Tag: financial adivsors

The Challenges Of Integrating Advisory Fee Schedules And Billing During A Merger Or Acquisition

The Challenges Of Integrating Advisory Fee Schedules And Billing During A Merger Or Acquisition

Executive Summary

There are many challenges in navigating a successful advisory firm merger or acquisition, from ensuring that the firms align on investment, financial planning, and service philosophies, to finding an agreeable valuation and terms to the transaction, and navigating the post-transaction integration process. Yet in practice one of the biggest blocking points is simply figuring out how to effectively align the advisory fee schedules and fee calculations of the two firms – for instance, when one advisory firm charges substantially more or less than the other – to the point that one of the biggest blocking points of an otherwise-well-aligned merger or acquisition is simply whether it’s feasible to integrate their billing processes (especially when the firms have differences in their underlying business model, such as an AUM firm acquiring a retainer-fee firm).

In this week’s, we discuss the major issues to consider when integrating advisory fee schedules and billing processes, from strategies to adjust when one firm has an advisory fee schedule that charges more (or less) than the other, to reconciling differences in billing timing (i.e., billing in advance versus in arrears), and the unique acquisition problems that arise when trying to acquire retainer-fee firms.

For most, though, the biggest challenge is simply reconciling differences in fee schedules between the two firms. In situations where the acquirer charges more than the firm being acquired, there’s typically a desire to lift the newly acquired clients up to the fee schedule of the existing firm – which can make the transaction a strategically positive deal for the acquirer, if it can generate more revenue from the same clients, but also increases the risk that clients will reject the new fee schedule and not transition at all (which means it may be a good idea to leave the original fee schedule in place for a year or two, to allow clients the time to adjust, and build a relationship with the new firm). On the other hand, when the acquirer charges less than the firm being acquired, it gets even messier, as if the acquirer pays “full price” for the new firm’s revenue and then immediately cuts their fee schedule, the acquirer faces a substantial loss on the transaction (unless they can bring down costs in the merger business by even more than the loss in revenue!).

Even where advisory firms reasonably align on fee schedules, though, it’s also necessary to consider whether they have the same billing timing – in particular, whether both firms consistently bill in arrears or in advance. Because differences between the two firms in their billing process can lead to substantial disruptions in cash flow for either the acquirer, or the newly acquired clients! After all, if the acquirer needs to switch the new firm from billing in advance to billing in arrears, the firm could be forced to wait up to six months without receiving any new revenue from the new clients! And if the acquirer needs to switch in the other direction – from billing in arrears to billing in advance – then the first invoice to the clients may have to be a “double-billing” of the last arrears fee and the first advance fee all at once (which increases the transition risk for the acquiring firm!). In fact, even differences in the billing calculation process – such as when one firm bills on end-of-quarter balance, and the other uses average daily balance – can create billing gaps between expected and actual revenues!

And of course, this all assumes that both the acquiring and selling firms were both charging AUM fees in the first place. In the case where the acquiring firm charges AUM fees but the acquired firm charged retainers, it can be even more challenging to transition the retainer clients onto the AUM firm’s fee schedule (especially since many retainer-based firms proactively “sell against” the disadvantages of AUM fees, which effectively chases away potential buyers who may want to convert the business to their own AUM fee schedule). In turn, this means the marketplace of potential acquirers for retainer fee firms is drastically smaller, and retainer fee firms may have more difficulty finding an acquirer that will pay them a “fair” price – particularly for firms that charge retainer fees to clients who do have assets and “could” pay AUM fees (as the situation is different when using retainer fees to serve younger clients, or other “non-AUM” types of clientele).

Ultimately, though, the key point is simply to recognize how important differences in advisory fee schedules and billing processes can be when you’re looking at a potential merger or acquisition. As a result, doing detailed due diligence on advisory fee schedules is crucial. In particular, advisors should be evaluating any differences in the level of fees charged to clients, the timing of those fees, how those fees are calculated, and whether two firms have fundamentally different approaches to billing altogether. Of course, fee schedules don’t need to be identical in order to successfully navigate a merger, but approaching a merger with a clear understanding of the potential risks and opportunities involved is crucial!

Billing In Advance Vs Arrears (and on Daily Balance vs End-Of-Quarter Values)

Now, the second area that advisors need to watch when it comes to merging advisory fee schedules is the actual billing process. Because there are two issues that can crop here, one big and one a little bit smaller. The really big one is whether you bill in advance or in arrears. In other words, when a client starts with you, is their first quarterly billing for the prior partial quarter that they were with you or is their first billing in advance for the upcoming quarter, and if they decide to terminate the next quarter, do you refund them a pro rata portion of their fees?

Now, some firms just prefer to bill in arrears and they have a philosophy, “We’re not going to bill our clients until we’ve started doing the work,” other firms I know say, “I have a strong preference for billing in advance, that way I never have any accounts receivable, and I never have to collect from clients. I just refund pro rata if someone terminates, and not many people do because I’ve got a good retention.” On an ongoing basis, most firms don’t even think about this. You just bill your clients quarterly, whether it’s in arrears or in advance. After the first billing, no one really cares unless they’re going to terminate you and then you have to figure out if you will pro rata portion the last fee back if you billed them in advance.

But in a merger or an acquisition, this matters a lot, because if you bill in arrears and you acquire a firm that bills in advance, then when you buy them, you immediately take on the liability of refunding any clients who terminate in the quarter right after you’ve billed them. Unless you immediately convert the clients to arrears billing, you also have this potential liability in the future. But if you want to convert the clients, this gets even messier.

Imagine I bill in arrears and I acquire a firm that bills in advance. We’re in negotiations now, the deal closes in October, shortly after fourth quarter billing has happened at the end of September 30th. So the clients of the firm I just bought have already paid for Q4, they paid it in advance, which means if I want to bill them in arrears, my next billing isn’t going to happen for five months, until the end of Q1, March 31st, when I can bill them in arrears for the first billing as the acquired firm.

If I bought the firm in October, I don’t get any revenue at the end of the fourth quarter. There’s no Q4 billing in arrears because the firm already billed Q4 before they sold it to me. That seller has that money gone with it. And if I don’t bill in advance, I can’t bill them for Q1 at the end of the year. Instead, I have to wait three months into Q1. So you have to be cognizant of whether there were gaps between the firms billing in advance and in arrears.

And unfortunately, it’s not much better going the other direction. If the acquiring firm bills in advance and the firm being acquired bills in arrears, then the only way to true-up clients is that as the acquirer, you have to double-bill them. So in my earlier example, if you buy a firm in October that bills in arrears when you bill in advance, and at the end of Q4, on December 31st, you’re going to bill Q4 in arrears, because the clients haven’t paid for that yet, and you’re going to bill Q1 in advance because that’s what you do on an ongoing basis. And so the clients are going to get hit with two bills to get them on track the first time you do billing with them as the acquirer.

Now, it’s worth noting that you’re not cheating them or anything here. You’re not like literally double-charging them. They’re paying the Q4 fees because services were rendered in Q4, and you’re billing them in advance for Q1 because that’s what you do with all of all your clients, and if they terminate you you partially refund. But it does mean you have to be prepared to communicate that to transition them from arrears into an advance, there has to be a double-billing that occurs. You have to go two-quarters of fees to get an arrears closed out and an advance set up going forward. And so that’s a real risk, a real transition risk if you’re an acquirer, and you have to convince clients to stick around when the first thing you’re going to do is bill them for two-quarters when they’re still getting to know you. Now, it can be done. I know firms that have done it and they were able to get through it, and they were able to have retention. But at a minimum, it’s a really sensitive issue.

The other piece that goes along with these sort of mundane billing processes is you need to be aware of whether there’s alignment in how the fees are calculated. Specifically, when you do that billing, whether it’s in advance or in arrears, do you calculate based on end of quarter balance, or do you calculate based on average daily balance? Now, in theory, on average, these things average out, but not always. If your clients are net savers, end of quarter balances tend to be higher than average daily balances within the quarter because clients keep contributing lifting up the balance so that the end of quarter tends to be the highest one because it’s got all the contributions.

But if you’re mostly working with retirees, it may be the other way around. Average daily balances tend to be higher than end of quarter balances because at the end of the quarter all the withdrawals have occurred. And then, of course, in any particular quarter, you can get big gaps if the market moved sharply in the last couple of weeks in either direction and the end of quarter balance is very different than the average daily balance. In general, this adjustment tends to be more administrative (particularly in the quarter where the transition is occurring), but you need to know that the billing process is going to change. First, because you have to communicate it, second, because you probably need to reflect it in an updated advisory agreement, but you also need to consider whether there’s a risk that it may distort revenue in the first billing period after you acquire.

The Acquisition Problem With Retainer Fees In Lieu Of AUM Fees

Before I wrap up, there’s actually one other important dynamic I want to note here as well, and it’s the unique challenges that crop up when you’re trying to merge advisory firms where their fee schedule isn’t AUM fees in the first place, it’s retainer fees. Now, we know from industry research that the overall majority of advisory firms are still AUM-centric. And in fact, that the larger the advisory firm, the more affluent their clients, the more likely they are to charge AUM fees. Which means, on average, most buyers of retainer firms are still going to be AUM firms. And AUM firms acquire other firms to get more AUM. That’s what they do.

But what that means is that when an AUM acquires a retainer firm of clients who actually have assets, there’s usually a plan to convert those retainer clients over to an AUM fee structure. Except, unfortunately, that’s often very difficult because the firms that use retainer fees, particularly for affluent clients, tend to aggressively sell against AUM fees to convince their clients that the retainer model is superior, which means you effectively poison the well for most of your acquirers.

And this is one of the major drawbacks to pivoting from AUM to retainer fees that I find very rarely ever comes up in conversation (although I know a number of advisors who switched to retainer fees years ago and now want to retire and can’t find anyone to buy their firm because most firms charging retainer fees are relatively small, don’t have great margins, and don’t have the size and scale and cash flow to buy…while the AUM firms who’ve got dollars to buy, don’t want to buy retainer fee firms where the clients have been told that the AUM model is bad).

This isn’t necessarily an issue for those who are doing retainer fees for younger clients who don’t have assets, because the truth is, no AUM buyer is going to be acquiring a practice of clients who don’t have assets (or if they do, they’re going to acquire because they want to actually do the retainer model the way the retainer model is being executed). But if you’re a firm that works with affluent clients who have assets and simply charges retainer fees, this gets a lot harder to find prospective buyers because the AUM buyers want to convert but are afraid of the risk, and there aren’t very many non-AUM buyers. You risk drastically reducing the appeal for the bulk of prospective buyers.

And in fact, even other retainer firms often have trouble acquiring those who do complexity-based retainer fees because different firms characterize complexity differently. And so, even two firms doing annual retainer fees for affluent clients might charge very differently for some of those clients. Which means if you’re the acquirer, this is a really messy, one-client-at-a-time process of figuring out what each acquired client would be charged under the new firm’s model, and whether it’s more or less than what the old firm was charging.

Indirectly, this is actually one of the reasons why the AUM model happens to work so well because, by its nature, it’s actually a really systematized billing model. At worse, you have to change a few rates or break points on your AUM fee schedule, but there’s a standard fee structure for all clients. And that’s often not the case with retainer firms. And so, it can make the billing process much harder to reconcile for an acquiring firm. Sometimes so difficult that it may narrow the number of buyers, which means you have to spend more time trying to sell your firm and have fewer bidders competing and hopefully bidding up your price, which is not good news if you hope to be a seller some day. So do understand that most firms tend to get acquired by those who have comparable billing styles or business models, and make sure you know that you’re going to have buyers if you’re making business model decisions.

But anyway, the bottom line is just to recognize how important it is when you’re looking at a potential merger or an acquisition to do this kind of detailed due diligence on the advisory fee schedules and the billing processes. Do the firms have the same fee schedule? If not, who’s higher and lower all the way up and down the spectrum? Do they both bill in arrears or in advance, or is there a gap? Do they both bill on quarter and/or average daily balance or is there another gap? And if the firm charges retainer fees or separate planning fees (or a blended AUM plus retainer), are those fee structures and the way the fees are set consistent across the firms? Because, if they’re not, those kind of manually assigned retainer fees and planning fees are often the hardest parts to line up.

So be aware of that, and particularly if you’re thinking about moving away from AUM fees and towards the emerging range of “non-traditional” fee structures, as you may limit the potential market for buyers. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing to do if you think you can grow the business well enough in that direction. You may grow up on more than enough to make up for the fact that you’ve got a smaller market, but it’s really hard to find firms that will want to acquire you because of all these challenges in integrating fee schedules and billing if you use a substantially different fee model than everybody else.

I hope that’s helpful as some food for thought.

So what do you think? Are differences in fee schedules a potential problem when looking at mergers and acquisitions? Have you been in a similar situation? How did you manage the transition from one fee schedule to another? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

4 Ways Financial Advisors Can Benefit From Finding Their Flow State

4 Ways Financial Advisors Can Benefit From Finding Their Flow State

Winning athletes are known for being able to “get in the zone”, an extreme state of focus that researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dubbed a state of “flow” in his book by that name. But notably, achieving a state of flow is not unique to athletes; it’s possible for anyone to reach a similar level of focus and performance in their given endeavor. Accordingly, Iskowitz highlights a recent TD Ameritrade LINC conference session by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, who apply the principles of Flow research across a wide range of professions based on Kotler’s recent book “The Rise Of Superman: Decoding The Science Of Ultimate Human Performance“. However, not everyone reaches a state of flow in the same manner; Kotler and Wheal have found four different types of Flow profiles, including Hard Chargers (the classic adrenaline junkies), Deep Thinkers (the virtuoso that loses themselves in full concentration on their task at hand), Flow Goers (free spirits like yogis and artists who try to live their lives in an ongoing state of flow), and Crowd Pleasers (extroverted performers who find moments of flow in engaging the crowd). The reason why it’s important to understand your “Flow Profile” is that it allows you to better oriented your time and energy towards the kinds of activities most likely to create a Flow state, and identify your Flow triggers – the psychological, environmental, social, and creative areas that can help people enter a state of Flow (and once you understand your own Flow triggers, you can try to re-create those trigger circumstances more often). Notably, though, even for the best, Flow states do not sustain. Even neurochemically, the process of flow is a four stage cycle of Struggling to reach flow (when cortisol and norepinephrine are released), Release (where you de-stress to prepare to enter a flow state), the Flow itself (which includes a global release of nitric oxide, which flushes out stress hormones and resets the nervous system), and Recovery (where the neurotransmitters must build up again). For those who are curious to better understand their own Flow profile, Kotler and Wheal have launched the Flow Genome Project, which provides a Flow s self-assessment tool here.

Why Broker-Dealers Launching Robo-Advisors Are Missing The #FinTech Point

Why Broker-Dealers Launching Robo-Advisors Are Missing The #FinTech Point

Executive Summary

Broker-dealers launching their own “robo-advisor-for-advisors” solutions for their reps has been a growing and accelerating trend. From prior announcements like the LPL deal with FutureAdvisor after Blackrock bought them, to Voya stating that they are looking to acquire a robo-advisor solution, and this week Kestra Financial announcing that it is working on a robo solution in the coming year as well. Yet the irony is that even as broker-dealers increasingly hop onto the “robo tools” bandwagon, they may actually be the worst positioned to capitalize on the trend, especially if their goal is to increase their volume of next-generation Millennial clients for their reps!

In this week’s post we discuss why broker-dealers are missing the point by launching “robo” solutions, how broker-dealers will struggle to gain any traction with Millennials – even with a robo-advisor – because of their digital marketing woes, and why broker-dealers should really be framing “robo solutions” as simply an upgrade to their entire technology stack instead!

Given the popular notion that “robo-advisors” are an effective means to grow a Millennial client base, it’s certainly understandable that broker-dealers want to pursue “robo” solutions. After all, the reality is that while the average advisor may simply be able to keep working with affluent retirees until the advisor themselves retires, broker-dealers are going-concern businesses that must focus on the long run – and recognize that eventually, the coming shift in generational wealth (as Baby Boomers pass away and bequeath assets to their Millennial children) means that they must find a way to grow their Millennial client base. And for the average broker-dealer rep who struggles to efficiently serve small accounts, who wouldn’t want a “robo” solutions where clients can come to the broker’s website and sign up and onboard themselves?

Yet the truth is that robo-advisor tools don’t actually attract Millennial clients. At best, they’re a highly efficient means to onboard and manage a Millennial client’s account, but the firm must still figure out how to market and attract Millennial clients in the first place. Which has been a challenge even for the most established robo-advisors, as companies like Betterment and Wealthfront have only averaged $1B to $2B per year in net new asset flows (and even then at “just” a 25bps price point!), and even the more eye-popping growth of Schwab Intelligent and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services has been driven primarily by clients who already had their assets with those brands, and simply moved them to their new “robo” offerings. And in point of fact, Vanguard’s solution wasn’t even the rollout of a robo-advisor, but the addition of human financial planners to clients who already worked with Vanguard digitally – a “cyborg” (tech-augmented human CFP professional) solution that is taking over the industry, with Personal Capital, Schwab, and even Betterment now offering tech-augmented human CFP advisors (and not just a robo solution alone).

In fact, when it comes to marketing to Millennials, even the robo-advisors have struggled with client acquisition costs, and they have entire companies (or at least entire divisions) with dedicated direct-to-consumer marketing, and the ability to leverage substantial existing brands (in the case of Schwab and Vanguard). By contrast, most broker-dealers have little brand recognition with consumers, a decentralized marketing process (where every rep is responsible for their own marketing and business development), and a cumbersome compliance process that makes it almost impossible to rapidly iterate the broker’s digital marketing efforts to attract Millennials online. Which means broker-dealers that launch “robo” initiatives are unlikely to see much of any asset flows whatsoever.

All this point said, it doesn’t mean that the “robo” tools themselves are bad for a broker-dealer to adopt. To the contrary, there are tremendous operational efficiencies to be gained with “robo” technology that expedites the process of onboarding clients and efficiently managing (model) portfolios. But again, that’s because robo tools are all about operational efficiencies… not marketing and business development! Which means broker-dealers announcing they are going to roll out “robo” tools will at best underdeliver on its promise of bringing in new young clients without needing to do any work – because it’s not a marketing solution for Millennials, it’s an operational solution after you do the marketing to Millennials yourself (which, most advisors don’t do well in the first place)! And at worst, brokers themselves just won’t adopt the tools, because they feel threatened by “robo” tools that imply the broker can be replaced (even if real advisors aren’t at risk of being replaced by robos). Instead, what broker-dealers should do is simply say “we’re upgrading our technology to make you more operationally efficient in opening and managing investment accounts.” Because that’s what it’s really about. And that’s the outcome that really matters!

Why Broker-Dealers And Their Reps Want A Robo-Advisor To Work

Now, I do get the appeal for a broker-dealer of launching a robo-advisor. First and foremost, I hear a number of broker-dealer reps asking for it, but not all because many are very happy with who they’re currently serving and what they’re doing. But instead, whether it’s an easier way to handle accommodation clients, those small clients where it’s hard to spend the time with them, or just the appeal of being able to have a robo-advisor button on your website to take on young millennial clients. There is a pain point, a valid pain point, for a lot of advisors in trying to work with small accounts that are time-consuming where a robo solution that automates it seems appealing.

I mean if the technology is entirely automated anyways, who wouldn’t want to put a button on their website that gets young people to open up small accounts that will grow with systematic contributions over time? And it takes no time from the advisor because they’re just clicking on a button. And from the broker-dealer’s perspective, ideally, this helps them address I think what’s actually a much broader issue, the coming generational shift of assets from baby boomers down to millennials.

For the individual advisor, however, I think the significance of this trend is grossly overstated. The average baby boomer is 62 years old. A retired couple at that age still has as joint life expectancy of about 25 years. The average age of a financial advisor is mid-50s, which means the average advisor will long since be retired themselves before their average baby boomer client start passing away and bequeathing assets to millennial children. Even a 40-something advisor will likely be retired before a material rotation of assets happens.

And of course, during retirement, although we talk about how clients are in a decumulation phase, the truth is retirees don’t actually withdraw that much at a 4% withdraw rate. Account balances actually tend to remain stable where you can grow when retirees are in their 60s and 70s because a 4% withdrawal is less than the long-term growth rate on a retirement portfolio.

But broker-dealers are corporate entities and they have a much longer time horizon. If you’re an advisor who in ten years is watching your client be slowly attritioned down due to the occasional death and ongoing withdrawals, and maybe you’re losing 3% to 5% a year in assets and revenue because of it, it’s not really that big of a deal. You’re probably already 50- or 60-something, you’re making good money anyways, your clients have been with you for a long time, they might not even be all that time-demanding anymore, and there are still 10,000 baby boomers turning 62 every day, so you can always find a few replacement clients if necessary. Simply put, the average advisor cruises it out.

But if you’re a broker-dealer that in the aggregate is losing 3% to 5% a year in assets in a decade from now, it’s a crisis because the advisors are going to retire soon and the broker-dealer still has a multi-decade open-ended timeframe as an ongoing business entity. There’s a difference in time horizons. And in point of fact, I think this is why we see broker-dealers, as well as RIA custodians, so obsessively beating the drum about advisors needing to focus more on younger clients. It’s not actually because we as advisors desperately need younger clients for our businesses to survive. It’s because they, the broker-dealers and RIA custodians, need us to get younger clients for them so their businesses survive and so they have younger clients after we’re gone and retired.

Now, from the broker-dealer’s perspective, if all the buzz is that millennials are pursuing robo-advisor solutions, then the broker-dealer wants to roll out a robo-advisor to get those younger clients.

Broker-Dealers Struggle With Digital Marketing

I get it, but here’s the problem with the strategy: robo-advisor solutions live and die by their ability to get clients online, and that’s not easy. Even Betterment is up to just 10 billion dollars of assets after 6 years. Wealthfront is at barely 6 billion total over that time period. Schwab has made news for $15 billion dollars of assets, but has actually noted that only about a third of that, maybe five billion dollars, was new assets. The rest were just existing Schwab clients that happened to switch to the robo solution. Vanguard now is over 60 billion dollars, but it’s rumored to have an even higher percentage of assets that were already at Vanguard. They were simply upsold to human advice because, remember, Vanguard already is direct-to-consumer through the Internet. Their solution, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, wasn’t adding a robo. It was adding humans to what was already a robo-digital solution at Vanguard.

And even when you look at firms like Edelman Financial, they’ve struggled. A 15-plus billion dollar RIA working on building a national brand with centralized marketing and a huge digital presence launched Edelman online in early 2013, and after four years, they have barely a thousand clients and $62 million dollars of AUM, and their average robo client is actually a baby boomer anyways. In other words, even though leading robo-advisors are struggling to get millennials and are getting maybe one or two billion dollars a year in net new assets, which at 25basis point pricing, it’s a couple million dollars a year of gross revenue before the cost to build and service and support the robo technology for the broker-dealer itself, which means even for a mid-sized broker-dealer, that’s really small potatoes. And that’s based on what the growth is that the leaders in the robo movement are doing.

Even more to the point though, is how the leaders are doing it with platforms that are focused on building robo solutions with centralized marketing, but that’s not how it works in a broker-dealer environment where there are hundreds or thousands of reps, each of them have their own marketing plans, their own online marketing experience, or no online marketing experience, no digital marketing tools, and they have to get every digital initiative and every change on their website re-approved by compliance.

When you look at what robo-advisors do, their marketing is constantly iterating. They are running dozens of AB tests on their websites every day. Meanwhile, at a broker-dealer, I can’t even AB test whether it would be better for my robo-advisor to have a button that says, “Click here to open your account,” or to say, “Open your account now,” without getting compliance to pre-approve the change of the text on a little, tiny button. That is, to put it mildly, a very inhospitable environment to do rapid testing digital marketing to gain traction with a broker-dealer’s robo solution.

So what happens instead? The reality, again, the average advisor at a broker-dealer focuses on retirees. Their website probably shows pictures of couples walking on the beach towards a lighthouse, or maybe they’re sitting on Adirondack chairs, looking out over the ocean. So what exactly is this advisor supposed to do with a robo solution from the broker-dealer? Put a button on their website that says, “Millennials, open your robo account now,” right between the lighthouse and the Adirondack chairs? I mean does anybody really think a tech-savvy millennial is going to hit that button and transfer their life savings?

Simply put, the problem is robo-advisors don’t actually help advisors get millennial clients. Robo-advisors help advisors open millennial accounts after they successfully market to get millennial clients in the first place. And so until and unless broker-dealers figure out how to help their advisors get much, much savvier about digital marketing and how to actually attract and get millennial clients in the first place, and then use the robo tools to onboard and open the accounts, these broker-dealer robo initiatives are all doomed to fail.

It’s not an, “If you build it, they will come,” kind of asset gathering opportunity. I mean what we’ve actually found is the real blocking point of robo-advisors is the client acquisition cost, what it takes to market and get a young investor to invest on your platform. The robo-advisors were not only not a solution to client acquisition costs, they’ve been getting buried by client acquisition costs. It’s why we’ve been writing for the past two years that robo-advisor growth rates just keep slowing and slowing and slowing. Most of them have already sold and the ones that are left aren’t even really focusing on a robo strategy anymore.

Notwithstanding how it’s labeled, Vanguard is a human advisor service, hundreds and hundreds of CFPs that they’re hiring as quickly as they can. At best, it’s a cyborg solution, tech-augmented humans. Personal Capital is often branded as a robo, but it’s not. It hires CFPs in Denver. It’s a cyborg solution as well. Schwab pivoted from a pure robo solution to intelligent advisory which offers humans. And heck, even Betterment pivoted from a robo solution to offering human advisors this year. So, no one who’s actually succeeding at robo is doing it with a robo solution. They’re bringing in humans while broker-dealers are trying to roll out robo-advisors. This is not going to end well for them.

Robo-Technology Is About Back-Office Efficiency, Not Millennial Asset Growth

All that being said, I do want to point out that just because a robo-advisor solution to broker-dealer is doomed to fail at gathering millennial assets, it doesn’t actually mean the technology itself is worthless. To the contrary, there are tremendous operational efficiencies to be gained in a lot of robo technology.

After all, at its core, robo tools basically do two things incredibly well. They make client onboarding easier and faster, and then they make it much easier to manage model portfolios. And I think that’s part of why Betterment’s technology in particular was so shocking when it launched a couple of years ago.

You dial the clock back to 2012, as advisors, we’re mostly still opening new accounts by faxing physical paperwork with wedding signatures to do ACAT transfers, praying we don’t get any NIGOs, and that if things go well, maybe assets will show up in two weeks or so. And then Betterment launches and lets you e-sign everything from your smartphone to open the account, fund the account, and fully invest the account from your phone in about a half an hour. I mean just imagine how much operational administrative staff savings the average advisor could achieve if that was our account opening process.

Similarly, robo-advisors from the portfolio management end are really not much more than model management tools, what we in the industry would call rebalancing software, which we’ve already seen in the industry as tremendous efficiencies with billion-dollar advisory firms that manage all of their client accounts with one trader in a piece of software.

So I don’t want to be negative on the value of the technology, but the value of the technology is operational efficiency. It makes your back office staff leaner and more efficient. It speeds up transferring and managing assets. It reduces paperwork errors. It cuts down NIGOs. It reduces trade errors. It keeps clients from slipping off model or forgetting to have new cash invested. But it’s not a business development tool. The business development is still up to the advisor. The robo tools are just what you use to onboard the client and invest after the business development process.

And in fact, what I find is that usually once the average broker understands that, that just putting a robo-advisor on your site does not actually mean millennial money just starts automatically rolling over and you don’t have to do anything. They don’t even want a robo anymore. In fact, it frankly feels kind of threatening to most of us advisors. As though when you say, “We’re giving you robo-advisor tools,” we’re going to be replaced by robots.

As I’ve written repeatedly, we are not going to be replaced by robots because what robo-advisors do is fundamentally different than what we do as human advisors. But when a broker-dealer goes and says, “Hey, brokers, we’re working on a robo-advisor solution to help you,” it’s kind of like saying to a factory worker, “Hey, great news! We’re working on new automated machinery to help your job in the factory next year,” and then the following year, you find out you’re fired because you just installed the technology that eliminated your job.gain, I don’t see that’s how it actually plays out with robo-advisors and human advisors because they’re not actually winning business from human advisors now, but that is why it’s absurd for broker-dealers to tell their reps they’re rolling out robo-advisor tools. At best, it’s going to grossly under-deliver on its promise of bringing in new young clients without needing to do any work because it’s not a marketing solution for millennials. It’s an operational solution after you market to millennials, which advisors still don’t do well in the first place. But at worst, brokers just won’t adopt the tools and technology at all because they don’t see the value of the technology because it feels like they’re supposed to use something that threatens them.

Again, I don’t see that as how it actually plays out with robo-advisors and human advisors because they’re not actually winning business from human advisors now, but that is why it’s absurd for broker-dealers to tell their reps they’re rolling out robo-advisor tools. At best, it’s going to grossly under-deliver on its promise of bringing in new young clients without needing to do any work because it’s not a marketing solution for millennials. It’s an operational solution after you market to millennials, which advisors still don’t do well in the first place. But at worst, brokers just won’t adopt the tools and technology at all because they don’t see the value of the technology because it feels like they’re supposed to use something that threatens them.

Instead, what broker-dealers should really be doing is just saying, “We’re upgrading our technology to make you more operationally efficient in the opening and managing investment accounts with better onboarding tools and better portfolio management tools,” because that’s what it’s really about and that’s the outcome that matters.

I hope this is helpful as some food for thought.

So what do you think? Are broker-dealers missing the point of robo-advisor fintech? Will broker-dealers and their reps continue to struggle with digital marketing? How would you use robo-technology with your clients? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Stock Market Still Seems to Believe the Fed

The Stock Market Still Seems to Believe the Fed

Economic indicators show that a slowdown might be in the offing, even though the Fed has been raising rates and the labor market continues to tighten, according to a New York Times article from earlier this month.

Despite the occasional surge in technology stocks and the steady drop in energy shares, the article says the market continued to push forward through the second quarter. But some investment advisers are developing concern that if the economic weakness persists, “it may be time to start believing their own eyes and lighten up on stocks,” that article says.

Other indicators that support the absence of economic growth include a flattening yield curve (long-term bond yields have decreased while short-term have risen). Inversion could point to a recession.

The article offers comments by Scott Klimo, co-manager of the Sextant International Fund, in which he warns ” that investors had become conspicuously complacent,” but adds that the stock market could continue plugging along for a while “absent some external shock.”

Edward Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research, believes that the economy’s performance is much like that in 2010 and that although first quarter performance was modest, slower growth in the labor force should be taken into consideration. He doesn’t, as quoted in the article, “see any particular reasons to get out of stocks or bonds at this point.”

“As long as inflation remains subdued,” Yardeni argues, “and as long as we don’t have a recession, bonds and stocks should continue to work.”

Financial Advisor Fees Comparison – All-In Costs For The Typical Financial Advisor?

Financial Advisor Fees Comparison – All-In Costs For The Typical Financial Advisor?

Executive Summary

While the standard rule-of-thumb is that financial advisors charge 1% AUM fees, the reality is that as with most of the investment management industry, financial advisor fee schedules have graduated rates and breakpoints that reduce AUM fees for larger account sizes, such that the median advisory fee for high-net-worth clients is actually closer to 0.50% than 1%.

Yet at the same time, the total all-in cost to manage a portfolio is typically more than “just” the advisor’s AUM fee, given the underlying product costs of ETFs and mutual funds that most financial advisors still use, not to mention transaction costs, and various platform fees. Accordingly, a recent financial advisor fee study from Bob Veres’ Inside Information reveals that the true all-in cost for financial advisors averages about 1.65%, not “just” 1%!

On the other hand, with growing competitive pressures, financial advisors are increasingly compelled to do more to justify their fees than just assemble and oversee a diversified asset allocated portfolio. Instead, the standard investment management fee is increasingly a financial planning fee as well, and the typical advisor allocates nearly half of their bundled AUM fee to financial planning services (or otherwise charges separately for financial planning).

The end result is that comparing the cost of financial advice requires looking at more than “just” a single advisory fee. Instead, costs vary by the size of the client’s accounts, the nature of the advisor’s services, and the way portfolios are implemented, such that advisory fees must really be broken into their component parts: investment management fees, financial planning fees, product fees, and platform fee.

From this perspective, the reality is that the portion of a financial advisor’s fees allocable to investment management is actually not that different from robo-advisors now, suggesting there may not be much investment management fee compression on the horizon. At the same time, though, financial advisors themselves appear to be trying to defend their own fees by driving down their all-in costs, putting pressure on product manufacturers and platforms to reduce their own costs. Yet throughout it all, the Veres research concerningly suggests that even as financial advisors increasingly shift more of their advisory fee value proposition to financial planning and wealth management services, advisors are still struggling to demonstrate why financial planning services should command a pricing premium in the marketplace.

How Much Do Financial Advisors Charge As Portfolios Grow?

One of the biggest criticisms of the AUM business model is that when financial advisor fees are 1% (or some other percentage) of the portfolio, that the advisor will get paid twice as much money to manage a $2M portfolio than a $1M portfolio. Despite the reality that it won’t likely take twice as much time and effort and work to serve the $2M client compared to the $1M client. To some extent, there may be a little more complexity involved for the more affluent client, and it may be a little harder to market and get the $2M client, and there may be some greater liability exposure (given the larger dollar amounts involved if something goes wrong), but not necessarily at a 2:1 ratio for the client with double the account size.

Yet traditionally, the AUM business has long been a “volume-based” business, where larger portfolios reach “breakpoints” where the marginal fees get lower as the dollar amounts get bigger. For instance, the advisor who charges 1% on the first $1M, but “only” 0.50% on the next $1M, such that the with double the assets does pay 50% more (in recognition of the costs to market, additional service complexity, and the liability exposure), but not double.

However, this means that the “typical financial advisor fee” of 1% is somewhat misleading, as while it may be true that the average financial advisory fee is 1% for a particular portfolio size, the fact that fees tend to decline as account balances grow (and may be higher for smaller accounts) means the commonly cited 1% fee fails to convey the true sense of the typical graduated fee schedule of a financial advisor.

Fortunately, though, recent research by Bob Veres’ Inside Information, in a survey of nearly 1,000 advisors, shines a fresh light on how financial advisors typically set their AUM fee schedules, not just at the mid-point, but up and down the scale for both smaller and larger account balances.  And as Veres’ research finds, the median advisory fee up to $1M of assets under management really is 1%. However, many advisors charge more than 1% (especially on “smaller” account balances), and often substantially less for larger dollar amounts, with most advisors incrementing fees by 0.25% at a time (e.g., 1.25%, 1.00%, 0.75%, and 0.50%), as shown in the chart below.

Comparison Of Financial Advisor Fee Levels By Portfolio Size

More generally, though, Veres’ research affirms that the median AUM fee really does decline as assets rise. At the lower end of the spectrum, the typical financial advisory fee is 1% all the way up to $1M (although notably, a substantial number of advisors charge more than 1%, particularly for clients with portfolios of less than $250k, where the median fee is almost 1.25%). However, the median fee drops to 0.85% for those with portfolios over $

1M. And as the dollar amounts rise further, the median investment management fee declines further, to 0.75% over $2M, 0.65% over $3M, and 0.50% for over $5M (with more than 10% of advisors charging just 0.25% or less).

Notably, because these are the stated advisory fees at specific breakpoints, the blended fees of financial advisors at these dollar amounts would still be slightly higher. For instance, the median advisory fee at $2M might be 0.85%, but if the advisor really charged 1.25% on the first $250k, 1% on the next $750k, and 0.85% on the next $1M after that, the blended fee on a $2M portfolio would actually be 0.96% at $2M.

Nonetheless, the point remains: as portfolio account balances grow, advisory fees decline, and the “typical” 1% AUM fee is really just a typical (marginal) fee for portfolios around a size of $1M. Those who work with smaller clients tend to charge more, and those who work with larger clients tend to charge less.

Median AUM Fee Schedules Based On Portfolio AUM

How Much Do Financial Advisors Cost In All-In Fees?

The caveat to this analysis, though, is that it doesn’t actually include the underlying expense ratios of the investment vehicles being purchased by financial advisors on behalf of their clients.

Of course, for those who purchase individual stocks and bonds, there are no underlying wrapper fees for the underlying investments. However, the recent FPA 2017 Trends In Investments Survey of Financial Advisors finds that the overwhelming majority of financial advisors use at least some mutual funds or ETFs in their client portfolios (at 88% and 80%, respectively), which would entail additional costs beyond just the advisory fee itself.

Advisor Use Of Investment Products With Clients Over Time

Fortunately, though, the Veres study did survey not only advisors’ own AUM fee schedules, but also the expense ratios of the underlying investments they used to construct their portfolios. And as the results reveal, the underlying expense ratios add a non-trivial total all-in cost to the typical financial advisory fee, with the bulk of blended expense ratios coming in between 0.20% and 0.75% (and a median of 0.50%).

Average Blended Expense Ratio Of Investments Used By Financial Advisors

Of course, when it comes to ETFs, as well as the advisors who trade individual stocks and bonds, there are also underlying transaction costs to consider. Fortunately, given the size of typical advisor portfolios, and the ever-declining ticket charges for stock and ETF trades, the cumulative impact is fairly modest. Still, while most advisors estimated their trading costs at just 0.05%/year or so, with almost 15% at 0.02% or less, there were another 18% of advisors with trading costs of 0.10%/year, almost 10% up to 0.20%/year, and 6% that trade more actively (or have smaller typical client account sizes where fixed ticket charges consume a larger portion of the account) and estimate cumulative transaction costs even higher than 0.20%/year.

In addition, the reality is that a number of financial advisors work with advisory platforms that separately charge a platform fee, which in some cases covers both technology and platform services and also an all-in wrap fee on trading costs (and/or access to a No-Transaction-Fee [NTF] platform with a platform wrapper cost). Amongst the more-than-20% of advisors who reported paying such fees (either directly or charged to their clients), the median fee was 0.20%/year.

Accordingly, once all of these various underlying costs are packaged together, it turns out that the all-in costs for financial advisors – even and including fee-only advisors, which comprised the majority of Veres’ data set – including the total cost of AUM fees, plus underlying expense ratios, plus trading and/or platform fees, are a good bit higher than the commonly reported 1% fee.

For instance, the median all-in cost of a financial advisor serving under-$250k portfolios was actually 1.85%, dropping to 1.75% for portfolios up to $500k, 1.65% up to $1M, and 1.5% for portfolios over $1M, dropping to $1.4% over $2M, 1.3% over $3M, and 1.2% over $5M.

All-In Total Cost Of Financial Advisor AUM Fees By Portfolio Size

Notably, though, the decline in all-in costs as assets rise moves remarkably in-line with the advisor’s underlying fee schedule, suggesting that the advisor’s “underlying” investments and platform fee are actually remarkably stable across the spectrum.

For instance, the median all-in cost for “small” clients was 1.85% versus an AUM fee of 1% (although the median fee was “almost” 1.25% in Veres’ data) for a difference of 0.60% – 0.85%, larger clients over $1M face an all-in cost of 1.5% versus an AUM fee of 0.85% (a difference of 0.65%), and even for $5M+ the typical total all-in cost was 1.2% versus a median AUM fee of 0.5% (a difference of 0.70%). Which means the total cost of underlying – trading fees, expense ratios, and the rest – is relatively static, at around 0.60% to 0.70% for advisors across the spectrum!

Median All-In AUM Fees Of Financial Advisers (By Portfolio Size)

On the one hand, it’s somewhat surprising that as client account sizes grow, advisors reduce their fees, but platform fees and underlying expense ratios do not decrease. On the other hand, it is perhaps not so surprising given that most mutual funds and ETFs don’t actually have expense ratio breakpoints based on the amount invested, especially as an increasing number of low-cost no-load and institutional-class shares are available to RIAs (and soon, “clean shares” for broker-dealers) regardless of asset size.

It’s also notable that at least some advisor platforms do indirectly “rebate” back a portion of platform and underlying fees, in the form of better payouts (for broker-dealers), soft dollar concessions (for RIAs), and other indirect financial benefits (e.g., discounted or free software, higher tier service teams, access to conferences, etc.) that reduces the advisor’s costs and allows the advisor to reduce their AUM fees. Which means indirectly, platforms fees likely do get at least a little cheaper as account sizes rise (or at least, as the overall size of the advisory firm rises). It’s simply expressed as a full platform charge, with a portion of the cost rebated to the advisor, which in turn allows the advisor to pass through the discount by reducing their own AUM fee successfully.

Financial Advisor Fee Schedules: Investment Management Fees Or Financial Planning Fees?

One of the other notable trends of financial advisory fees in recent years is that financial advisors have been compelled to do more and more to justify their fees, resulting in a deepening in the amount of financial planning services provided to clients for that same AUM fee, and a concomitant decline in the profit margins of advisory firms.

To clarify how financial advisors position their AUM fees, the Veres study also surveyed how advisors allocate their own AUM fees between investment management and non-investment-management (i.e., financial planning, wealth management, and other) services.

Not surprisingly, barely 5% of financial advisors reported that their entire AUM fee is really just an investment management fee for the portfolio, and 80% of advisors who reported that at least 90% of their AUM fee was “only” for investment management stated it was simply because they were charging a separate financial planning fee anyway.

For most advisors who do bundle together financial planning and investment management, though, the Veres study found that most commonly advisors claim their AUM fee is an even split between investment management services, and non-investment services that are simply paid for via an AUM fee. In other words, the typical 1% AUM fee is really more of a 0.50% investment management fee, plus a 0.50% financial planning fee.

Self-Reported Percentage Of Advisor's AUM Fee Actually Paying For Investment Management

Perhaps most striking, though, is that there’s almost no common consensus or industry standard about how much of an advisor’s AUM fee should really be an investment management fee versus not, despite the common use of a wide range of labels like “financial advisor”, “financial planner”, “wealth manager”, etc.

As noted earlier, in part this may be because a subset of those advisors in the Veres study are simply charging separately for financial planning, which increases the percentage-of-AUM-fee-for-just-investment-management allocation (since the planning is covered by the planning fee). Nonetheless, the fact that 90% of advisors still claim their AUM fees are no-more-than-90% allocable to investment management services suggests the majority of advisors package at least some non-investment value-adds into their investment management fee. Yet how much is packaged in and bundled together varies tremendously!

More broadly, though, this ambiguity about whether or how much value financial advisors provide, beyond investment management, for a single AUM fee, is not unique to the Veres study. For instance, last year’s 2016 Fidelity RIA Benchmarking Study found that there is virtually no relationship between an advisor’s fees for a $1M client, and the breadth of services the advisor actually offers to that client! In theory, as the breadth of services to the client rises, the advisory fee should rise as well to support those additional value-adds. Instead, though, the Fidelity study found that the median advisory fee of 1% remains throughout, regardless of whether the advisor just offers wealth management, or bundles together 5 or even 9 other supporting services!

Self-Reported Advisory Fees On $1M Portfolio, By Number Of Bundled Services

The Future Of Financial Advisor Fee Compression: Investment Management, Financial Planning, Products, And Platforms

Overall, what the Veres study suggests is that the typical all-in AUM fee to work with a financial advisor is actually broken up into several component parts. For a total-cost AUM fee of 1.65% for a portfolio up to $1M, this includes an advisory fee of 1% (which in turn is split between financial planning and investment management), plus another 0.65% of underlying expenses (which is split between the underlying investment products and platform). Which means a financial advisor’s all-in costs really need to be considered across all four domains: investment management, financial planning, products, and platform fees.

Breakdown Of Typical Financial Advisor's All-In Costs

Notably, how the underlying costs come together may vary significantly from one advisor to the next. Some may use lower-cost ETFs, but have slightly higher trading fees (given ETF ticket charges) from their platforms. Others may use mutual funds that have no transaction costs, but indirectly pay a 0.25% platform fee (in the form of 12b-1 fees paid to the platform). Some may use more expensive mutual funds, but trim their own advisory fees. Others may manage individual stocks and bonds, but charge more for their investment management services. A TAMP may combine together the platform and product fees.

Overall, though, the Veres data reveals that the breadth of all-in costs is even wider than the breadth of AUM fees, suggesting that financial advisors are finding more consumer sensitivity to their advisory fees, and less sensitivity to the underlying platform and product costs. On the other hand, the rising trend of financial advisors using ETFs to actively manage portfolios suggests that advisors are trying to combat any sensitivity to their advisory fees by squeezing the costs out of their underlying portfolios instead (i.e., by using lower-cost ETFs instead of actively managed mutual funds, and taking over the investment management fee of the mutual fund manager themselves).

In turn, we can consider the potential implications of fee compression by looking across each of the core domains: investment management, financial planning, and what is typically a combination of products and platform fees.

When it comes to investment management fees, the fact that the typical financial advisor already allocates only half of their advisory fee to investment management (albeit with a wide variance), suggests that there may actually not be much fee compression looming for financial advisors. After all, if the advisor’s typical AUM fee is 1% but only half of that – or 0.50% – is for investment management, then the fee isn’t that far off from many of the recently launched robo-advisors, including TD Ameritrade Essential Portfolios (0.30% AUM fee), Fidelity Go (0.35% AUM fee), and Merrill Lynch Guided Edge (0.45% AUM fee). At worst, the fee compression risk for pure investment management services may “only” be 20 basis points anyway. And for larger clients – where the fee schedule is falling to 0.50% anyway, and the investment management portion would be only 0.25% – financial advisors have already converged on “robo” pricing.

On the other hand, with the financial planning portion of fees, there appears to be little fee compression at all. In fact, as the Fidelity benchmarking study shows, consumers (and advisors) appear to be struggling greatly to assign a clear value to financial planning services at all. Not to say that financial planning services aren’t valuable, but that there’s no clear consensus on how to value them effectively, such that firms provide a wildly different range of supporting financial planning services for substantially similar fees. Until consumers can more clearly identify and understand the differences in financial planning services between advisors, and then “comparison shop” those prices, it’s difficult for financial planning fee compression to take hold.

By contrast, fee compression for the combination of platforms and the underlying product expenses appears to be most ripe for disruption. And arguably, the ongoing shift of financial advisors towards lower cost product solutions suggests that this trend is already well underway, such that even as advisory firms continue to grow, the asset management industry in the aggregate saw a decline in both revenues and profits in 2016. And the trend may only accelerate if increasingly sophisticated rebalancing and model management software begins to create “Indexing 2.0” solutions that make it feasible to eliminate the ETF and mutual fund fee layer altogether. Similarly, the trend of financial advisors from broker-dealers to RIAs suggests that the total cost layer of broker-dealer platforms is also under pressure. And TAMPs that can’t get their all-in pricing below the 0.65% platform-plus-product fee will likely also face growing pressure.

All-In Fee Component Susceptibility To Financial Advisory Fee Compression

Notably, though, these trends also help to reveal the growing pressure for fiduciary regulation of financial advisors – because as the investment management and product/platform fees continue to shrink, and the relative contribution of financial planning services grow, the core of what a financial advisor “does” to earn their fees is changing. Despite the fact that our financial advisor regulation is based primarily on the underlying investment products and services (and not fee-for-service financial planning advice).

Nonetheless, the point remains that financial advisor fee compression is at best a more nuanced story than is commonly told in the media today. To the extent financial advisors are feeling fee pressure, it appears to be resulting in a shift in the advisor value proposition to earn their 1% fee, and a drive to bring down the underlying costs of products and platforms to defend the advisor’s fee by trimming (other) components of the all-in cost instead. Though at the same time, the data suggests that consumers are less sensitive to all-in costs than “just” the advisor’s fee… raising the question of whether analyzing all-in costs for financial advice may become the next battleground issue for financial advisors that seek to differentiate their costs and value.

In the meantime, for any financial advisors who want to access a copy of Veres’ White Paper on Advisory Fees and survey results, you can sign up here to order a copy.

So what do you think? Do you think financial advisors’ investment management fees are pretty much in line with robo advisors already? Is fee compression more nuanced than typically believed? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

New Master’s Degree To Teach Advisers Financial Life Planning Skills

New Master’s Degree To Teach Advisers Financial Life Planning Skills

As technology automation increasingly drives financial advisors towards the “soft” interior skills of financial planning, a gap is emerging from financial planning programs between the “knowledge-centric” content typically taught, and the communication and empathy skills necessary for new financial advisors to succeed in the future. To fill the void, Golden Gate University has announced an expansion of its existing Master’s Degree in Financial Planning program, offering a “concentration in financial life planning”. The new program will combine together research on counseling and communications, positive psychology, the teachings of George Kinder and Dick Wagner, and guest lectures from financial life planning leaders like Rick Kahler, Ted and Brad Klontz, and Susan Bradley. Notably, the new degree is specifically positioned as a “post-CFP” educational program, and in fact will require having already passed the CFP exam as a prerequisite. Students can enroll to participate either in-person on the GGU campus in San Francisco, or online as distance-based students.