Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Compensation Cuts Leads to Broker Transitions

In my practice I have seen a huge increase in the number of wirehouse brokers who are changing firms, as those firms consolidate and attempt to increase their profits.

Unfortunately for some, the wirehouses are ramping up profits at the expense of their brokers, and ultimately, their customers. In all of the years that I have been representing wirehouse brokers, I have never seen such a large number of brokers who are being terminated on the basis of trumped up charges. I certainly understand the need and desire to run a compliant firm, and to weed out brokers who have difficulty following the rules. And I am aware that brokers, like everyone else, tend to downplay their own culpability in such matters. But really, some of these terminations are simply beyond the pale, and nothing more than an asset grab.

I have been saying for almost a decade that the wirehouses want to get rid of brokers and move their business model to salaried employees. See my column from the January 1998 issue of Research Magazine - Death of a Salesman. But now there is a new attack - lower payouts.

It started with the small producers - who can forget Bank of America's decision to cut payouts for brokers on the banking side by 50%, causing a exodus of brokers from the firm, and a mess of promissory note arbitrations.

Citigroup, never the friend to its brokers, apparently has plans to force its brokers into a fee based model, regardless of what the customers want, or need. In an article titled "FAs Disgruntled over New Comp Plan at Citi Personal Wealth Management", David Geracioti, the editor-in-chief of Registered Rep magazine, details the information he has received regarding this forced transition from broker to investment adviser.

As Mr. Gercioti points out, brokers are upset; and leaving. Just take a look at the discussion at the Advisor Forum at Registered Rep titled "Citi PWM Exodus" for a peek at what some brokers are facing, and thinking.

Certainly, in many instances, the fee based model works for customers, and brokers. In many cases, it aligns the interests of the broker with the interests of the customer, and both do well if the assets increase in value, without any selling pressure on the broker or the customer.

But it doesn't work well for everyone. Customers with fixed income accounts, customers who adjust their portfolios once a year, and a host of others, will pay lower fees with a commission based account. Unless of course you lower the management fee to less than a percent.

Citigroup would obviously love to get rid of brokers, and the payouts, and it just may get its wish. Brokers are leaving. If a broker wants to be an RIA, he certainly can do so without the heavy hand of a wirehouse.

Setting up an investment advisory firm, using the platform of a major broker-dealer like Fidelity, is not expensive, nor is it difficult. For the enterprising professional, it is an excellent business model. For an overview of what is involved, take a look at my article, Registration and Regulation of Investment Advisers at SECLaw.com and our update of the SEC publication, Guide to Broker-Dealer Registration.

Or, becoming an independent, and associating with an independent broker-dealer. Doing so lets brokers do exactly what they and their customers need - the flexibility to use a commission based model when appropriate, or a fee based model for those customers who need that model.

Some brokers are reluctant to go into business on their own, and certainly some customers will be reluctant to leave a "big" name like Citigroup. Brokers who stay may find their compensation continually reduced, being forced into teams, and their smaller accounts sent to a call center. Ultimately, the firms will keep the assets, and continue to have less overhead, and more profit, all to the detriment of the financial professionals who cultivated those relationships and serviced those clients.

Does the big name make a difference? I am sure it does. But given the recent financial crisis, are customers still impressed with those "big" name wirehouses? Do customers really believe that those firm offer better advice than an independent? Are they in better financial shape than their competitors? Aren't customers really relying on the relationship with their financial adviser?

Time will tell, but like the brokers in the Registered Rep forums and those who are calling my office, the outlook is not good.

Naturally, any move needs the assistance of professionals, including an experienced securities attorney. Creating an investment advisory firm is not difficult, but requires guidance through the regulatory maze. But all of that can be achieved with effort, and the cost is going to be less than the loss that you will incur over the course of a single month.

My firm offers free consultations to financial professionals who are seeking to change firms, join independents or to start their own RIAs or broker-dealers. Feel free to email me at astarita@beamlaw.com, or to call 212-509-6544 to discuss the possibilities.

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