WEALTH MANAGER-Canada lags on fiduciary duty, fee transparency

Thu Mar 29, 2012 12:12pm EDT

* Regulators, investors mull changes to an adviser's duty

* Fiduciary duty, asset-based fee structure an option

* Industry may change before rules ever do

By Andrea Hopkins

March 29 (Reuters) - While regulators around the world are forcing financial advisers away from commission-based selling to combat real or perceived conflicts of interest, a fractured regulatory system has left Canadian investors lagging the move to more transparent fees.

"You've seen compensation changes in Britain, you've seen compensation changes in Australia, the same thing in the U.S. And we still seem to be moving at a snail's pace compared to what's happening around the globe," said Alan Fustey, an independent financial adviser and author of "Risk: Financial Markets and You."

As returns dwindle and financial markets lurch from crisis to crisis, more investors are focusing on how much they are paying for financial advice and products that aren't living up to expectations.

In turn, the growing pressure for lower fees is squeezing profits at Canada's biggest wealth managers as investors look to alternatives like exchange-traded funds or self-serve high-interest savings accounts to cut management expenses.

At the bottom of the debate is the fine line between what is good for the client and what is good for the adviser, and the age-old compensation scheme for advisers that rewards the sale of more or different products, and embeds the fees within the product itself, often paying out long after purchase.

In Canada, the most common form of compensation among financial advisers is commission-based, particularly at the lower end of the industry where retail investors are sold mutual funds by advisers who charge no other fee for the advice.

Under current rules, advisers are required to ensure a product is "suitable" for clients, but there is no fiduciary duty that requires the clients' best interest be put before that of the adviser, as is being contemplated in the United States.

"A requirement that client's interest is put first -- that's unfortunately what many clients believe the situation is now ... (while) the reality is the incentive framework is built around trying to make as much money as you can for the firm, which translates to commissions," said Ilana Singer, deputy director at the Canadian Foundation for Advancement of Investor Rights.

"If there were a duty for advisers to put their clients best interest first, it would go a long way toward helping clients be invested in products that are better for them," she said.

It's not that Canadian regulators and even the industry itself isn't mulling changes to the rules that govern the several levels of advisers and different certification bodies -- one proposed model has been debated for 12 years and several competing or complimentary rule changes are churning through various stages of industry comment.

But Canada fractured regulatory system -- it is the only major developed country without a national securities regulator -- is one barrier to change. The Ontario Securities Commission has pledged to build confidence in the investment process by exploring the benefits of a fiduciary duty, but change in even one province appears an uphill battle.

"This is a complex area and we need to review the implications of imposing a 'best interests' or fiduciary standard," Susan Silma, OSC director of compliance and registrant regulation, said in an email. She said a consultation paper is in the works.

The other obvious stakeholders are the fund companies and advisers themselves. Some argue the need for change is not proven, saying rules already prevent advisers from selling unsuitable products.

"Just because compensation is on a product basis doesn't mean it is not suitable and in the best interest of clients," said Karen McGuinness, vice president of compliance at the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada.

"Until I know what the gap is, I'm just not ready to jump to a fiduciary duty model."

Still, while recent rule changes have improved fee transparency, even McGuinness admits disclosure documents may remain opaque to some.

"The way (fees) are calculated is not an easy determination for anybody. But I do think the information is there and those investors that are more sophisticated and more interested are certainly able to find the information and determine generally what it cost," she said.

While official change may come slowly, especially at the retail end of the spectrum, market forces appear to be shifting the landscape at the higher end of the investment ladder.

Data shows advisers in full-service brokerages are increasingly taking a fee-driven approach in which investors pay for the advice and management they get directly, usually as a percentage of their assets under management.

"The asset-based fee business is growing quite rapidly within the full service brokerage in Canada ... significantly faster than the industry as a whole," said Guy Armstrong, managing director at Investor Economics, a research firm.

In other words, advisers may see the writing on the wall, shifting to what is seen as a more conflict-free approach to win skeptical investors. But a model that works for investors with large portfolios on which to base a fee may not translate to retail investors buying C$500 worth of mutual funds.

That's where lower fee products like ETFs may come in, said Fustey, who bills his own clients quarterly based on a percentage of the assets he manages for them.

"As much as the advice component (of the industry) is kicking and screaming because they don't want increased disclosure and they don't want to change their compensation structure, the growth of ETFs is a direct result of a desire to reduce fees, and it's not something that is going to change," Fustey said.

"There is no question more disclosure and reduced fees are coming. It's just a question of when."

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