Fee-based advisory revenues are higher than traditional commission-based revenues, for the first time, at Commonwealth Financial Network. It’s not a change to advisory accounts from fee-based brokerage; Commonwealth doesn’t do fee-based brokerage. The firm started a formal fee program in the early 1990s, perhaps earlier than some other broker/dealers. So what does this mean for the independent broker/dealer industry? Will other firms soon reach the point at which fee revenue dominates?
Data gathered for the 2007 IA Broker/Dealer Directory, conducted last April, show that of the 76 independent broker/dealers that reported both gross and fee-based revenues for 2005 and 2006, all but one firm saw equivalent or higher 2006 fee revenue.
Revenue derived from advisory fees at Commonwealth so far in 2007 is running in the “mid-50s” as a percentage of all revenue, while in 2006 they were in “the low 40s” percent, according to Wayne Bloom, a managing principal at Commonwealth, which has home offices in Waltham, Massachusetts, and San Diego.
Commonwealth’s fee business is all done by investment advisors affiliated with the firm’s own RIA. This is “not fee in lieu of brokerage, we’ve never done that business; this is advisory business,” Bloom explains. The firm’s growth in the fee business is not related to the unwinding of the broker/dealer exemption rule, which exempted brokers from regulation as an investment advisor even when they were being paid fees for advice in fee-based brokerage accounts. The economics of fee in lieu of brokerage never appealed to Bloom: “There were very few clients that I felt would be at fair value–you would either have clients who underutilized the trading capacity so they’d be paying too much; then you’d have people who really wanted to do a ton of trading, and they’d be sort of stressing the system from a pricing standpoint.”
Commonwealth says it’s the only broker/dealer other than Cambridge Investment Research, in Fairfield Iowa, to get to the point where fees have overtaken commission revenues. The fee business at Commonwealth has been evolving over a long time. “In the mid-’80s our chairman, Joe Deitch had a firm, Cambridge Analytic, that had this neat idea that maybe they should sell mutual funds–no-loads–and wrap them with a fee. Joe was a little bit ahead of his time back then, but we’ve been doing fee-based business for years and years,” Bloom notes.