In the aftermath of dreadful 2008 and 2009, staunch, stable clearing firms are not only being appreciated but touted by financial advisors to clients.
Indeed, with asset safety now a top-of-mind issue among investors, the strong clearing firm has become a value-added many FAs are boasting about.
“People want to know, ‘How am I not going to be like a client of Bernie Madoff?’” says Craig Gordon, director of correspondent and advisor services, RBC Correspondent Services, based in Minneapolis. “Five or six years ago clients were concerned only that their investments performed well. Now they’re very concerned that their assets are held with a financially stable third-party custodian.”
Moreover, he notes, advisors are stressing that point. “They’re explaining the clearing firm as a benefit to the relationship and how it provides checks and balances, as opposed to a firm that has client money under the same roof as the advice-giver,” Gordon says. RBC serves about 200 correspondent clients.
To be sure, nowadays there is heightened awareness among advisors as to just what a clearing firm is and the function it performs.
“Safety of assets is a huge topic with our correspondents and their brokers,” says Bobbi Masiello, executive vice president, relationship management at Fidelity Investments’ National Financial, in Boston. The company clears for more than 300 clients. “A lot of our broker-dealers are asking us to provide a document of how assets are insured through the firm. We’ve been meeting more and more with them: they want to get an understanding of who the clearing firm is and who’s behind it. The big banks and insurance companies also need to be aligned with someone who’s going to be there next week — and next year.”
Right now clearing firms are revving up to help clients deal with new rules and regulations that the financial overhaul law — intended to hold all industry participants to a higher standard — is expected to bring.
“Clearing firms are right in the center of adapting to this,” Gordon says. “Between that and the [fallout from] the economic crisis, it feels as if we’re starting all over again — like we’re turning the Etch-a-Sketch [screen] upside-down, shaking it and saying: ‘Draw the future of financial services’.”
Likewise, Atul Kamra, president of Wells Fargo’s First Clearing, based in St. Louis with 108 clients, believes that “the world has changed. The industry has to reset its processes and mindset, and come to grips with the reality that risk has a different meaning in the minds and hearts of clients. What is good advice has been called into question. It all starts with ‘What does an end client expect of an advisor and what impact does that have on how we do business, and on our people and processes?’”
At Pershing, an affiliate of BNY Mellon and, with more than 1,150 clients, the largest clearer, Michael Row, managing director, notes: “I wouldn’t say it’s a complete throw-everything-out and start over. But I do believe it’s prudent to look hard at the things you’re doing and reconfirm your commitment to them and your clients.”
While responsibility and liability still reside with correspondent firms, clearers, increasingly, are being drawn into the business of their customers. And that can be a double-edged sword.
“The wall between the introducing firm and the client is not as solid as it used to be,” says Robb Combs, director of correspondent clearing at Raymond James & Associates, in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Clearing firms are being brought into more litigation than ever before because of our resources, the customer data we’re privy to and our handling of transactions that are processed through our systems.”
The consequence, he says, is that “people are looking at our level of responsibility as being more now than it ever has been before. But I wouldn’t say that’s a problem. It’s an opportunity to shine and show the quality services we provide.” Raymond James, with 38 clearing clients, is putting greater stress on serving bank-owned B-Ds in a program that furnishes banks additional sources of liquidity.
Broker-dealers need tools to properly supervise and manage given the expected heavier oversight en route from the SEC and FINRA. This is where the savvy, forward-thinking clearing firm comes in.
“The breakdown has often been when firms have not had [supervisory] capabilities and a view into their own businesses, which resulted in an advisor doing something inappropriate,” says William Coppel, First Clearing’s chief client growth officer. “Broker-dealers will require more support to meet the new requirements, and clearing firms will dramatically aid them to monitor what’s going on.”
Penson Worldwide’s Dan Weingarten, senior vice president and co-director of global sales and marketing, says that if brokers are to be held to a fiduciary standard, which will “add liability to the broker-dealers and increase the ‘know-your-customer’ obligation, we’ll find ourselves providing solutions to help them operate in the new rule set.”
Row, based in Jersey City, thinks the new regs, in general, will be “a lot more work for [the industry] but a tremendous opportunity to increase the value of services we provide by solving our customers’ business challenges that will be absolutely inherent in the new regulations.”
And that of course is good news for all clearers. “There will be greater dependence on clearing firms on the part of broker-dealers to perform their role as astute leaders of their businesses,” Kamra says.