Just as the great migrations spread across Europe and overran the dissolving Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, there's a great migration happening among financial services firms today, and with those migrations, a proliferation of tribes, cultures, hierarchies, models and iconoclasts. For those going it alone, there's ample opportunity to form your own kingdom-or to be wiped out.
Generally, the move for financial advisors has been from the great wirehouses like Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney, Morgan Stanley (and to a lesser extent Wachovia and UBS) into the independent broker-dealer and RIA channels. In the latter category especially, many financial advisors have sought their own fiefdom, a reprieve from the regulatory oversight of Big Brother. The registered investment advisor has been pictured as a maverick, free to offer planning and wealth management for his or her own fee and use whatever tools needed. Meanwhile, for the privilege they can take 100% of their own payout, raise their own standard, build their own castles and forge their own legacies.
But that dream may have lost some luster. In 2004, the SEC adopted new rules under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 requiring those advisors registered with the commission to adopt written policies and procedures to keep them from violating federal securities laws. RIAs also have to look over those policies every year to make sure they're up-to-date and name a chief compliance officer. Moreover, the new sheriff at the SEC, Mary Schapiro, is expected to increase examinations and inspections of RIAs in the near future.
"You don't just go form one of these anymore," says Dean Rager chief information officer of broker-dealer Geneos Wealth Management Inc. in the Denver suburb of Centennial, Colo. "Back in the day you could, but now an RIA has a lot of the same rules and regulations that a broker-dealer has. There's adherence to all kinds of rules and regulations that let's say two years ago really didn't exist in its modified form like they do right now. So you really have to have some expertise on staff to do this."
And it's going to likely get worse, says Andrew Daniels, a managing principal in field development at Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass. "I think in the post-Madoff world, stand-alone registered investment advisors are going to be under greater scrutiny than they ever were before," he says, "and folks who may have gone RIA only for less Big Brother may not have that in the same capacity for that much longer."
Thus, many advisors breaking out of the commission world have been looking into another option-to instead work with a broker-dealer under its own corporate RIA structure and become an IAR, or independent advisor representative. It's the same letters in the alphabet soup, but it might make a big difference when regulators start stirring.
In other words, rather than filing their own ADV forms, filling out their own procedures manuals and more, advisors can set up tents under the suzerain of the broker-dealer's protection. Under this structure, it's the corporation being audited, not the advisor.
Bill Van Law, the national director of business development at Raymond James Financial Services in St. Petersburg, Fla., says that Raymond James has 2,900 or so advisors working under its corporate RIA, or a bit more than 90% of its advisors. LPL, meanwhile, says that of its 12,294 advisors, 94% are IAR licensed, and it is believed to be the nation's largest corporate RIA.
As far as the trend of going it alone, "I think that's slowing down," says Ryan Diachok, vice president in marketing and business development at Geneos, "mainly because the regulation is starting to catch up on the RIA side and I think that this market cycle has also caused some advisors to pause if they were considering dropping a broker-dealer affiliation and being RIA only. Once they do that, they lose the ability to sell a lot of the products that kind of round out the portfolios that are available only through the broker-dealer community."
In other words, in the age after the market crash when fees for assets under management have taken a dive, having those trailing fees and commissions from old business might be worth keeping a broker-dealer relationship alive.