As regular readers of this column undoubtedly know by now, Moss Adams is one of my long-time clients. It was a privilege to work this fall on the 2006 Study of the Financial Performance of Advisory Practices, and hopefully my comments and suggestions contributed in some small way to what I humbly believe is a ground-breaking exploration of the
evolution of advisory practices [see cover story in the January 2007 issue of IA].
There were a few times when I humbly disagreed with the more-than-patient Moss Adams team. Our most important point of contention involved smaller advisory practices: That is to say, how to present the data in a way that doesn’t seem biased against the vast majority of independent advisory firms.
I know from personal experience that the folks at Moss Adams who work with advisory firms are painfully aware that they are often criticized for being “biased” toward larger firms. They go to great lengths in their writing and presentations to acknowledge that growing a practice is a conscious choice advisors must make for themselves. Yet despite their best efforts, underlying their remarks is often a subtle implication that larger firms are, in some way, “better.”
With its roster of prolific speakers and writers, Moss Adams is a convenient lightning rod for reactions to a pervasive bias in favor of larger firms throughout the financial services industry.
That preference undoubtedly started in the womb of all personal financial advice–the Wall Street wirehouses, where being a Big Producer is still a big deal.
The independent B/Ds are just as bad, although without many of the golden perqs. So are mutual fund companies, which target their value-added programs on advisors with high AUMs, aware that it’s far more efficient to market funds through a small number of advisors with lots of assets than through a large number with small portfolios. Even industry associations tend to elect officers from the larger firms and invite them to pontificate at conferences. Taken together, the message is overwhelming: The best advisors have the largest practices.
Getting Back to the Numbers
The irony is that the Moss Adams’s data itself tells a different story. In the 2006 Study advisory practices are broken down into five evolutionary stages: Early Solos (less than 10 years old), Mature Solos (10 years or older), Early Ensembles (less than $2 million in annual revenues), Mature Ensembles ($2 million to $5 million in revenues), and Market Dominators (more than $5 million).
The primary knock against smaller firms is that while an advisor might choose to remain solo for control or lifestyle reasons, she gives up the potential to make substantially more money. Figure 1 (next page) graphically illustrates this point: median pre-tax income for owners of advisory practices increases along a steep curve.