Sometimes, someone says something that is so egregiously wrong that it can’t be ignored. Take, for example, this piece, published this afternoon on Advisor.ca, an online magazine for financial advisors in the investment and insurance industries, which elicited this (totally articulate) reaction:

The piece in question? This:

“Don’t Ban Commissions, Says Advocis”

If Canada completely bans sales commissions like the U.K. and Australia, advisors and their clients will suffer.

This was the general consensus at an Advocis and PwC event held yesterday in Toronto.

In Australia, the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms banned embedded commissions, established a best interests legal duty and expanded requirements regarding fee disclosure, says Advocis. These changes increased the costs to serve investors by more than 30%, and compliance costs for advisors have amounted to AUD$700 million so far, finds a PwC survey of small- and medium-sized (SMB) advisory firms.

And in the U.K., the number of advisors dropped 25% due to similar regulatory reforms.
The investors that will have the most difficulty affording fee-for-service arrangements are those in the low- to middle-income range, finds the survey. And those clients, who typically have assets under $100,000, make up 80% of the investor market.

Meanwhile, 12% are those with assets between $100,000 and $500,000; 4% have between $500,000 and $1 million; and 4% have $1 million plus, notes the survey.

“We need a system that serves investors at all income levels,” says Greg Pollock, president and CEO of Advocis. “Given Canadians’ concerns around cost of living and retirement readiness, it’s critical that more people are able to seek professional financial advice.”

Also, there could be an economic impact if Canadian advisors follow the footsteps of those in the U.K. The SMB sector employs 182,000 people in Canada, and contributes $19 billion to the GDP (or 1.1%). This is greater than the auto (0.9% of GDP), aerospace (0.6%) or pharmaceuticals (0.3%) industries.

The experts provided an alternative to simply banning commissions.

“If we can get to a disclosure model that’s appropriate, then consumers could make the choice,” says Pollock. “If my embedded commission is $1,000, or whatever that number is, then you have a choice, as long as they disclose that.”

Meanwhile, Byren Innes, senior strategic advisor at PWC, suggests advisors get ahead of regulatory changes by adapting the current frameworks; getting educated and demonstrating their expertise to clients; and responding to the change in client preferences by becoming more accessible online.

Let’s talk about the kind of professional financial advice that 80% of low-to-middle income Canadians with less than $100,000 are getting, and should apparently be overjoyed about, notwithstanding the industry-funded study quoted above:

1. Canadians pay the highest equity fund fees, highest money-market fund fees, and the third-highest fixed-income fees of the twenty-two countries surveyed in this Morningstar report. On average, Canadians pay in excess of 2% in mutual fund fees, including 1% or so in embedded commissions to the advisors who sell them the investments and the companies who make them.

2. Despite the availability of passively managed mutual funds and ETFs with annual fees in the 0.30%-0.50% range, the overwhelming majority of those low-to-middle-income Canadians that Mr. Pollock is so very concerned about are paying in excess of 2% (of which 1% or is that embedded commission we’re all going on about) for actively managed mutual funds that are underperforming the market as a whole. That means that instead of paying $500 a year for investments, they’re paying $2,000.

3. That extra $1,500 is supposed to be buying them financial advice. What kind of financial advice do low-to-middle-income families need? Save regularly, rebalance dispassionately, and keep your head during cycles of fear and greed. Investment advice comes way down the list after cash flow and budgeting, debt repayment and avoidance, setting goals, and what to expect in retirement, and I’ve yet to meet a commissioned advisor with hours to spend on an individualized plan for someone whose sales fees won’t even pay the office lease for the month.

4. The overwhelming majority of that 80% of Canadians are NOT receiving the kind of financial advice that will help them. In most cases, they’re getting told what mutual funds to buy and nothing else. Is that really worth $1,500 each and every year, when a fee-for-service planner can charge less than that for one engagement and set them on the path of healthy finances for life, without that icky feeling that the advice they’re giving is handcuffed to the products they’re selling (and receiving commissions for)?

Yes, there’s an implementation gap. Not everyone can transfer their savings to a self-directed brokerage and go on their merry way without any bumps in the road, and banning commissions to advisors isn’t going to change that or help them get the affordable investment advice they need (although the rapidly approaching shake up in asset management business models hopefully will – more on that later).

You know what banning embedded commissions will do? It’ll end the illusion that advisors on the commission system are anything more than salespeople, no matter how well-intentioned they are, and it will force them to charge fees more in keeping with the actual quality of advice they’re giving, rather than the product they’re selling.

 

 

 

Sandi Martin

Co-Founder, Financial Planner at Spring Financial Planning
Fee only financial planner. Former banker. Money nerd. Curmudgeon only on days that end in "-day"