I recently received the following email from a veteran financial advisor:
“Regarding your commentary in IA and online regarding the debate between AUM fees and retainer fees [see Bob Clark on Flat Fees], I think it is clear that there is no “perfect” compensation model, and I agree with you in that the AUM model is better than most, but I think you downplay the possibility that in many ways the retainer model (if done correctly) is the most fair model for clients, despite the fact that it may limit the income of many of us in the financial advice world.
“I have been in the investment/financial advice business for a little over 22 years now: working at an insurance company and a small regional brokerage firm before opening my first fee-only RIA to build portfolios of no-load mutual funds for clients, charging an AUM fee. I spent the next four years as an “asset accumulator,” and quickly learned how entrenched the brokerage mindset was with clients: spending most of my time educating people about why this compensation model made so much sense.
“It was a tough slog, and eventually I joined a large and successful ensemble RIA firm to see how they had succeeded in this space. In the 4 ½ years I was there, I learned that what they had done right was simply accumulate assets: they didn’t have any secret sauce. So, I launched my own RIA again, adopting the AUM model because it was all I knew. And I still use it today. But I have been doing my homework on moving to a retainer model for a while now and am convinced it is time to make it happen. Articles like yours, and others, have been very helpful as I have done the mental gymnastics around the transition.
“Here’s where it comes down for me: The dynamic of the client/advisor relationship is not completely about the amount of compensation. All the things you list that would affect compensation in an AUM relationship such as non-portfolio investing, advisor risk tolerance vs. client risk tolerance, debt repayment, charitable giving, wealth transfer to other family [members], etc. are extremely valid. I think clients put more value on an advisor being unbiased in those circumstances, where advice is needed.
“Yes, your point that the AUM model makes us feel the pain of market declines with our clients is absolutely true, but to me the retainer model doesn’t take that away: we all typically are invested along with our clients so we do feel it, and the misalignment is that we typically work harder when the markets decline because our clients need more reassurance. I’m not going to take any more or less calls/meetings in the retainer format, but I am also not going to be paid less for those meetings due to the performance of the markets over which I have no control.To me, the potential conflicts, real or perceived, are more numerous in the AUM format, and for that reason, I am in the process of making the switch. I feel much like I did in 1994 when I was swimming upstream making the case for the AUM model, but I feel the result will be the same, a move to a better, more aligned and more equitable arrangement.”