As financial advisors to neurologists and neurosurgeons throughout the U.S. and lecturers to thousands more, we have seen a sharp increase in the last few years of questions about how investment firms, including ours, make money from advising their clients. Physicians are not alone, as a 2011 survey by Cerulli Associates and Phoenix Marketing International found that nearly two out of every three investors in the survey were confused about how they were paying their advisors.
The issue made headlines again in 2012, when a high-ranking Goldman Sachs employee resigned publicly through an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, citing corporate culture as the primary reason for his departure. The employee stated “the interests of the clients continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.” If this occurs at Goldman Sachs, whose clients include the most sophisticated financial firms in the world, it can certainly also occur at any physician’s chosen investment firm.
In the first piece of this two part article, we will provide two questions to ask your financial advisor. The intent is to help you gain a better understanding of how they make money from advising you and how they work for, or potentially against, you.
Question #1: Does your advisor owe you a fiduciary duty as a client…or are they held only to a “suitability” standard? Most physician investors are not aware of the fact that brokers and investment advisors are held to different standards when it comes to the duty they owe clients. Registered Investment Advisors such as OJM Group are held to a “fiduciary standard.” This means we are required to make recommendations that are in a client’s best interest. Contrast this duty to the suitability requirement that dictates that brokers are simply required to make recommendations that are suitable based on the facts at the time of the interaction. On the surface, this may seem like a subtle difference; however the end result can have a substantial impact on the client.
Example: Client A contacts his broker and expresses an interest in investing $50,000 in U.S. growth stocks. The broker invests the client assets in Fund XYZ which charges a sales load of 5.75% with operating expenses of 0.68% annually. The client will immediately pay a one-time fee of $2875 on the trade on top of the recurring fund management fee. In this case the suitability standard has been met. Client B contacts his Registered Investment Advisor with the same request. The investment advisor purchases an ETF with a gross expense ratio of 0.18% and pays a commission of $8.95 on the trade. This client pays his RIA a management fee of 1% of the assets, which equates to $500 per year on $50,000. The advisor has met the fiduciary standard. In our very realistic example, the front loaded fees paid by client A are significant enough that it would require a commitment of approximately nine years to this fund family before that commission is equal to the sum of advisory fees paid by client B.
Question #2: Can your advisor provide a detailed explanation of how they are compensated? Do they receive commissions on any of the investments they will be recommending? Beyond “commissions,” compensation can come from sales charges on mutual funds or from a higher operating expense on a specific class of funds. A registered investment advisor such as OJM typically has access to an institutional class of funds that will charge a lower expense than the retail shares commonly offered by brokers. Private equities, structured notes, hedge funds, and non-traded REITs can offer various fees arrangements that may not be transparent. These investments may have a higher point of entry for an investor under the brokerage model in order to compensate the sales person facilitating the transaction. A Registered Investment Advisor operating under the fiduciary standard may be able to offer the same investment at a lower cost simply due to the fact that they are not taking a cut before your money goes to work for you.
Example: Client A is approached by his broker to invest in a non-publicly traded real estate investment trust. The client sends in a check for $100,000, and the security is priced at $10 per share, thus the client receives 10,000 shares. The broker receives a 7% commission from the real estate investment trust sponsor. Client B is approached by his RIA to invest $100,000 in the same privately held REIT. The advisor charges a 1% management fee and does not accept compensation from the REIT sponsor. In this scenario, the commission is returned to the RIA client in the form of a reduced purchase price for the shares. Client B receives a discounted price of $9.30 from the sponsor and is able to purchase 10,752 shares of the same REIT with his $100,000 investment. Client A would be required to hold the investment for approximately 7 years before his 7% commission matches the sum of fees paid by client B to his advisor.
This is not a complete list of the questions you should be asking your current or prospective advisor. One of our objectives in this article was to help you identify the potential conflicts of interest in a traditional brokerage relationship. A registered investment advisor such as OJM Group typically charges a fee that represents a percentage of the assets managed and does not receive compensation from the investments that are recommended. Our hope is that by asking the questions above, investors will have a greater understanding of the potential factors that may influence the recommendations of their advisor.
In part II of this article we will provide three additional questions to help you assess the nature of you relationship with your financial professional.
 “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs;” Smith, Greg, New York Times, March 12, 2012 accessed on April 2, 2013 via url: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/opinion/why-i-am-leaving-goldman-sachs.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
2“You Charge What?,” Gleason, Jerry: Wealth Management.com accessed on October 15, 2013via url: http://wealthmanagement.com/practice-management/you-charge-what