Morgan Stanley’s wealth management can be described as nothing other than an unmitigated success in the fourth quarter. The numbers are in, and the data show that the unit is minting cash as the broker enjoys the transition from commission-based to fee-based accounts as provided by the fiduciary rule. Revenue increased a whopping 10% and the profit margin rose from under 10% the previous year to an eye-watering 26% in 2017.
FINSUM: We realize the importance of fiduciary duty, but how is a transition to much more expensive fee-based accounts—which are hugely boosting net profits to big firms—in the ultimate best interest of clients?
Like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch is in the middle of a big bet on its wealth management unit The broker has decided to focus less resources on hiring senior advisors and more on training younger staff. Accordingly, its staff costs have shrunk despite growing its advisor base by 2%. By some accounts the early signs for the experiment are good, but it will take a long time to see how well it plays out.
FINSUM: The whole industry has a bit of an inheritance problem right now, since there are herds of baby boomer advisors who are set to retire in the coming years, and as yet, a dearth of young advisors to take their places.
RIAs are furious about one aspect of the broader tax package passed last month. That is the way the government puts limits on the amount of income and type of entity that can use the new lower tax rate for pass through entities. RIAs say the new rules discriminate against RIAs that are not set up as C Corps. There is already a major movement to get the rule changed being led by Savant Capital Management. “We believe RIAs deserve the same tax treatment as other business owners” says TD Ameritrade.
FINSUM: We noticed before the new package got passed that it seemed to very deliberately exclude some sectors. Hard to judge the chances of this push succeeding.
On Wall Street has run what we consider to be a very bad article, but we thought our readers might enjoy, or cringe, in hearing about. In an article entitled “Why Financial Planners Should Support a Strong Fiduciary Rule”, the director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America manages to make almost no discernible argument. Attacking those who oppose the fiduciary rule, the article fails to make any salient points in support of the current DOL version of the rule. In fact, the most interesting part of the article is actually an inadvertent support of those who oppose the DOL rule. The author acknowledges that commissions-based payments are no more inherently conflicted than fee-based accounts.
FINSUM: This article was incredibly mind-numbing. While we have been in consistent opposition to the DOL rule, we are not against fiduciary duty in principal, and have been trying to find arguments in its favor. In this piece we kept reading and reading waiting for a good point to be made, but it never arrived.
If you are a hybrid BD/RIA, you need to pay attention. FINRA is trying to loosen the strictures in which you might find yourself. In particular, FINRA wants to make changes to its outside business activity rule. It no longer wants to force hybrid B-Ds to have compliance tracking for their RIA businesses. Being legally liable for such businesses can prove a major cost burden. “The motive for taking a percentage payout on the RIAs advisory business will go away”, says one industry insider.
FINSUM: This will certainly be a welcome change for the many hybrid RIAs who deal with the current FINRA rule.
The big discount brokerages might be poised for an ugly PR nightmare. In an expose type article, the WSJ has highlighted how big discount brokers like TD Ameritrade and Fidelity hide the fact that their account managers have conflicts of interest. Such managers often tell clients they don’t get paid on commission and therefore don’t have conflicts of interest. Yet in reality they do have incentive pay that biases their advice to steer clients into more expensive products. One former manager from Fidelity comments that “You’re omitting certain facts that the client would probably appreciate understanding before you launch into a sales pitch on why you think this product is better”.
FINSUM: This is definitely something that those who use discount brokerages should be aware of. It remains to be seen what the fallout from this expose might be.