What’s in a name?

Quick quiz. Would you prefer to work with a: 1) financial planner, 2) investment planner, 3) money manager, or 4) wealth manager?

If you feel like I just asked if you like: 1) pizza, 2) pizza, 3) pizza or 4) pizza, you are not alone. The financial intermediaries who claim to be these things can’t keep it straight, so no one should expect clients to, either.

In a recent study by Cerulli Associates, Inc., 1,500 financial intermediaries were found to mis-identify themselves as something they weren’t, frequently exaggerating the services they offer.

According to the study, 59% of financial intermediaries identified themselves as financial planners–certified to work with clients in building comprehensive plans that include insurance and estate planning. Cerulli’s study, however, found that only 30% of those 59% actually fit that description.

22% of financial intermediaries called themselves investment planners, who focus on asset management, retirement and college savings plans. 56% of the survey’s respondents actually fit that description, which makes it sound like a lot of investment planners try to pull themselves off as financial planners.

11% described themselves as wealth managers, who do comprehensive planning for wealthier clients, but only 6% actually fit the description. Once again, it sounds like an inflated title is used in hopes of generating business.

It turns out that money managers, who manage and build investment portfolios (that’s what I am), were the only group that accurately described what they do. Apparently, they knew what they were and weren’t afraid to describe themselves as such.

I must admit, I’ve run into this confusion a lot with clients, prospective clients, and even friends and family. Someone asks what I do, and I describe that I manage money for people.  Then, they say, “So, you’re a financial planner,” or “So, you’re a stock broker.” I don’t blame them for the confusion, but I do blame my industry.

There are a lot of honest people in the financial services business, but it doesn’t seem like a large majority. Specifically, a culture exists that focuses on commission-based sales, and convincing people to purchase “products.” An old industry adage is that insurance products aren’t bought, they’re sold. Looking at how most financial intermediaries are compensated, you’ll see that the adage is all too true.

I’m highlighting this not just to pat myself and other money managers on the back (whoopee, I’m on Team Honest!), but to illustrate how the financial services industry seems to thrive while confusing clients.  

A helpful term to look for is fiduciary.  A fiduciary “must act for the benefit of their clients and place their clients’ interests before their own” (CFA Standards of Practice Handbook).  

When you go to a Ford dealership, you don’t expect a commission-based salesperson to recommend a Toyota, but when you are talking to a doctor, lawyer or another professional, you should expect them to treat you fairly.

When dealing with a professional, you are placing yourself in a position of trust with someone who is an expert in a field where you aren’t.  It would be unfair, and frequently illegal, if the professional used that position of trust to benefit themselves at your expense.  That is why so many legitimate professional organizations require members to adhere to a code of ethics (and will boot you if you don’t!).

When a so-called financial planner earns a 5% commission (yes, on the gross amount of the dollars you invest) because you invest in the mutual fund they recommend, that’s not adhering to a fiduciary standard.  When an insurance agent earns a 10% commission selling you a whole life insurance policy or variable annuity, it should be clear their supposed advice is tainted by a big conflict of interest.

The best way to protect yourself, whether you’re dealing with someone who claims to be fiduciary or not, is to ask how they are compensated.  That should make it clear whether they are serving themselves first, or you.

What’s in a name?  It turns out, a lot.  

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

What’s in a name?