A colleague was recently lamenting that his clients and prospects, regardless of what he did for them, viewed him as a money manager and not a financial planner. Changing their perception was a difficult task, and he was extremely frustrated. Most of us who consider financial planning our chosen profession and core competency have experienced similar issues with clients and prospects over the years. Why do consumers, regulators and the media use the titles "financial planner," "investment advisor," "money manager" and "wealth manager" as if they were interchangeable?
As a financial life planner, I offer insurance advice, but I am neither regulated nor labeled an insurance agent. I offer tax advice, but no one calls me an accountant. Estate planning is an important element of financial planning, but I am not a lawyer. Nor am I called by any of the other names encompassed by comprehensive financial planning advice except one. Because I offer investment advice as part of the planning process, I am regulated as if that is all I do, and the media and many consumers accept that notion.
Why is it so difficult for people not in our profession to recognize that financial planning may include investment advice but is not defined by it? Of course, there are forces at work over which we have little control, such as the regulators' refusal to regulate financial planning as a distinct discipline. Good work is being done by the Financial Planning Coalition (the FPA, the CFP Board and NAPFA) to convince the SEC and Congress that our profession needs its own set of standards and regulations, but to date nothing has been done. Brokers and other people calling themselves advisors are not required to adhere to fiduciary standards or register with the SEC if the financial planning advice they offer in the course of their work is "incidental." But to me, the term "incidental advice" is an oxymoron. Either one gives advice or doesn't. Consumers are not likely to think of it as incidental if they act on it. Moreover, how can financial planning ever be recognized as a profession in its own right if a regulatory body believes advice could sometimes be incidental? Would you not be classified as a surgeon even if the surgery you performed was incidental to your day job?
Unfortunately, there is little we can do to influence the regulators, other than what is being done. We can only hope that, at some point, they get it.
But even if we get our own regulator, will that change the perception of the media and consumers that we are all just money managers who call ourselves something different? Or are some of us who practice and those who write for trade magazines part of the problem? Let's start with the journals that interview us and the magazines that "rank" financial planners. There are some publications that always ask advisors during interviews what the value of their assets under management is. I could never understand why that is relevant, particularly if the subject has absolutely nothing to do with investing or managing money. Even if it did, I don't understand why it needs to be printed. Several years ago, when I was interviewed for a story about planning for retirement, I was asked by the reporter how much in assets I managed. I told her that it was not relevant since I was a financial planner. Nevertheless, she apparently went to the SEC site to get that information and printed it in the article. That was the last time I agreed to be interviewed by that publication.
How about those rankings? If financial planning is its own discipline, why should planners be ranked by total assets or growth of assets when that is not how they measure themselves? Let's take two hypothetical firms. One manages $500 million, has gross revenue of $4 million, and nets $300,000. The other, a full-service financial planning firm, manages $400 million but has gross revenue of $5 million and nets $750,000. Which firm should be ranked higher? I asked the editor of one of these magazines that question several years ago. I was told that it would be impossible to rank firms by their net profit, since it was highly unlikely that they would disclose it. My next question was really, to me, the issue. Why bother to rank them at all? You will not see our firm listed in these magazines because we refuse to participate in the myth that financial planning is about gathering assets. Managing assets is a likely result of comprehensive financial planning, but it is not financial planning.
The consumer publications are worse. Barron's, a respected publication, three years ago started ranking the top 100 independent financial advisors in the U.S. The paper did a thorough job, selecting advisors from nominations and from interviews with clients and others in the profession. This year, they established a minimum of assets managed by individuals at the firms, but not by the firms themselves. There are two problems with this approach. One is, obviously, that the value of assets managed, while relevant for a money management firm, may not be relevant for a financial planning firm. And since Barron's has a separate list for money managers, why make money management a requirement for inclusion on the financial advisor list? If a magazine ranked doctors by competency, it would most likely judge them by their specialties. They certainly wouldn't judge all doctors by the number of surgeries they had performed.
Also, Barron's insists it will only include the assets "managed" by the individual, which tells me it has yet to recognize that the most profitable firms, according to the management consulting companies that survey our profession, are ensembles. Since the advisors in these firms do not "eat their kills," and duties are spread among advisors, they measure total revenue and not individual accomplishments.
Will we ever shed the commission mentality, formed at the genesis of our profession, in which "firms" were merely a group of individuals housed in the same building? (Full disclosure: Our firm made the first two Barron's lists but was eliminated this year because of the individual asset requirement. The reason is that we are an ensemble firm.)
Of course, Barron's is not the only culprit in the media. But as long as we cooperate, we will be tacitly agreeing that we are in fact just money managers disguising as financial planners.