I was recently accused by one of my friends of being a “numbers guy,” which, as a former philosophy major and professional journalist, I found quite amusing. What she probably meant—and it’s undoubtedly true—is that I tend to be a “facts guy.” That is, I agree with the late professor of philosophy A.J. Ayer of the University College, London and other logical positivists, that without tangible verification, all theories are just stories.
Consequently, when confronted with theories from man-made global warming to trickle-down economics to the history of the Exodus, I tend to look for existing evidence either pro or con, across as many disciplines as possible. That’s not to say that the “known” facts can’t be wrong; in fact, it is the veracity of those “facts,” rather than popular opinions about them, by which any theory in question should prove persuasive or not.
As 2011 is winding to a close, it seems an appropriate time to consider the available evidence for the various explanations we currently have floating about for the dramatic changes we are witnessing within the retail advisory industry. I recently attended a presentation by a real numbers guy, Bing Waldert, director of RIA services at Cerulli Associates in Boston, who offered reams of interesting data under the title “The State of the RIA Marketplace.” It was a valuable reality check, in light of the disinformation, misinformation and just plain horse-hockey that’s been published during the past couple of years, to help “clarify” the debate over the Dodd-Frank advisor regulation and fiduciary standard for retail brokers. Data is, of course, open to interpretation, but Waldert offered a macro view of the longer term trends in our industry that often get lost amid the specifics of the current issues.
Over the years, I’ve usually found the data put out by Kurt Cerulli and his team to be both interesting and insightful. Yet, Kurt’s wirehouse background occasionally shows though as a tendency to characterize the financial services industry as a product distribution system rather than providing a valuable service to retail investors. So, when I read the title of Bing’s talk, I have to admit that I inwardly groaned at the notion of an RIA “marketplace.” But while his data certainly contained elements of a business assessment, Waldert’s presentation clearly demonstrated an understanding of—and even a sensitivity to—the subtle differences between securities sales and providing advice.
The upshot of Cerulli’s assessment of the “marketplace” is that, despite regular reports in the trade media to the contrary, the 2007–2008 market meltdown and its aftermath have benefited independent advisors at the expense of the wirehouses. In fact, if anything, the downturn served to accelerate the long-term trend toward independent advice. In 2007, according to the Cerulli data, the wirehouses managed 50% of retail investment assets compared with just 29% managed in the independent channels including independent broker-dealers, dually registered advisors and independent RIAs. Today, the wirehouse share of the $11.2 trillion in retail investments is down to 43%, while the independent channels have increased to 35% market share of assets—closing the gap by 13 percentage points, or 67%, in just three years.
What’s more, Cerulli projects this trend will continue for at least the next two years: By 2013, their data predicts the wirehouse position will fall to just 35% of retail assets, while the independent channel will overtake them with a 39% share. “Our data shows that wirehouses continue [to] not participate in the industry growth during the recovery,” Waldert said. “While they are still the largest and best capitalized channel, it’s not clear that they can, or will even want to, recapture their former market share. It’s entirely possible that as a result of the realignment within the brokerage industry, the wirehouses will alter their business model to focus on the more profitable high-net-worth market.”