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Ethics is par for the course

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The roar of sports is in the air, everywhere you turn. Baseball is in full swing. The Triple Crown transfixed viewers.  Professional basketball and hockey finals are complete. But it was for the recent U.S. Open that we were reminded of a nostalgic time: during the initial TV coverage, a flashback sequence appeared from the early 1970s showing past champions, without a single one wearing a notable corporate logo on his apparel. They looked shiny and unblemished as they marched to gather their winner’s ware.

Today, golfers are awash in every brand imaginable and while they don’t look like NASCAR equivalents just yet, one wonders when that time will come. We’ve become so accustomed to corporate influence in sports that we rarely question the ethics of it in everyday viewing.  Most of us just shrug the associations away because at the heart, it is just a business deal.

It’s not the PGA, but in some ways, a form of sponsorship goes on at the advisor level. Take part in a mutual fund-sponsored shindig and all of a sudden, people start wringing their hands at the “perception” of it all. Of course, pro athletes using their personal brands to endorse a product is not exactly the same as accepting tickets to opening day.  However, there is that momentary twinge of responsibility that comes with taking something—and what is now owed in return.

There are expectations when the giver gives, and the taker takes. Just like a NASCAR driver may thank a sponsor or two in the winner’s circle, is there a correlation to be drawn when you recommend fund X to a client? Not only are you well informed on its benefits and performance, but you also think highly of the mutual fund’s representatives because you have spent time with them out of the office at a corporate-sponsored activity.

You wouldn’t make a recommendation to a client unless you were familiar with the product. You hear many presentations each year but if a representative takes the extra step, that information will likely stick a bit more. A nice pen, tickets to a popular event, a polo shirt and ok, probably not private jet access à la Rory McIlroy, but these are varying levels of persuasion all the same.

The vendors aren’t to blame here either. If no one accepted their offerings, or they thought it didn’t have some impact, the practice would have been abandoned long ago. It exists because it’s still a mostly accepted part of the business. The extra effort increases the familiarity and can build better communication between the participants. Generally, most advisors know the parameters and usually (and assuming your company allows it in the first place), if gifts stay under $100, then no one will likely make a fuss.

It does make you wonder whether the limits will hold. It’s possible we are in our own 1970s-scenario and headed to an increasingly competitive environment. The stakes and returns will raise; more importantly, an advisor’s responsibilities and adherence to an ethical compass will be further tested.

In other words, Fore!