts to the higher fiduciary standard.
But there are myriad other types of financial decisions—regular investment accounts, insurance, college savings, reverse mortgages—where you also want to make sure you are working with someone who has your best interests front and center.
Be a fee fiend. Ideally you want to work with someone who charges a fee for the service he provides, rather than earning commissions only when you buy (or sell) an investment or product.
Don’t take their word for it. Jack Waymire, author of "Who’s Watching Your Money" and founder of the Paladin Registry of more than 700 advisers it has vetted (free to consumers, or you can pay $195 to have Paladin conduct due diligence on an adviser not in its database), cautions that many financial pros are astute marketers with great people skills.
“Don’t fall for a slick verbal sales pitch, where someone assures you that he is a fiduciary,” says Waymire. “You want a written record that the person is a fiduciary, and a clear explanation of how he makes money, from fees or commissions.”
That can help weed out slick talkers. It also will help to have documented proof if down the road you do have a dispute that ends up in arbitration (the industry norm.)
Be circumspect of acronyms. There are dozens of fancy sounding accreditation acronyms floating around the financial services industry. Many are valuable, others, not so much.
“Some credentials are fake, or can just be bought," warns Waymire. “Others such as CFP, CFA or CIMA are evidence the person has done real work,” he says, referring to the acronyms for certified financial planner, certified financial analyst and certified investment management analyst. You can suss out the value of dozens of acronyms by using Paladin’s free online Check a Credential tool.
Beware advisors pitching a variable annuity. Egan and study co-authors Gregor Matvos and Amit Seru of the University of Chicago found that the most common misconduct complaint was the recommendation of an “unsuitable” investment. Insurance and annuities were the most contentious investments, with variable annuities sparking the most complaints.
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