Well, our ongoing discussion of the relative merits of AUM fees vs. flat fees appears to be resonating with many advisors, who continue to post thoughtful and insightful comments on the subject. I suspect that the recent interest in this discussion is driven by a number of factors, including the decades old disappointment that most financial planners can’t get paid for financial planning alone, the more recent forays of brokers and breakaway brokers into retail asset management at ridiculously high fees and the emergence of “robo-advisors” offering computer-managed portfolios for ridiculously low fees.
Taken together, these events are more than enough reason to reexamine the current independent advisor business model based on AUM fee compensation. Yet I started this discussion out of concerns about the tenor of recent critiques of AUM fees by flat-fee advocates, who seemed to have overlooked many of the client benefits of management fees—which have propelled independent advisors to the top of the heap in retail financial services.
At the same time, I should reiterate that I have no problem at all with advisors charging flat fees for their advice: the advisors themselves appear exceedingly client-oriented, and flat fees offer many of the advantages of AUM fees, avoid a few of the conflicts and, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy described the planet Earth, are mostly harmless.
Now for the newest comments in our discussion of advisor compensation. Brett Alexander addresses the issue of whether AUM fees create conflicts in the way advisors manage client portfolios: “Regardless of type of compensation, the fiduciary standard still applies. Both a ‘financial planning’ based [advisors] and ‘AUM’ compensated advisors are held to the same standards in the eyes of the SEC and state regulators. An AUM-fee-based advisor can’t simply open an account and run it like George Soros. When the regulators come knocking, you better be able to show your process on how you matched the client portfolios with their desired goals and risk levels. The argument that someone providing “comprehensive financial planning” is more aligned with the client’s interests is a red herring.”
I would add to Brett’s comments that it feels to me that some of this discussion has lost sight of what managing an investment portfolio is all about: particularly when focusing on the fact that AUM-fee advisors continue to get paid when client portfolios decline in value.
The “value” of portfolio management isn’t just when a portfolio grows: minimizing those inevitable market drops and helping clients decide when to avoid further losses by selling an asset and when to ride out the down markets both add tremendous value.
So I don’t understand why it doesn’t make sense that an advisor still get paid during down markets, yet share the client’s pain by getting paid a little less. After all, if the client doesn’t sell during down markets, they’ve experienced no financial loss at all.