When we met in August with the winners of our 25th annual Broker-Dealers of the Year, as chosen by their own reps in balloting conducted in June, we presented the leaders of those firms — Prospera Financial, The Investment Center, American Portfolios and Cambridge Investment Research — with four scenarios to learn how they would respond, or have already responded, to some of the most challenging industry issues.
The final shape of the Department of Labor’s long-debated fiduciary rule is still unknown. That may leave some advisors with a feeling of resignation, but the BDOTY leaders are preparing now for multiple outcomes. The problem, according to Lon Dolber, CEO of American Portfolios, using a geopolitical metaphor, is that the government goes “to war without thinking about what they’ll have to do after the war is over to sustain the region.”
He argued that making the industry “data agnostic” is crucial to managing whatever the DOL sends down the pike.
But the DOL’s aborning rule is not the only challenge to broker-dealers’ status quo. Innovation in the advisory industry and the world at large is also forcing firms to look at how they do business. Cybersecurity is a critical issue for everyone, individuals and businesses alike. Broker-dealers make a lucrative target for hackers, but that’s not the only source of disruption to a firm’s data integrity, as Eric Schwartz, CEO of Cambridge, related colorfully. “We had our first experience in that way when a backhoe backhoed through a fiber optic cable about a hundred miles from our building about eight years ago.”
With technology taking up so much space in businesses’ day-to-day operations, how are the BDOTY winners protecting their operations processes and sensitive data?
A more esoteric risk than overzealous regulators, data thieves and careless backhoe operators is to a firm’s reputation. Jaded reps, unhappy clients and opportunistic law firms can all put a firm’s back against the wall, but who presents the biggest risk and how much does it really matter? The BD leaders suggested that one rep can’t do much damage to a firm’s 20-year body of work, but mudslinging is still bad for your soul.
“We’d probably scream and holler and wring our hands and be very angry about it” privately if a rep bad-mouthed a firm in public, “but publicly we’d take the high road,” said David Stringer, president of Prospera Financial.
Then there are the robo-advisors. The winners of the 2015 Broker-Dealers of the Year are not concerned. As Ralph DeVito, president of The Investment Center, put it, “the rep is the important part here; the value that they have to the client.”
The following pages are an edited transcript of our day-long conversation with the broker-dealer leaders in August. Visit ThinkAdvisor.com throughout the month of September for more extensive discussions of each of these scenarios and video interviews with the leaders of the 25th annual Broker-Dealers of the Year.
Scenario 1: You’re considering adding a robo-advisor platform to help your reps expand efficient service to smaller clients, but your reps are concerned they could lose clients of their own to the new offering. How do you manage client and rep expectations about robo services? What services are you using robo tools for?
Ralph DeVito, The Investment Center, Division II: We’ve had a number of inquiries from reps about robo. Right now I feel that it has its place for this new millennial type person.
We deal with higher-net-worth clients. The purpose of the rep is the important part here; the value that they have to the client. I think if the client’s asking for it, use it.
We’re looking to private label an already existing platform, and we’re staying away from, at least initially, the ones that are all electronic, all run by algorithms and such.
Jamie Green, Investment Advisor: Lon, you know technology pretty well. I think you’ve done some interesting things there.
Lon Dolber, American Portfolios, Division III: I don’t want to live in anybody else’s technology bucket, so we acquired a company called Trustfort. It allows us to control development. If I want to go down the road of offering a robo type of scenario, I’ll be able to do that. To me, to be independent you have to be technology independent.
David Stringer, Prospera Financial, Division I: What we’re seeing here is the commoditization of modern portfolio theory. Advisors, if that’s how they’re making their living, are doing a risk tolerance profile and putting it in a nice pie chart; we now know the value [of that] is 25 basis points.
It requires a higher level of service and value that you provide to your clients. We’re looking at robo-advisors, but we recognize that it is going to probably follow the same pattern as online trading and no-load mutual funds.
Eric Schwartz, Cambridge Investment Research, Division IV: Advisors ask me about this all the time, and I tell them, ‘Look, if you’re 55 or 60 and you’re going to retire in seven or eight years and you want to just ignore this, it’s probably fine. Maybe you lose 2% of your clients to it over the next seven years.’
I think if anybody’s looking forward 25 years or even 10 years, the clients are going to expect a service strategy that includes both considerably more technology than they are expecting today as well as the personal touch.
I see three price models. One is the existing price model [which is] the one-percent, full financial planning, estate planning, whole package but with upgraded technology access for those that want it. Then you have your 25 basis point pricing, which would look similar to what people refer to as robo today. Then you’re going to see some hybrid stuff there.
I think there is room for that, just like you’ve got your Walmart and you’ve got your Neiman Marcus. There are some niche players in the market that may focus on just one of those segments, but I think as you get to our size, you’re looking to offer all that.
DeVito: I think it’s going to morph, like Eric said. There’s going to be that 25 basis point firm out there that’s going to probably survive, just like the deep discounters have survived, and the $7 trades.
Dolber: What happens when the public figures out that they don’t have to pay what they’re paying?
DeVito: We’re going to have to build a worth into it. There’s going to be some value that we bring to the table with it.
Dolber: At some point, though, think of what’s happened. The first hit was against execution. Executions got commoditized. The next hit is against portfolio managers. They’re getting commoditized. The next place is going to be the advisor. The advisor wraps 1% on top of a portfolio manager. The public is going to figure out they do not need to pay 1.5%, 2% for these services.
Stringer: I would say […] the value shows up in a different way. If people are not doing financial planning for a fee, that’s a place.
We now know what the value of a risk tolerance questionnaire with a pie chart looks like, but how do you get paid, as an advisor, for your advice and hand-holding? All the studies that we see are when you get into a bear market, the people who are do-it-yourselfers bail out because they’ve got an emotional override.
One of the things that keeps advisors in business is financial illiteracy among the general public. This is rocket science to them in a lot of cases.
Schwartz: The DOL, which I’m sure we’ll spend some time on later, is a growth business. If you want to make an investment, you invest in regulation.
A lot of how quickly some of this happens will be related to what regulation does. Certainly, in Australia, they didn’t voluntarily say that they were not going to charge any commissions and fees anymore. They just were swept away.
A lot of people have made a lot of money in the last 20 years in this industry. I think people could make a lot of money 10 years from now at 50 or 60 basis points for what they’re doing today at 100. I’m not saying they’re going to do it voluntarily, but if it’s forced on us by enhanced regulation, with the technology that’s available and the sheer size of the dollars out there, I believe that a pricing model that’s 50, 75 basis points would be very achievable versus the 100 now.
Dolber: That’s when I think you’ll see retainer business. It has to come down to where it’s about where a trail is. When you see it at 25, 30 basis points, that’s when the advisors will be more receptive to charging a flat fee or hourly fee. [Regulations] and economics will meet at some point. Then you’ll get the adoption from the advisors.
Green: The prospects that you’re trying to recruit, are they asking, ‘What kind of platform am I going to be working on technology wise, and will I be able to serve the children of my clients with some kind of very low-cost and very highly automated advice?’ Do you hear that at all?
DeVito: On the recruiting point, we hear everything. They want to hear that you have a robo solution, just like they want to hear that you have a succession solution.
Years ago it was account consolidation. Everybody screamed for it. In general, not too many people actually were using it. Now, it’s becoming more and more mainstream.
Dolber: I seem to be getting the same things coming up that have come up for the last 10 years, which is the firm that they were with doesn’t understand their practice. It’s cultural things. ‘They just don’t know who I am.’ I hear that more than anything.
Green: They don’t feel valued.
Dolber: They don’t feel valued. [Their firm is] not really supporting them in their development.
I can’t remember the last time somebody asked me about [whether we had] a robo capability. I hear about succession planning. I do hear about that. I mainly hear about service, compliance and culture.
DeVito: I think that comes down to our discussion before. We have four people in here who are owners of the business, and some of these firms have commoditized themselves. They’re huge. They can’t know every rep, it seems like. There are just too many people in one department that may be piecemealing service to them.
Dolber: That’s a good question, actually. How many customers can you have? Let’s go to the advisor level. How many customers can an advisor really have? This whole notion of A, B and C [customers], I never bought into it. There’s only one customer — the one you want.
I actually have a book of business, which is crazy. I tell advisors, ‘I use the same forms you’re going to have to use.’ Then, I give them an example. I say: ‘I don’t know if some of the executives that run firms today can really decide what the broker dealer future’s going to be, because they’re not users. A good example of this is Steve Jobs. He had a prototype for the tablet, and he went to his first boss at Atari. You know what the CEO says? “There’s no keyboard. Nobody’s going to use that thing. There’s no bloody keyboard.” You know what Jobs’ answer was? “They’ll get used to it.”’
We had hired Ram Charan, who is a well-known consultant. I asked him, ‘How did Jobs know?’ He said, ‘Lon, he had the tablet for a year. He had the prototype. He got used to it.’
Stringer: I would say the same thing. I’m a member of a practice. Three of us own the firm, and we have a pretty robust practice. We eat our own cooking, so we understand. There’s always an advisor at the table when we’re trying to make our decisions. They’re like, ‘You mean you want me to have this disclosure signed by my client?’
We put ourselves in their shoes, saying, ‘How are we going to explain that one? How are we going to do this?’
Schwartz: Coming back to your question, you asked, ‘What about technology?’ When people come in, the main thing they’re looking for is culture. They want to see, ‘Is this the culture that feels comfortable?’
If somebody’s in our office for six hours, they’re definitely spending an hour on technology, and they’ve probably had a demo of another hour before they ever came.
It’s been two years since robo was invented. What you think of as robo, the Wealthfronts or whatever, that’s maybe 2% of their question. It’s really, ‘What can you do for me?’ It’s heavily about how easy is it to open accounts, monitor compliance and manage money. Those are the things they’re looking for in their technology. Then pricing, things like that.
DeVito: Just like it’s a service business and a relationship business for them, it’s a relationship business for us. We don’t spend a heck of a lot of time in the room initially, at least. The technology part and the demo part happen after they almost decide. They come here and it’s about culture: who we are, how we’re going to handle them, how we’re going to talk to them.
Stringer: We went through a Ritz-Carlton service training. We’ve got our five critical success factors. We have to be competitive with everyone, and we’ve got some great competitors. They raise the game.
Culture, employee engagement, clients for life, platform excellence, and they want to make sure we’re financially sound.
Dolber: We recently hired a Six Sigma black belt to institutionalize our service process. We were using Salesforce, and we had metrics, and we can look at the calls and the call rate, all that, but that’s not service excellence.
The first lesson I had by the black belt — I thought it was karate — he said, ‘If any process doesn’t serve the customer, it’s not important.’
Stringer: In my wallet I’ve got my credo card that’s got our 12 service values, our three core values, our motto, our credo.
Dolber: I heard at a Pershing conference former CEO for Ritz-Carlton, Horst Schulze, speak. He said, ‘The most important client is a loyal customer.’
He said, ‘What creates a loyal customer? Only one thing, and that’s trust. What creates trust? Repeated service; that’s the only thing that creates trust.’ […] When you sign up that new rep, I’m not saying they don’t trust you, but they’re neutral. You can’t say they trust you until you prove to them you will do what you said you were going to do, and that takes time.
Scenario 2: One of your vendors discloses they’ve suffered a data breach, potentially exposing your clients to losses. How do you respond with your vendors, reps and clients? Does your business continuity plan include cybersecurity steps — or insurance?
Dolber: [It's] just like business continuity [planning]. You have to be able to do fire drills. If you don’t have a playbook and you don’t do fire drills, you’re not going to know what to do.
Schwartz: You’re pretty much required to do all that stuff by regulators now.
We actually have two different sites outside of our own site. You’ve got to see it actually works. We had our first experience in that way when a backhoe backhoed through a fiber optic cable about a hundred miles from our building about eight years ago.
The bigger issue is a direct hack to your own site versus if it goes to a National or Pershing, say, which many of us clear through. Obviously that’s going to be a big issue, but that’s going to be theirs to fix. We’re not going to be able to do much other than have a plan.
Dolber: I think the bigger risk is with the customers. If you think about it just mathematically, I have 110 employees, 800 advisors — I have 400,000 customers. I have very little control over their systems, but they’re getting compromised and their credentials are getting compromised.
[We send] phishing emails out to our advisors. We fabricate emails like this: ‘Your name was given to me by a close friend. I don’t know if I’m good for you, but I’d like you to take a look at some of my things,’ and there’s an attachment. When they open that attachment it goes, ‘Got you,’ [and] takes them to a training center.
How many of you have turned on two-factor [authentication] for your login for your advisors? Or a better question, how many of you turned on two-factor for the customer logging into NetX360 or logging into Albridge?
Industry-wide, most of us may have two-factor or second-level authentication for a broker logging into our portal, but have you turned that on for the client? Very few firms have.
Green: Sorry, ‘two-factor’ is after you put your password in you say you’re not a robot?
Dolber: It could be a couple of things. First, what we did is if we don’t recognize the IP address or the computer, we are balking and saying, ‘We don’t recognize this computer. We’re going to send you a code that you have to insert.’ […] That’s a second-level authentication. There are other levels.
DeVito: I agree, we all have disaster plans. I have the off-site [location]. I have desks available. We cloud everything as best we can, just to make it more accessible.
But I don’t know that we answered your question. Was your question, ‘If we get hacked, if one of our vendors were to get hacked and all of our 100,000 or more names are out there’ — that was your question, correct?
Danielle Andrus, Investment Advisor: Yes. What do you do?
DeVito: I think it comes back to relationships. We’re going to work with the vendor. If it’s a third party, we’re going to find out exactly which steps they’re going to do. We’re going to convey that to the reps to make them feel [comfortable], whether it’s an email or conference call or individually in our cases.
Dolber: You could ask for their SAS 20 and what they’ve done in each one of those 20 items. That’s simple. If you look at FINRA, they did a release on cybersecurity, a 46-page memo. They gave suggestions like, ‘On your board of directors there should be a cybersecurity discussion in every meeting. You should vet your vendors.’ You don’t have to do a big exhaustive study, but ask them some basic questions about their security level.
Stringer: Based off of that document from FINRA, I think everybody’s got cybersecurity [questions] that they ask of their vendors and anybody who’s got your clients’ and staff’s personal identity information, their PII.
I think, Lon, what you said, though, is pretty accurate. The real penetration from cybersecurity is when one of your client’s email gets hacked and the guy out in Lithuania or wherever is pretending to be your client asking you to transfer some funds.
Dolber: Ten times this year already.
Stringer: We’ve already had several of those.
DeVito: It seems to happen on a regular basis. I don’t know that we can control that. We could try to educate our reps. I think we have to be more concerned about our procedures, our internal ones, too. These big firms are getting hacked, a lot of times, by a disgruntled employee. It has to get personal for them.
Dolber: Personal to the reps.
DeVito: For the reps, yeah. We’re sending out the cases where we get hacked. I had a rep, he’s in the airport, ready to go on vacation, he gets one of those emails that says, ‘Hi, it’s John Smith. Can you send me $8,422?’ He comes up with some benign number that’s not too large, not too odd. He tries to call the client, can’t get a hold of them to do good customer service. The way this happened would have never happened internally, but it was a direct account, maybe a mutual fund. He said, ‘Here’s the wire, here’s the funds,’ and it went out.
Schwartz: We had one of those things as well. Same exact thing: The rep was about to go on vacation. Reps do dangerous things when they are leaving in two hours for vacation because they don’t check as carefully as they should.
Green: What kind of liability insurance do you have?
Dolber: I just took out a $30,000 policy, cybersecurity insurance policy, because you do have expense. You have liability of expense. Some states have rules about having to inform clients of a breach.
DeVito: We might have expenses to set them up with a credit check, [or] you have to put a LifeLock on them. We all have insurance for it.
Schwartz: We have it, too.
Green: I’m sorry, that protects the broker-dealer? Does that protect the rep?
Schwartz: It does not protect against fraud by the rep or by some third party. If $30,000 gets wired out of an account at National or Pershing incorrectly, we are going to be writing that check. Pershing and National certainly aren’t going to write it, unless you can prove clearly they are at fault.
Cybersecurity is a relatively new thing. Insurance policies available are probably nowhere near as sophisticated or all-encompassing as they will be in three or five years. [We] are constantly assessing the new policies because it’s not like E&O insurance, which is going on 30, 40 years and everybody has figured out all the ways you can lose money.
Stringer: There may be exclusions they need to sharpen up.
Dolber: Why not just give the client the choice of two-factor? If you don’t want to do it because it’s a management issue and it’s a resource issue, at least offer the client the choice of having two levels of authentication.
Even if you don’t have a portal, you can offer them the choice of two levels of authentication into Albridge or into Pershing or into TD, as an example.
Schwartz: For years, the whole thing about investor portals was to build them so they were single sign-on. That was the goal: ‘Okay, you sign into Cambridge, boom, you’re in.’ Then you go out of National and you come into Albridge, and there’s a new sign-in.
Dolber: We wouldn’t do that. We would use sign-in 2.0 across the board. What happens is the client would log into a portal and all of the authentication would be done there, and then they would [have a] single sign-on to any of the services they would use. But you might ask them if they want to turn two levels of authentication on.
Schwartz: It’s an interesting idea. I would suspect that 98% of the rep clients would choose not to do that because they’ve never had [a cyberattack] happen, and they don’t know any friends who have had it happen, and [two-factor authentication] is a pain to go through.
Dolber: It is.
Schwartz: You get spoiled. I have sites I go to regularly, some of which are, ‘Remember my sign-in.’ Other ones, they ask me who my mother was, and if I ever go in with my iPad instead of my regular computer, there are three more questions.
Dolber: For God’s sake, in my own conference room, if my temp file gets blown out for any reason, I will go log in and it will be asking me for the code. I have to go get my iPhone because it’s being texted to me, and I have to put that in.
Schwartz: It’s the extinction level events that worry me. What’s going to put you out of business? Even if it’s only a one out of 10,000 chance, you can’t do those.
Dolber: If you have a client portal, we can do certain things that we don’t do now. I can ask the client to opt out of receiving certain things like the privacy statement. If I do a client portal where I have a handshake with the client, I can ask them to opt out of paper.
So, our thinking didn’t start with [creating] a portal for cybersecurity. It started because I wanted a way to opt out of the ADV mailing, to opt out of the privacy statement, to opt out of the three-year mailing, to opt out of the welcome letter.
If I do a handshake with the client, which is required, I can then deliver things to them electronically. Think about it. You know what you spend on paper? We’re spending over a quarter of a million dollars a year sending out the welcome letters, the privacy statement and the three-year, and the suitability and address change letters. We’re constantly sending letters to clients.
DeVito: We do both. Some are emails, some are letters.
Schwartz: We’re still doing mailing, but we basically have concluded that we need to do a mailing once a year anyway, so we basically just pile everything into one.
Stringer: That’s how we do it.
Schwartz: We do have a program to get people to opt out of some of this stuff, but it is a constant effort. Even if you have the handshake, most of them ignore it and go right on to the next thing. It’s unfortunate that regulators make it so hard to get some of the stuff electronically, especially since many of the clients would prefer it.
Scenario 3: One of your reps suddenly leaves, taking several high-net-worth clients in the process and blasting your firm to several prominent publications. How do you mitigate reputational risk from one loudmouth? How do you respond with your other reps and their end clients?
DeVito: I usually have the exact opposite kind of stuff happening. I had a rep sell out to larger RIA. The rep calls in tears because he really didn’t want to leave us.
I don’t know if I would get into a war of words in the publication. It depends on what publication it is and how worthwhile I thought that would be. If I could call Jamie and get a rebuttal in your magazine, I would probably do that.
But I think our reputation stands on its own with our reps. If I had to defend it to them maybe I would do it directly, but I’m not really sure that I would go public.
Schwartz: Historically, it doesn’t seem that the magazines, the five or six main ones, publish anything like that. You don’t want to get involved with one rep out of 8,000 reps at a broker-dealer saying that it was a terrible firm and they’d done them wrong. Most of those articles are about how wonderful the new firm is, not how bad the old one is.
If somebody comes in to look at Cambridge, and they spend a significant percentage of their recruiting time discussing how bad their old firm was and not just, ‘Well, they’re outdated. They’re an insurance company. They didn’t keep up with technology.’ That’s just statement of fact, presumably, or their opinion.
But when somebody starts saying how evil they were and on and on, I start wondering, ‘Well, in two years, is that what he’s going to be saying about us?’
Dolber: That’s not where our reputational risk issue has ever come from — an advisor bad-mouthing us that way. It’s come from law firms. We have law firms that on their website will put, ‘If you’re a customer of American Portfolios and you bought Medical Capital …,’ or ‘If you’re a customer of American Portfolios and you did this or you did that, give us a call because you may be entitled to blah, blah, blah, blah.’ We file action against them. We even had one situation where we had a fraud, and we handled it properly. We did what we were supposed to do. There were just no lawyers involved.
We handled it as a responsible firm and this law firm pretended that they were the ones that helped out those clients.
Even if you had a regulatory fine, there are law firms that will say, ‘This firm has had a regulatory fine. If you lost money with this firm, give us a call.’
Schwartz: In the end, your reputation is based on your body of work for 10 or 20 or 30 years, and fortunately, one thing usually doesn’t do you in. The single events, they’re ugly, but you just walk on by. We had a rep 15, 20 years ago who was churning mutual-fund accounts. When we looked into it, he was churning them at his prior broker-dealer. The total amount of money was relatively modest. While he was with our firm he had cost clients about $50,000.
That’s modest in the context of — forget Bernie Madoff but a normal Ponzi scheme. We actually made this beautiful chart up of all the stuff [he had done] and even got some of the stuff from before he was with us. Fired him, sent it all to FINRA, and FINRA didn’t take any action against him.
It was so blatantly obvious. It was, like, these eight widows, boom, boom, boom, boom. They didn’t do anything. So he files a suit against us for defamation of character and unlawful termination. After $40,000 in legal fees we paid him $25,000 to go away because it was going to be another $40,000 just to get it all to the end.
Reputational issues are also about your soul. You just feel like you’ve been dirtied by somebody saying that you’re an evil firm. These things affect you on multiple levels. Sometimes you just have to stand up and walk away, and not fight that battle. You want to focus on making the world a better place, not just letting your ego get involved.
Stringer: One of the things we’re very proactive on the front end about is who we let in the house, so fortunately, we’ve not had this experience.
On the back side, we would take the high road. I’ve dedicated 25 years of my life to this business, so it would be very personal. [Privately], we’d probably scream and holler and wring our hands and be very angry about it, but publicly we’d take the high road.
Scenario 4: The Department of Labor enacts its long-debated fiduciary rule, including the proposed best interest contract exemption. How does this change the way you charge and disclose fees? Which clients are most affected? How seriously does it affect your business?
Schwartz: I just looked at the three outcomes; one would be the severe case that [the DOL's proposed rule] goes through more or less like originally proposed. It may be that 10%, 20%, 30% of the business we now do couldn’t be done.
Green: Is that because it wouldn’t make economic sense to do that business? Either cost would be too high, or … ?
Schwartz: It’s all a question of how things are interpreted. No one ever said that C shares are illegal or B shares are illegal, but [regulators] wiped them out by basically saying you can only do them in certain circumstances in certain ways, which eliminated 90% of the current uses of them.
The other extreme is it that it gets watered down and basically we have another 20 pages of paperwork to fill out, but it doesn’t have a really meaningful effect on our business.
Maybe it eliminates the relatively small amount of business in alternative investments like REITs and IRAs. Some business is done [there], but for most broker-dealers, it’s probably not more than 1%, 2% of their business.
DeVito: Right, we’re going to probably somehow come up with a standard for our reps on the fee, whatever commission they can charge, by product maybe. Where fees are going to come into play, I don’t know.
Dolber: Just have them charge a retainer, all those that deal with that.
DeVito: Probably not.
Dolber: Not the way I see it. I could just say, ‘For any business that you do regarding these plans, you’ll charge a retainer based on X.’ The rule doesn’t deal with retainers. It’s almost like you’re lacking an overlay manager in that case.
You’re not charging a fee against assets. You’re not charging a commission. You’re simply saying, ‘One of the particulars, one of the things on my list of things I do, is I can advise you on your retirement account here. I’ll charge you $2,500 a year for that.’
DeVito: That would be tough. They’re not used to that.
Green: Tough for the advisors? Tough for the clients?
DeVito: Probably both, but mostly the advisor.
Schwartz: There’s been a huge amount of change since all of us have been in the industry. Things that we thought were going to be draconian didn’t really move the needle that much.
Dolber: It’s very different. You’re effectively giving a client an hourly fee. How can they argue against an hourly fee?
Schwartz: You didn’t say hourly. You said $2,500. Basically, if it’s a $500,000 account, it’s $5,000.
Dolber: Maybe not. Maybe you’re just going to charge a flat fee for the management of money, no matter where the accounts are at.
Schwartz: For where, yes. You can do that, but I’m saying you’ve got a $2 million client and a $100,000 client. You’re going to charge them the same $1,000?
Stringer: The issue, though, is you’re still a fiduciary in that case. A fiduciary is 24/7. It’s ongoing responsibility for a fee. The very constituents that they’re trying to help I think are the ones [who will be] harmed.
Everybody wants this single standard from which to operate, but I think the BICE in particular is really just unworkable — for all firms, but in particular smaller firms. I think they’ve underestimated the cost of compliance in order to come up with these websites that talk about every product you possibly sell plus project three-, five-, 10-year performance, which is in direct conflict with FINRA and SEC rules.
The principle I think [regulators] operate from is, ‘We want to put something in place that we can verify.’
Schwartz: Certainly the SEC should be the one that’s doing this, not the DOL because then whatever they did would apply to IRAs and regular accounts. You have [a client] come in. They have an IRA and a regular account. You’re going to have two different standards and two different sets of paperwork to fill out. Talk about cumbersome.
DeVito: That opens up a whole other can of worms. Why would you do it over here and not over there?
Stringer: When you enter that agreement with a client, a contract, you now have legal responsibility that’s outside the arbitration process. It puts a new layer of liability on the organization. I just think that their intent is good.
Dolber: This is the problem: The government [goes] to war without thinking about what they’ll have to do after the war is over to sustain the region.
They should first create a data standard. There’s no product description standard. You can create a rule, but you have to get adoption. You’ll never get adoption if you don’t have a data standard.
Schwartz: They seem to like to regulate us as the retail distributors of products, but they don’t try to regulate the producers of the product.
DeVito: We’ve been saying that for years. If you’re going to yell at us or try to regulate us over B shares, which at the time they were wrong anyway and wanted to change, or C shares, why allow it? Why not, like you said, come up with a standard?
Dolber: Take the clearing firms. If you look at all the clearing firms, they don’t even describe conversions, exchanges and switches the same way. Try to determine what’s a switch, what’s a conversion, what’s an exchange. There’s no common way to describe a conversion from a C share to an A share. That could look like a switch. It won’t if you programically say, ‘Okay, it’s the same fund. It’s just a different share class.’
Green: It sounds like you’re a little skeptical that, that data would be forthcoming.
Dolber: Let me ask you, how far did the regulators get pushing insurance companies to declare that index annuities were a security? When it comes to pushing back against the insurance industry, they don’t see very great success, so they push back against us.
Eric, what you just said. It seems like they don’t really go to the vendors or manufacturers of product because how much pull do they have with them? They’re not members of FINRA.
Schwartz: You came right down to it. The regulation on manufacturers is very limited.
Dolber: How come FSI never took up the data standard argument? Why has it never been something they’ve been passionate about when it would solve so many issues for smaller firms, for medium-sized firms and for this issue?
Stringer: I can tell you that [for FSI], you have to fight the fire that’s in front of you. While that [data standard] is probably important, it doesn’t seem urgent. As long as I’ve been [involved in FSI], there’s always been an urgent issue that needs advocacy.
Green: Is part of the issue that it’s the DOL doing this and not the SEC?
Stringer: The DOL has the authority. They have the backing of the president. We’re going to deal with this in some form. The DOL doesn’t have any authority over any of the data standards.
I think another cost that they’re underestimating […] is the value of an advisor.
DeVito: You can’t measure it.
Stringer: When somebody is on their own in a rising tide market, that argument holds water. Get into a choppy market or a bear market, where you need some real sound advice, somebody with some real experience in these markets who is going to hold their hand, and that argument falls apart.
Schwartz: They were touting that the industry was costing the public $18 billion a year toward their retirement, which worked out to be somewhere between 10% and 20% of their retirement assets would go away.
They’re looking at the cost, but they never look at the benefit.
Andrus: You talked about being system agnostic and data agnostic a few times. Is that a push that’s going to come from regulators or from a dominant provider?
Dolber: There are providers that purport they do that, but then they’re in the mix. The money is one issue, but I have my own ideas about what we should develop. I don’t control Envestnet’s development schedule.
We have $6 billion, $7 billion in variable annuity assets that are out of surrender. The contracts are good, but there’s no active management of the subaccounts. How would you actively manage variable annuity subaccounts that are in good contracts? If I wanted to build that so I can monetize my book of variable annuity assets, I can’t use Envestnet to do that.
Schwartz: The biggest challenge in that is that while your initial investment may have been relatively modest by standards of technology, can you really build all that? If you are, you’re building it at 5% of the cost of the big firms, so you have to be a lot smarter.
Dolber: You have to be agile. If you’re not, you could spend a lot of money, and you’re not going to have the scale to do it.