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SMART INSIGHTS FROM PROFESSIONAL ADVISERS

Why the Suitability Standard Isn't Suited for You

Working with a fee-only investment adviser who adheres to the fiduciary standard can help ensure you get the best financial advice to suit your needs.

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You need to be sure that any financial advice you get is given with your best interest in mind. The best way to do so is to hire a fee-only adviser who operates in a fiduciary capacity.

See Also: What the Government's New Financial-Adviser Rule Means to You

The Department of Labor has recently stepped in to mandate that all advisers to retirement assets hold themselves to the fiduciary standard. Simply put, the fiduciary standard states that advisers must hold the interest of their clients above their own. This is in contrast to the lesser and more commonly adhered to "suitability" standard, which states that an adviser must hold the interest of their clients at least as high as their own.

That's a subtle change in language, but an enormous difference in meaning.

For context on how this situation unfolded, think back to the early days of the stock market. If companies wanted to raise money to hire more employees or build more factories, they hired an investment bank to issue stock in their company for consumption by the public market (which are called initial public offerings, or IPOs). In order to move those issues, the banks paid brokers a commission to sell securities from their inventory. The brokers were incentivized to generate profits for the bank by way of selling as much product for as high a commission to as many customers as possible. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's a commonly accepted practice across various industries for goods and services. "Caveat emptor" applies here.

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However, as capital markets matured and Americans became more dependent on financial assets to support their livelihoods, many began seeking advice on the best investments for their portfolios. Common knowledge held that those who knew the most about investments were the ones selling them, so the advice of brokers was sought on how to best allocate savings.

When recommending investments, the broker has many options to consider, but let's simplify it to Investment A or B.

Investment A is pretty good for the client, but doesn't pay much of a commission to the broker.

Investment B is also pretty good for the client, and pays a nice commission to the broker.

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Because both investments are pretty good and therefore suitable for the client, there's some likelihood that Investment B will be recommended because it pays more for the broker.

Are Investment A and Investment B equally good for the client? That's difficult to know in this example, but since suitability is the standard to which most advisers (those registered with a broker-dealer) are held, the broker-adviser has done a satisfactory job.

The new fiduciary rule aims to address this problem, but only does so for retirement accounts. Non-retirement accounts could still fall under that same suitability standard. And this could be the same adviser working with the same client; it just so happens they have one retirement account and one non-retirement account.

If you're confused by what you just read, you're not alone.

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That's not to say that commissions shouldn't be part of the economic model by which brokers are compensated. There is absolutely a time and place for that, but doing so under the veil of advice lacks transparency and consistency.

Fortunately, this conflict has given rise to a better advisory model that puts the client at the center of the relationship by removing the commission equation altogether—that is the business of fee-only investment advisers. Their advice is the same on retirement accounts as it is on non-retirement accounts. It's 100% driven by what's deemed best for the client, and the client pays directly for that advice while the adviser implements and manages the portfolio of investments on their behalf.

Since its inception as Disch & Associates in 2008, Great Point Wealth Advisors has always advised clients in a fiduciary capacity. It's a founding principle and our way of reciprocating the trust given to us by our clients.

The DOL has made strides in this effort, but the real strides must come from you, the investors. You need to seek out fee-only investment advisers for help managing your portfolios and the myriad of other financial and estate related subject matter that requires careful consideration. It is critical to securing the future you deserve.

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See Also: 9 Best Income Investments Other Than Dividend Stocks

Peter V. Disch, Jr., CFP® is the founder and managing member of Great Point Wealth Advisors, an SEC Registered Investment Adviser in Boston.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff.