At the Morningstar Investment conference in June, I sat down for lunch with a fellow attendee, who quickly revealed that he was an advisor from Florida and a frequent attendee of the Morningstar conference. We chatted about what he was interested in, notably the latest research on investing, the at-times arcane insights of Cliff Asness and Rob Arnott and how robo-advisors might change the advisory industry. He told me his firm built its own model portfolios, but he was always looking for ways to make those models better or cheaper. He told me about how he felt honored to serve his clients, many of whom had been clients for decades. I was assuming by this point that he was your typical RIA — after all, he was also dressed like a typical RIA, in khakis and a conservative polo shirt. My assumption held until, when discussing advisor expenses and fees, he said, “I don’t know how Merrill Lynch can raise its fees” to end clients at the same time that increased competition from robos and others was putting pressure on advisors to lower their fees to clients. Yes, he admitted cheerfully, he was a Merrill broker.
That cliché that we live in interesting times happens to be accurate right now for the advisor community. The pen can be mightier than the sword as well: The words we use to describe ourselves can be revealing or dissembling.
That’s why somewhere back in the mists of time — at least since 1999, when I joined this magazine — Investment Advisor has not only opted to spell advisor with an “or” rather than an “er,” but we’ve used the general phrase “advisor” to describe you, our readers, in print and on ThinkAdvisor.com.
When we launched our portal website for advisors in 2010, we decided that the architecture of ThinkAdvisor.com — how it’s built internally and how it’s presented to you on both the home page and every article page — would be business-model and compensation-model agnostic. That is, we would place all our content into one of four broad topic categories: The Portfolio, Wealth, Retirement and The Practice. Why? Because we judged that these were the four main topics in which all advisors are interested, regardless of whether they’re a registered investment advisor or independent contractor BD representative or an employee broker, like my friend from Merrill.
Moreover, while there remain distinct differences between employee advisors and RIAs — not least that our Merrill broker’s AUM fees were dictated by Mother Merrill, not the advisor himself — the lines are also blurring. Think the wires are transactional? Nope, they get much of their revenue from charging a fee for managing assets. Just as in the independent broker-dealer market, the great majority of BDs’ revenue has moved from selling product with commissions to being fee-based. And articles we post on ThinkAdvisor.com about the wirehouses and regional BDs get very good traffic across the range of our website’s compensation- and business-model readers.
Beginning now, we’re increasing our coverage of the employee advisor model in this magazine, via a column by Research magazine Editor-in-Chief Janet Levaux, via a quarterly supplement that will be called Research on Wealth (first sighting: October 2016) and via increased news and analysis on ThinkAdvisor.com.
No, we’re not abandoning Investment Advisor’s traditional focus on RIAs and independent advisors. No, we’re not so naïve to think there aren’t big differences between advisors with different business models. Yes, we’ll continue to call for advisors to put the interests of their clients before their own interests. And finally, yes, we’ll continue to provide the news, analysis, data and commentary that you need to better run your businesses and serve your clients in the investment arena and beyond, regardless of how you get paid.