In the first part of this two-part series, I discussed the problems inherent in the CFP Board’s “three buckets” approach to advisor compensation. That approach leads to the situation where fee-only firms are apparently not permitted to call themselves “fee only” because an “unrelated” party is associated with commissions.
So what’s the resolution to fix the CFP Board’s problematic rule? The key is to recognize that the fundamental purpose of compensation disclosure is to disclose how advisors are compensated by their clients, which means the starting point should always be what clients actually pay to various parties.
Accordingly, advisors should really only ever have to disclose compensation associated with buckets No. 1 and No. 2, which cover what the advisor is paid, and what is paid to the advisor’s related parties. In fact, arguably the original purpose of bucket No. 3—how the advisor himself generates income from his employment and ownership interests—was simply to recognize that in order to determine whether an outside party is related or not, it must be determined if the advisor is receiving any direct or indirect compensation from that party.
For example, if an advisor refers a client out to TermInsurance.com for insurance needs, the client will technically pay a commission (as it’s part of the cost of term insurance), but the commission will be paid directly to the website, and none of that compensation will flow back to the advisor. In that scenario, since bucket No. 2 will be filled with respect to the transaction, but bucket No. 3 will not, the party is not actually a related party and therefore the advisor would not be required to disclose commission-and-fee compensation (which makes sense, as the advisor isn’t actually receiving any commissions, directly or indirectly, and is referring the business out!).
Alternatively, if the advisor referred the client to do term insurance with an insurance agency the advisor owns—which means the advisor would receive indirect compensation for the commissions paid in the form of dividend distributions from the insurance agency—then it would be necessary to disclose commissions, because the advisor is actually receiving a benefit from the commissions that the client paid. (Notably, this appears to be the exact circumstances at hand in the Camarda case, where the advisors claimed to be fee-only but routed clients to do commission business with an entity owned by that advisor.)
What this means is that the real purpose of bucket No. 3 in the three-bucket rule is to determine whether the CFP certificant is receiving a direct or indirect benefit of a commission (or fee) paid to an outside party. In other words, in a world where the term “related party” is actually not defined by the CFP Board, the third bucket essentially creates that definition: a related party is one that provides a non-trivial direct or indirect economic benefit is paid to the advisor, whether through an employment relationship or an ownership relationship.
Nonetheless, the existence of a third bucket is not proof that the advisor receives commissions, because it fails to establish whether any client ever actually pays any commissions to that party in the first place! It simply creates the potential that an advisor could receive such compensation if there is an intention or actual situation where clients can/will do business with that commission-based entity to begin with.
Three Buckets Really Should Be Two
As a result, the CFP Board needs to recognize that its three-bucket strategy is really a two-bucket strategy: either the client pays the advisor, or the client pays an outside party that is related. The only purpose of the third bucket (which might be better renamed “Bucket 2b”) is to determine if an outside party that received a commission is a related party or not.
To view outside relationships in the absence of what the client actually pays simply leads to nonsensical outcomes; scenarios where no client actually pays a commission to anyone in any way at any time, yet the advisor must disclose that he/she is receiving a commission that doesn’t exist in the first place!