Raymond James’ Curtis Voices Qualified Support for Fiduciary Standard

Successor to Dick Averitt would like to see better definition of an ‘FA-level’ standard

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  • Nothing but the Best Execution Along with the many other fiduciary obligations owed by RIAs, firms owe a duty to seek best execution of clients’ transactions.  If they fail to do, RIAs violate Section 206 of the Investment Advisers Act.
  • Conducting Due Diligence of Sub-Advisors and Third-Party Advisors Engaging in due-diligence of sub-advisors isn’t just a recommended best practice— it is part of the fiduciary obligation to a client. An RIA should be extremely reluctant to enter a relationship with a sub-advisor who claims the firm’s strategy is proprietary.

“We support the concept of a fiduciary standard” for all advice-givers, said Scott Curtis, president of Raymond James Financial Services, but he argued in a Tuesday interview that “it hasn’t been defined to the FA level.”

Until it is defined to that level, said Curtis during RJFS’ annual conference for independent contractor reps, it would be imprudent to speak about embracing fully such a standard.

Scott CurtisCurtis (left) was speaking at the annual Raymond James Financial Services' National Conference for Professional Development for RJ's independent broker-dealer representatives. In January, Curtis became president of RJFS, succeeding Dick Averitt, who on Monday was lauded for his long leadership of the group (Averitt remains chairman of RJFS).

In a media rountable during the conference in Orlando, Curtis recalled attending a session at the Financial Services Institute’s annual conference earlier this year where one independent broker-dealer executive suggested the industry should just move ahead and embrace a fiduciary standard. On Tuesday, Curtis said he thought at the time, and still does, “Move ahead with what?” and then raised the question of whether the standard should be the SEC’s or the Department of Labor’s. 

Take the issue of conflicts of interest, Curtis suggested. Under the SEC’s fiduciary standard, when a conflict of interest arises between an advisor and a client, the conflict must only be disclosed to the client. Under the DOL’s ERISA fiduciary standard, however, such a conflict, Curtis said, “must be eliminated.” Under that standard, he argued, an advisor would be prohibited from selling a client a bond, for example, if his broker-dealer “made a little money” from selling the bond.

Then there is the related issue of what in fact constitutes an advisor acting in “the client’s best interest.” Does that mean that the cheapest investment alternative is always in the best interests of the client, Curtis wondered, pointing out that advisors have different investment approaches—some believe in the cheap index approach, others favor picking active money managers—that might conflict with recommending merely the least expensive product available.

“There’s great complexity here,” Curtis concluded. “Let’s define it first” and then move on.

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