As a fee-only investment advisor I come across clients from all walks of life. Lately I have noticed something in common with many of these investors. Many do not know the difference between an investment advisor and a broker who manages and/or makes securities recommendations for their clients’ investment portfolios. With the almost unprecedented volatility in the securities markets, you cannot afford to dig your head in the sand when it comes to whom is managing your assets.
In short, an investment advisor has a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interest of its clients. Investment advisors are required to register either with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or the states in which they operate in and are regulated under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940. According to Rule 206 of the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, investment advisors are considered fiduciaries, and as such, owe their clients a higher fiduciary duty. What this means in layman’s terms is that advisors must operate in a way that avoids conflicts of interest, puts their clients’ interests ahead of their own and make a full disclosure of their fees.
On the other hand, brokers (which are registered representatives of a brokerage firm (or in industry lingo a “broker-dealer”)) are salespeople whose primary responsibility is to help clients buy and sell securities for their accounts. While there is nothing wrong with this, investors should be made fully aware that broker-dealers are subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, a different regulatory rule than for investment advisors. As such, their principal obligation is to make suitable recommendations (emphasis ours) to their clients and as such, do not necessarily owe their clients a fiduciary duty.
I decided to write this piece because the differences between an investment advisor and a broker-dealer have become quite blurred over the years. Many broker dealers market themselves as offering financial advisor or investment consultant services. I think it is quite critical for the general investing public to know these differences. Many investors may have a false sense of security that their “advisor” may be continually managing and acting in the best interest of their clients, when in reality this may not be the case. In addition, be aware that just because your broker may be recommending a suitable security for you, their primary goal may not be to act in your best interest, but rather to generate a commission for their employer’s brokerage arm.