As financial advisors to neurologists and neurosurgeons throughout the United States and lecturers to thousands more, we have seen a sharp increase in the last few years of questions about how investment firms, including ours, make money from advising their clients. Physicians are not alone, as a 2011 survey by Cerulli Associates and Phoenix Marketing International found that nearly two out of every three investors in the survey were confused about how they were paying their advisors.
The issue made headlines again in 2012, when a highranking Goldman Sachs employee resigned publicly through an op-ed piece in The New York Times, citing corporate culture as the primary reason for his departure. The employee said, “the interests of the clients continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money".1 If this occurs at Goldman Sachs, whose clients include the most sophisticated financial firms in the world, it can certainly also occur at any physician’s chosen investment firm.
In this article, we will provide two questions to ask your financial advisor. The intent is to help you gain a better understanding of how they make money from advising you and how they work for, or potentially against, you.
Question 1: Does your advisor owe you a fiduciary duty as a client? Or are they held only to a “suitability” standard? Most physician investors are not aware of the fact that brokers and investment advisors are held to different standards when it comes to the duty they owe clients. Registered Investment Advisors such as OJM Group are held to a “fiduciary standard.” This means we are required to make recommendations that are in a client’s best interest. Contrast this duty to the suitability requirement that dictates that brokers are simply required to make recommendations that are suitable based on the facts at the time of the interaction. On the surface, this may seem like a subtle difference; however the end result can have a substantial impact on the client.
Example: Client A contacts his broker and expresses an interest in investing $50,000 in US growth stocks. The broker invests the client assets in Fund XYZ which charges a sales load of 5.75% with operating expenses of 0.68% annually. The client will immediately pay a one-time fee of $2,875 on the trade on top of the recurring fund management fee. In this case the suitability standard has been met. Client B contacts his Registered Investment Advisor with the same request. The investment advisor purchases an ETF with a gross expense ratio of 0.18% and pays a commission of $8.95 on the trade. This client pays his RIA a management fee of 1% of the assets, which equates to $500 per year on $50,000. The advisor has met the fiduciary standard. In our very realistic example, the front loaded fees paid by client A are significant enough that it would require a commitment of approximately nine years to this fund family before that commission is equal to the sum of advisory fees paid by client B.
Question 2: Can your advisor provide a detailed explanation of how they are compensated? Do they receive commissions on any of the investments they will be recommending? Beyond “commissions,” compensation can come from sales charges on mutual funds or from a higher operating expense on a specific class of funds. A registered investment advisor such as OJM typically has access to an institutional class of funds that will charge a lower expense than the retail shares commonly offered by brokers. Private equities, structured notes, hedge funds, and non-traded REITs can offer various fees arrangements that may not be transparent. These investments may have a higher point of entry for an investor under the brokerage model in order to compensate the sales person facilitating the transaction. A Registered Investment Advisor operating under the fiduciary standard may be able to offer the same investment at a lower cost simply due to the fact that they are not taking a cut before your money goes to work for you.
Example: Client A is approached by his broker to invest in a non-publicly traded real estate investment trust. The client sends in a check for $100,000, and the security is priced at $10 per share, thus the client receives 10,000 shares. The broker receives a 7% commission from the real estate investment trust sponsor. Client B is approached by his RIA to invest $100,000 in the same privately held REIT. The advisor charges a 1% management fee and does not accept compensation from the REIT sponsor. In this scenario, the commission is returned to the RIA client in the form of a reduced purchase price for the shares. Client B receives a discounted price of $9.30 from the sponsor and is able to purchase 10,752 shares of the same REIT with his $100,000 investment. Client A would be required to hold the investment for approximately 7 years before his 7% commission matches the sum of fees paid by client B to his advisor.
Question 3: Does your advisor’s firm make money in other ways on your individual investments? Request clarification on the ways that your advisors firm may receive financial benefit from the securities you own in your portfolio. As an example, mutual funds commonly offer revenue sharing arrangements with a broker-dealer firm. In this scenario, your advisor at broker-dealer firm “XYZ” is receiving security analysis provided by its research department, which creates a “buy list” of securities. Unbeknownst to you, XYZ receives compensation from the fund company offering the recommended products. The result is a higher fee to you, the investor. You will not see these fees appear as a line item on your statement; they will be hidden within the underlying investments. This lack of transparency will not only prevent a client from recognizing the true cost of the relationship, it may create a bias in the research provided to the client’s advisor. This scenario can apply to closed end funds, exchange traded notes and other securities which will impact the bottom line of the firm, even if your investment representative may not receive additional compensation.
Example: Discount brokerage firm XYZ offers to manage client assets at a reduced cost of 0.80% of assets under management for Client A. The rep at XYZ purchases $150,000 of retail shares of a bond fund with an operating expense of 0.75%. The rep does not receive compensation for choosing this fund; however his firm (XYZ) receives revenue sharing directly from the fund company. A registered investment advisor for Client B charges 1% for his services and purchases institutional shares of the same fund with an operating expense of 0.46%. RIAs often have access to the lower cost shares offered by certain mutual fund families. In this scenario the “discount” brokerage relationship results in a slightly higher cost to Client A because of hidden revenue sharing, despite charging a lower management fee for their service.1
Question 4: Does your advisor utilize proprietary securities? Proprietary products are not always easily recognizable, as they can be branded under a different name. In-house products are not necessarily poor investments at the moment the recommendation is made to a client. The problem arises when circumstances change and it is no longer in a client’s best interest to continue to own the underlying security. Will the “in-house” research recommend that their team of advisors liquidate the position in each of the firm’s client accounts? Consider the impact of mass redemptions in a proprietary security. Who is going to be on the other side of that trade?
Example: XYZ firm runs a highly rated international bond fund with heavy exposure to European bonds. A team of brokers are looking out for their clients and contacts their research team to express concern about the recent drop in price of the investment. The research team of XYZ assures the brokers that they have adequately hedged the portfolio. A month later, concerned about the potential liability of a poorly performing investment, XYZ firm removes the fund from the institutional portfolios they are managing. The large redemptions create a significant drop in the price of the fund. A notification is then sent to the brokers explaining the firm’s position after the price drop has occurred. The individual investor has faced substantial losses, while the firm has minimized the damage to their largest institutional clients.
Question 5: Does the advisor’s firm engage in investment banking activities? If the answer is yes, determine how your financial professional (and the firm) is compensated on your purchase of that investment. What is the incentive of the firm to see that the entire offering is filled?
Example: There are countless examples of Initial Public Offerings where individual investors have been sold on tales of tremendous growth opportunities, only to experience disappointing returns and a substantial loss on their investment. The recent handling of the high profile IPO of Facebook has resulted in numerous lawsuits and continues to raise questions about the inherent conflicts in the underwriting process.
This is not a complete list of the questions you should be asking your current or prospective advisor. One of our objectives in this article was to help you identify the potential conflicts in a traditional brokerage relationship, where costs are often much higher than they initially appear. A registered investment advisor such as OJM Group typically charges a fee that represents a percentage of the assets managed and does not receive compensation from the investments that are recommended. Our hope is that by asking the questions we have referenced in our two articles, investors will have a greater understanding of the potential factors that may influence the recommendations of their advisor. If every trade made on your behalf is not unequivocally for your benefit, it is time to re-evaluate the relationship you have with your financial service provider.
For a free hardcopy of For Doctors Only: A Guide to Working Less & Building More, please call (877) 656-4362. If you would like a free, shorter eBook version of For Doctors Only, please download our “highlights” edition at www.fordoctorsonlyhighlights. com.
David B. Mandell, JD, MBA, is an attorney and author of five national books for doctors, including FOR DOCTORS Only: A Guide to Working Less & Building More, as well a number of state books. He is a principal of the financial consulting firm OJM Group (www.ojmgroup.com) where Andrew Taylor, CFP® works as an investment advisor. They can be reached at 877-656-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: OJM Group, LLC. (“OJM”) is an SEC registered investment adviser with its principal place of business in the State of Ohio. OJM and its representatives are in compliance with the current notice filing and registration requirements imposed upon registered investment advisers by those states in which OJM maintains clients. OJM may only transact business in those states in which it is registered, or qualifies for an exemption or exclusion from registration requirements. For information pertaining to the registration status of OJM, please contact OJM or refer to the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure web site (www.adviserinfo.sec.gov).
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This article contains general information that is not suitable for everyone. The information contained herein should not be construed as personalized legal or tax advice. There is no guarantee that the views and opinions expressed in this article will be appropriate for your particular circumstances. Tax law changes frequently, accordingly information presented herein is subject to change without notice. You should seek professional tax and legal advice before implementing any strategy discussed herein.
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