When the International Association For Financial Planning (IAFP) merged with the Institute Of Certified Financial Planners (ICFP) 12 years ago, members of both groups hoped the new 30,000-member strong organization would at long last allow the profession to speak with a single voice that could give it the clout to hold its own with other powerful segments of the financial services business.
That unity never materialized. In retrospect, maybe it never had a chance, even though with visionary leaders like Roy Diliberto and Elissa Buie it sure looked as if all systems were go from the start.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. According to one former FPA president, behind the scenes members were talking about undoing the merger almost as soon as the knot was tied. The potential for the single organization to expand its presence by raising vastly greater sums from product sponsors caused visions of sugarplums-and expanded service offerings-to dance in the minds of some members. Others envisioned a very different kind of association.
At the same time, it wasn't just traditionalists who resented the new association moving in that direction even if, in reality, it was simply struggling to find its way. I recall walking into the middle of a general session at the FPA's first annual conference in Boston in September 2000. Streams of advisors headed for the exits as author Harry Dent shamelessly flogged his new UIT, consisting largely of tech stocks that were about to crater.
The decision in 2003 for the FPA to spin off the old IAFP broker-dealer division into the Financial Services Institute (FSI) made sense for both advisors and brokers. Both groups had separate agendas and good reason to pursue different goals on their own.
But over time, they drifted further apart. Few issues have divided the financial planning community like the future regulation of RIAs. Over the last decade, Finra-regulated advisors have chafed at increased reporting demands and restrictions, complaining that the self-regulatory organization wanted to turn them into automatons who could only offer cookie-cutter solutions to clients with complex financial needs.
Some call them ex-brokers, others call them advisors, but both independent broker-dealers and wirehouses have lost financial professionals to the RIA space because these folks want the freedom to serve their clients as they, not Finra, see fit, and because the economics of the RIA space have the potential to create more business value.
Folks in the Finra-regulated arena feel they are subject to an uneven playing field, and associations like FSI and Sifma are urging Congress to replace the Securities and Exchange Commission with Finra as the regulator of RIAs. However, despite support from some members of Congress, deciding who should regulate RIAs appears to be a long-term project.
The sad truth is that neither the SEC nor Finra has performed particularly well regulating either the advisory or brokerage businesses. It's hard to see how an optimal solution will emerge or how investors come out the winner.
Evan Simonoff, Editor-in-Chief
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