Real Fiduciary Practices: Professional Conduct Guidance for Advisors

Real Fiduciary Practices: Professional Conduct Guidance for Advisors

 

February 22, 2019

The Institute for the Fiduciary Standard’s Real Fiduciary™ Practices describe how conscientious and competent advisors serve clients today. The practices reflect principles that underlie fiduciary law and focus on the three overriding advisory duties of Loyalty, Due Care and Utmost Good Faith.1 The Institute defines these terms as follows:

Loyalty means steadfast and uncompromising devotion to a client’s best interest.
Due care means following a prudent process and applying the necessary professional skills as evidenced by appropriate education, expertise and experience.
Utmost good faith means acting at all times with honesty, integrity and transparency.

Many advisors and brokers talk like a fiduciary, though relatively few act like one. These Real Fiduciary™ Practices provide guidance for advisors. They also help investors distinguish advisors who work for and are paid only by clients—from sales representatives who work for and are paid by firms to distribute products. That is, these practices help separate brokers and advisors who merely talk like a fiduciary from advisors who really act like one.2

Real Fiduciary™ Advisors stand apart because they:

DEMONSTRATE LOYALTY

    1. Act as a fiduciary at all times. Affirm this commitment to the client in writing.
      Affirm that the fiduciary standard under common law and the Investment Advisers Act of 19403 (and when applicable,ERISA) governs all professional advisory client relationships at all times at both the advisor and the firm level.4
    2. Decline any sales-related compensation.
      Accept compensation that is paid by the client in the form of a percentage of assets under management, retainers, fixed fees or hourly fees. Decline any compensation associated with transactions and product sales such as commissions, shelf space payments and 12b-1 fees.5
    3. Avoid conflicts of interest.
      Understand that a conflict of interest occurs when the interests of the advisor or the advisor’s firm interfere with the advisor’s fiduciary duties to clients. A conflict is material when it could reasonably be deemed to affect how a client who understands the conflict decides to act. Material conflicts are inherently harmful.6 Eliminating or avoiding these conflicts when possible has been the cornerstone of fiduciary law for centuries.
    4. Mitigate unavoidable conflicts.
      Mitigating material conflicts means, at minimum, receiving appropriate client consent before executing the recommendation. The advisor will:

      • Explain the conflict in sufficient detail, both orally and in writing, so the client fully understands the conflict. Disclosure of conflicts of interest is a well-established obligation of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and a key requirement of Form ADV.7
      • Ensure that the client understands the implications of the conflict. This includes the relative merits of options not recommended by the advisor and any additional compensation that may be earned by the advisor.
      • Receive informed, intelligent and independent consent from the client in writing before any advice is implemented.
      • Document and be prepared to demonstrate that the conflicted advice remains reasonable and fair and consistent with the client’s best interest.

ACT WITH DUE CARE

    1. Maintain professional knowledge and competence.
      Demonstrate baseline competence by holding a recognized designation which requires significant study and knowledge, experience and ongoing continuing education requirements, such as the CFP®, CPA/PFS or CFA designations. Decline to provide advice, regardless of its scope, unless the advisor possesses the appropriate expertise.
    2. Explain agreements and disclosures clearly and truthfully, both orally and in writing.
      Put all important client agreements and disclosures in writing. Do not make oral or written statements that are misleading. Client understanding of the advisor’s actions is important in relationships of trust and confidence.
    3. Establish and document a reasonable basis for advice.
      Document relevant facts and circumstances supporting the advisor’s advice in a manner that is appropriate for the scope and nature of the client engagement and for the client’s goals and overall circumstances. Upon client request, provide a brief summary written in plain language of each recommendation and its respective reasonable basis. Having a“reasonable basis” for investment advice is a well-established obligation of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940.8
    4. Follow and document a prudent due diligence process for rendering investment advice.
      Research and analyze investment vehicles in a responsible manner. Use an investment policy statement that is based on a clear understanding of the client’s circumstances and preferences and that clearly specifies assumptions regarding objectives, risk, and performance. Report performance based on data supplied by an independent third party and calculated using industry standard methods.

ACT IN UTMOST GOOD FAITH

    1. Decline gifts or entertainment or other benefits unless minimal in value, occasional in frequency, and consistent with the advisory firm’s gift and vendor relation policies.
      Decline any gifts or third-party compensation or other benefits received by the advisor or the advisor’s firm that could impair advisor objectivity. Upon request, provide the firm’s policy on gifts and entertainment. Explain clearly, both orally and in writing, any ongoing benefits the advisor or the advisor’s firm receives from other entities.
    2. Charge reasonable fees and incur reasonable investment costs. Disclose and fully explain.
      Provide in writing at the outset of the advisory relationship, and upon request throughout the client engagement, a good faith description and estimate of anticipated fees, investment costs and tax implications.9 Have procedures to check that client expenses are reasonable.Be aware that controlling investment expenses does not require the least expensive alternative; it does require a reasonable basis for selecting a more expensive alternative.

 

REAL FIDUCIARY™ PRACTICES BOARD

Christopher W. Cannon, CFA, FirsTrust
Paula H. Hogan, CFP®, CFA, Hogan Financial
Stephen D. Johnson, MBA, CFP®, Johnson Lyman Wealth Advisors
William C. Prewitt, M.S., CFP®, Charleston Financial Advisors
Knut A. Rostad, MBA, Institute for the Fiduciary Standard
Daniel Bernstein, JD, Associate General Counsel to the Real Fiduciary™Practices Board
Clark M. Blackman II, CFA, CPA/PFS, AIF®, Alpha Wealth Strategies (Emeritus)

 


These endnotes are for general information and are not part of the above guidance.
  1. Investors seek professional advice that is competent, objective, transparent and understandable. “Real Fiduciary”™ Practices communicate duties that are concrete, understandable and verifiable. The practices are intended to reflect how conscientious and competent advisors can serve clients today, mindful of the wide variety of risks and costs of various investment strategies and varying client needs, profiles and levels of sophistication. Real Fiduciary™ Practices reflect the principles-based nature of fiduciary law that is anchored by core values and norms. It is these values and norms that must remain steadfast because, as law professor Tamar Frankel notes, “…without them no society can survive.” See Tamar Frankel, “Fiduciary Law in the Twenty-First Century,” Boston University Law Review (BU School of Law) Vol 91 May 2011 Number 3 http://www.bu.edu/law/journals-archive/bulr/documents/frankel.pdf
  2. Two Institute white papers precede Real Fiduciary™ Practices. The first paper, “Six Core Fiduciary Duties for Financial Advisors,” September 9, 2013, discusses these duties in practical contexts. http://www.thefiduciaryinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/InstituteSixCoreFiduciaryDuties.pdf
    The second paper, “Key Principles for Fiduciary Best Practices and an Emerging Profession,” September 10, 2014, sets out the rationale for focusing the Real Fiduciary™ Practices on ethical criteria, avoiding conflicts of interest, the reasonableness of fees and expenses, and on communications that are clear, complete and truthful. https://thefiduciaryinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/BPPSeptember102014.pdf
  3. Scholar Ron A. Rhoades writes that fiduciary duties under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and ERISA “should be informed by state common law.”See “Proposed Interpretation of Fiduciary Duties Arising Under the Advisers Act,” August 6, 2018. https://www.sec.gov/comments/s7-09-18/s70918-4174272-172353.pdf
    Further, Rhoades writes that the term “best interest” is an “expression of the fiduciary standard.” See“(Proposed) Regulation Best Interests,” August 6, 2018. https://www.sec.gov/comments/s7-07-18/s70718-4174268-172351.pdf
  4. The importance of applying the practices to both the advisor and the firm is underscored by the confusion created when a firm states it is “RIA only” while representatives affiliated with the firm continue to receive commissions, or when, in the case of Commonwealth Financial Network, some of its registrants shift their business at Commonwealth “totally” to the “fee-only” unit yet still receive outside commissions. (While Commonwealth boasts their supposedly “fee-only”status within Commonwealth, some of these same representatives continue to receive commissions from others and therefore must self-identify as receiving “commissions and fees”in their CFP Board listings.)These circumstances can create confusion.See https://www.investmentnews.com/article/20190126/FREE/190129967/the-ria-space-is-hot-and-brokers-are-on-the-move
  5. Investor harms from product sales portrayed as unbiased advice were believed widespread in the 1920s and 1930s.In 1940 many investment counsellors and policy makers were deeply concerned with conflicted advice. This concern animated their thinking and significantly shaped the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. See SEC v Capital Gains Research Bureau. https://www.sec.gov/divisions/investment/capitalgains1963.pdf
  6. One SEC director underscored conflict harms by comparing conflicts to“…viruses that threaten the organization’s well-being.”See Carlos V. de Florio, Director, SEC Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations. https://www.sec.gov/news/speech/2012-spch103112cvdhtm
  7. Form ADV, General Instructions for Part 2 of Form ADV.“…As a fiduciary, you must also seek to avoid conflicts of interest with your clients, and, at a minimum, make full disclosure of all material conflicts of interest between you and your clients that could affect the advisory relationship. This obligation requires that you provide the client with specific facts so that the client is able to understand the conflicts of interest you have and the business practices in which you engage and can give informed consent to such conflicts or practices or reject them.”
    Also see, op cit Rhoades,August 6, 2018 comment letter to the SEC, “…Fiduciary Duties …” https://www.sec.gov/comments/s7-09-18/s70918-4174272-172353.pdf at pp. 65-80 which discusses in detail the obligations required of an advisor in order to overcome the burden presented by a material conflict of interest.
  8. Securities attorney Lorna Schnase offers a brief summary. “Generally, reasonable basis for an investment recommendation usually starts with knowing the client, which would typically contemplate documentation of the client’s circumstances and goals (client intake questionnaires, for example). For investment advice recommending specific investments, documentation would typically include disclosure documents for the investment (prospectus, offering memorandum, etc.). Of course, more extensive documentation of due diligence could be expected (for example, notes of interviews with issuer executives, market analyses, internal or external broker research reports, etc.) for investments that are alternative, riskier, or contain unusual features. There is usually a wide variety of documentation that could support a claim of “reasonable basis” from the investor’s standpoint, the standpoint of the particular investment, and everything that could connect the two.” (Email to K Rostad, 11-18-16.)
    Also see, AICPA’s “Statement on Standards in Personal Financial Planning Services” at p. 14, A16. https://www.aicpa.org/InterestAreas/PersonalFinancialPlanning/Resources/PFPPracticeManagement/ProfessionalStandardsandEthics/DownloadableDocuments/SSPFPS.pdf
  9. Such a report is now required annually of advisors in Europe. See European Securities and Markets Authority, Questions and Answers on MiFID II, p.72-84. https://www.esma.europa.eu/sites/default/files/library/esma35-43-349_mifid_ii_qas_on_investor_protection_topics.pdf