The elephant standing in the room in all discussions of financial advice is the unethical advisor who offers bad, or not good, advice. Many commentators prefer not to dignify such people with the term “advisor.” I completely agree that the gulf is wide between these folks and those who genuinely possess advisory credentials; the trouble is that they typically call themselves advisors and they often give advice – it’s just that such advice is conflicted!
At their most extreme, bad advisors are the sharks sitting down in a Long Island boiler room pushing some pump-and-dump microcrap to widows lacking a companion to speak with. They talk about how their stock (or any other money-making device) is poised to shoot for the moon, and try to make you feel stupid for not handing over everything you’ve got.
Most people can recognize such wolves in sheep’s clothing, but seniors are not infrequently taken in, not because of their age certainly, but because of the growing problem of cognitive impairment such as Alzheimer’s and the like. A major national survey conducted two years ago by Public Policy Polling on behalf of nonprofit Investor Protection Trust found that nearly one in five Americans aged 65 and older had been victims of a financial swindle.
It is relevant to point out that a good financial advisor is often the first line of defense against such predators, as are adult children with sufficient awareness of the issue and, increasingly, doctors now trained to check for signs of financial exploitation when treating patients experiencing cognitive decline. It is also critical to note that a big source of vulnerability is the lack of awareness (of seniors and their adult children) of such decline.
Beyond the outright looting of bank accounts and the like, there are advisors who, on their own initiative or as a result of pressure from their firms, operate like used-car dealers are reputed to do; that is, they try to “put you in” a product today. And the firms we’re talking about, it is important to note, are not just large full-service brokerage firms that have been embroiled in past scandals, but also the discount brokerage firms of saintly reputation that are associated in the public mind as pro-consumer. Here’s a quote from an article by Bloomberg’s Nir Kaiser, citing a recent Wall Street Journal report:
Fidelity representatives are paid 0.04% of the assets clients invest in most types of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds,” but they earn 0.1% on investments that “generate higher annual fees for Fidelity, such as managed accounts, annuities and referrals to independent financial advisors.”
I think the above quote gets to the nub of the problem of unethical advice. Anyone who has any interest other than the client’s best interest should be automatically disqualified from offering you advice. The reason is simply that the person cannot be trusted. Maybe he is generally an upstanding citizen but the day you need his advice, he’s got a big bill to pay at home and convinces himself, first, that the product that will put the biggest jingle in his pocket is just the thing you need. Or, maybe the advisor faces no personal financial pressure whatsoever, but faces pressure to “perform” at work, and wants to keep his job. A 2015 survey from whistleblower securities law firm Labaton Sucharow found that nearly one in five financial industry respondents felt that financial services professionals must at least sometimes engage in illegal or unethical practices.
Such pressures exist in every field, but perverse incentives increase where large sums of money are involved. Many honest advisors seeking to break away from what they see as a conflicted corporate environment have undertaken fiduciary responsibilities, banded with an organization that imposes ethical standards and very often set up their practices as registered independent advisors, or RIAs. These are all good ideas, and favor good advice, but it bears mentioning that there are honest advisors outside of this framework, and that this framework doesn’t guarantee honest advice. Ultimately, it is incumbent on every individual who could benefit from professional financial advice to hone his own ability to detect integrity or the lack thereof, and to find an honest and capable advisors whose advice will help them succeed beyond the cost they are paying for the service.
Getting financial guidance is more important than ever, but be careful who you take advice from. If you have questions, feel free to ask us.