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My assessment of the FPA meeting: One and a half thumbs up

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Is the Financial Planning Association sufficiently focused on protection products in its programming and professional development initiatives? That’s a question I sought answers to at the organization’s 2015 annual conference, held September 26-28 at the Boston Convention Center.

Why the inquiry? In an earlier interview with me, François Gadenne, co-founder and executive director of the Retirement Income Industry Association, described the curriculum of certified financial planner (CFP) professionals served by the FPA as “incomplete” because the coursework lacks an adequate focus on protection products (and, some charge, has a “myopic focus” on investment products) in retirement income planning.

Activity aplenty

The insights I gained at the FPA meeting have not entirely assuaged my concerns on the protection issue (more on this below). But at a closing day press briefing and luncheon hosted by the FPA’s leadership team, I got more answers than I bargained for — and came away impressed by professional development initiatives underway on several fronts.

FPA CEO and Executive Director Lauren Schadle said the association is expanding initiatives across four focus areas: advocacy, business success (practice management), community (national and chapter events); and professional development. In respect to the last, the FPA is building out a Professional Development Center that aims to integrate learnings from different educational platforms, including live and virtual events, the FPA’s Journal of Financial Planning and online practice management resources.

The FPA is also kick-starting “knowledge circles,” or forums where members can discuss topics of interest to their practices. The association launched several of these in the last year focusing on business success, international/cross-border issues, retirement planning, estate planning and investment planning.

Also being rolled out in the Boston region: knowledge circles addressing tax planning, bridging theory and practice, plus another on women and finance. To date, said Schadle, some 2,400 FPA members have signed up for the educational initiative.

Turning to the FPA’s Research and Practice Institute, launched in 2013, Schadle said the unit is doing original research across many disciplines, including trends in practice management, investing, time management, productivity, client communication, business growth strategies, and (due out in October), a study on how advisors are approaching their financial planning responsibilities.

Other new and forthcoming studies commissioned by the FPA explore advisors’ use of robo technology (42 percent have no plans to do so); social media’s role in growing advisors’ practices and advancing thought leadership in the profession; and, unveiled at the close the national conference, consumers’ knowledge of Social Security (most overestimate or underestimate Social Security benefits they’ll receive by waiting to become beneficiaries at full retirement age.)

All of this work is to be commended, as are FPA initiatives aimed at streamlining the organization and representing member interests before Congress, state lawmakers and government regulators. “OneFPA,” dating from 2013, is the tagline for an effort to align the activities of the association’s stakeholders at the national, state and local levels (the FPA has some 95 chapters.)

On the advocacy front, FPA 2015 President Edward Gjertsen said the association is “compensation-neutral” on the all-important issue the Department of Labor is due to decide on: whether to implement proposed regulations that, as now drafted, would bar commissions for producers who don’t hold themselves to a fiduciary standard.

This neutrality speaks to an underlying reality: that while many FPA members earn commissions on sales of insurance products (about two-thirds are dually registered with broker-dealers and registered investment advisors) a sizable minority earn their keep exclusively from advisory fees. And some of these fee-only professionals, FPA Chair Janet Stanzak told me at the close of the press conference, want nothing to with insurance.

She assured me, however, that most FPA members actively sell protection products and regularly attend FPA workshops focusing on insurance. Among them: sessions detailing cutting-edge research by such insurance experts as Wade Pfau of The American College, Morningstar’s David Blanchett and author/speaker Michael Kitces.

That was good to hear. I was also (somewhat) comforted to see that a few conference sessions had an insurance focus or fielded presenters holding expertise (the CLU marks) in the space. I noted, too, that a handful of the 100-plus exhibitors — AIG Financial Distributors, Ameriprise Financial, MetLife, Jefferson National, Prudential and TIAA-CREF — manufacture protection products.

A gap in the program

But I was disappointed to learn that Stanzak did not know that September was Life Insurance Awareness Month, an industry-wide campaign sponsored by Life Happens that aims to educate Americans about the importance of life insurance, and that serves as a resource to agents and advisors who sell insurance products.

I suggested to Stanzak that the FPA tap Life Happens President and CEO Marvin Feldman to speak at next year’s annual conference about the 2016 campaign. She seemed receptive to the idea.

Watch this space for an update.