The financial crisis and brutal economy have decimated more than people's nest eggs-they also have soiled the reputation of many a financial advisor who are seen to have breached the public's trust.
Case in point: the disturbing results of a Harris Interactive poll asking Americans whether they trust the advice they're given from various professionals. Financial advisors lagged behind doctors, dentists, nurses, lawyers and accountants. Only mechanics, real estate agents, insurance agents and stockbrokers were found to give worse advice. And the poll was released two years before the bottom fell out of the market. Imagine what the numbers would be like today. A November 2008 Gallup poll about honesty and ethics in 21 professions ranked stockbrokers 15th-a thin margin above car salesmen.
What can be done to repair the considerable damage? It's quite simple, actually: require at least two to three years of intensive post-graduate work for certified financial planners that's as rigorous as medical and law school, complete with a board exam and the involvement of educational accrediting bodies that add rigor to the education process.
If there's a desire to specialize in annuities or other areas, then another year of schooling should be added to the mix. But the curriculum must be prepared by academics and not industry practitioners, such as those who set up the CFP board and its topic (or product-based) curriculum.
Most practitioners have little knowledge or background about the field of education or the importance of a holistic approach to program and curriculum development, instructional methods or content structure and delivery. Merely having a representative member from an accrediting body in a group of practitioners attempting to create an academic program is not viable. Furthermore, any program needs to be in the purview of an accrediting body with its compliance issues and which could be handled by the roughly half a dozen regional bodies such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. For most purposes, certificate programs are generally excluded by these educational governing bodies.
Parity For Physical And Financial Health
How can CFP practitioners possibly be taken seriously when they're able to earn their credentials after only seven to nine months of completing their undergraduate studies? It's important to remember that the requirement of a bachelor's degree was instated only for those credentialing after 2007, before which many planners could hit the pavement straight from high school or even beforehand.
General medical practitioners need about 12 years of education, medical specialists need as many as 15 and lawyers require about 10 years when factoring in undergraduate and apprentice work. It certainly would help if the federal government acknowledged that financial health is as important as physical health, especially during tough times when the mind-body connection exacerbates financial worries. What's needed is a grassroots movement to force regulation of the industry's ethics and competency, as well as close monitoring of fiduciary responsibilities.
The SEC and NASD should test whether brokers understand what products are suitable for clients and make sure this requirement is stringent enough to reduce or eliminate the number of broken American dreams. Consider, for example, that about 70% of a Series 7 Exam (licensing exam for stockbrokers administered by FINRA (nee NASD) focuses on the legal side of the business and what financial professionals need to know to protect themselves from liability, while the other 30% focuses only on the jargon and definitional aspects of investments.
There's no attempt in the exam to test for any analytic knowledge, basic investment theories and application strategies to determine whether the future financial advisors have even a rudimentary knowledge of investment product suitability. This education is supposedly left to the corporations who have little motivation to teach all the right material since that may adversely affect their own profitability.
Another idea worthy of consideration would be a re-certification exam taken every 10 years because the financial-services industry is so dynamic. It would work much like state departments of motor vehicles requiring that drivers periodically test their knowledge about rules of the road and eye-hand coordination to earn the privilege of being able to remain behind the wheel.
Ending The Pursuit Of Greed
Many students who seek to earn a CFP view their education requirements as a burden, preferring accelerated programs as the path of least resistance to considerable earning power. And it's not simply a generational difference. It's the nature of a myopic culture that places short-term gain ahead of lasting excellence.
Scores of impatient individuals are not only zipping through the curriculum in three to six months or choosing self-study but also are without a bachelor's degree when they join wirehouses and financial institutions, which cannot be trusted to adequately train them. Some have even dropped out of high school to share in the spoils and exerting as little effort as possible leading up to their licensing examinations such as the FINRA or state insurance board exams. Consequently, they're ill-prepared to adequately address client needs.
A painful truth is that many financial practitioners are sales people masquerading as planners or advisors in an industry whose ethical practices have a shameful track record. Stockbrokers and insurance agents who earn commissions from buying and selling stocks, insurance and other financial products realize that a CFP credential will help grow the volume of their business or branch them into other related and lucrative products and services.
But they're unwilling to devote the time necessary to achieve a sound education that will help attain their goals, and would rather sell variable or whole life products than simple term life, even when the suitability argument overwhelmingly suggests so, for a higher payday. More often than not, it is the financial institutions they work for who reward such behavior with higher commissions rather than salaries that encourage such behavior and create the vicious cycles that are now the norm.
The time has come to put quality assurance ahead of greed and check all egos at the door. Far too many CFP practitioners and financial intermediaries (i.e., financial planners, financial advisors, chartered financial consultants or financial counselors) are escaping scrutiny right now because public outrage has been directed at large financial institutions such as Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and AIG rather than individual money managers. But it won't take long before this anger spills from executive suites onto individual practitioners.
The way to resolve this issue is for the industry to step boldly in the direction of more meaningful professional education that raises quality standards and infuses investment advice with credibility and confidence.
Somnath Basu, Ph.D., is program director of the California Institute of Finance in the School of Business at California Lutheran University where he's also a professor of finance. He can be reached at (805) 493 3980 or firstname.lastname@example.org.