When the nation's financial planners, who specialize in handling clients' current and future money matters, convene here this week, they may find that the government has plans of its own affecting the industry's future.
Congress is moving toward legislation that could threaten a portion of their business. Moreover, owing to perceived abuses, the legislators may decide to regulate the industry.
The threat to their business stems from tax revision.
The Senate Finance Committee's bill, which would lower the maximum tax rate to 27 percent and effectively eliminate tax shelters, could have serious repercussions on an industry that has thrived on devising ways to maximize assets and minimize taxes.
Curbing tax shelters "may mean the gutting of an industry," said Mary Malgoire, a Silver Spring financial planner who is president-elect of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers, one of two rival groups meeting here in back-to-back conventions at the same hotel.
The 200 members of the recently founded NAPFA, who refuse to sell investment products on commission and instead charge fees for their advice and strategies, also face the likelihood that clients no longer would be able to deduct these fees (which typically range from $5,000 to $10,000), although Malgoire said she believes people still would be willing to pay for advice about how to manage their money.
Alexandra Armstrong, a Washington financial planner who is president of the much larger International Association for Financial Planning, predicts a shake-out in the financial-planning industry, particularly among sellers of highly leveraged tax shelters and those planning for the lower-income market (under $30,000). But she said the bright side is that, in the short term, people would need planners even more to interpret the tax changes while, in the long run, non-tax-driven planning will continue to be in demand.
IAFP, which also is meeting here this week, has swelled to 25,000 members since its beginning in 1969. It is an umbrella group for all types of professionals -- attorneys, stockbrokers, accountants, insurance agents and bankers, as well as real estate syndicators and purveyors of other financial products. The most common compensation is a combination of fee and commission.
Even more than tax reform, however, financial planners this week are expected to focus on the possibility of regulation. A House subcommmittee hearing on telecommunications, consumer protection and finance, scheduled on Wednesday, will mark the first time that Congress has tackled financial planning directly.
A generation ago, financial planning was called estate planning and consisted largely of selling life insurance, establishing trusts and preparing wills.
Now, there are tens -- and perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of people offering advice on all kinds of investments and other personal financial matters. Today, anyone can hang out a shingle as a financial planner.
The industry itself is unregulated, although some of its practitioners are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. Anyone who sells advice on stocks and bonds and similar investments must register. Some states require an examination. The number of investment advisers has doubled in the past five years to 11,400, of which half also identify themselves as financial planners.
"But along with this growth in the industry, there have been growing numbers of reports of investors who have lost substantial amounts of their savings in their dealings with financial planners and investment advisers," said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.).
A 70-year-old retired carpenter whose annual income is $13,000 is scheduled to testify at Wednesday's hearing. On the advice of a financial planner, he invested a substantial portion of his $60,000 nest egg in tax shelters despite his low tax bracket: $20,000 in a mutual fund that offered a lower return than his local bank and $8,000 in a fraudulent investment scheme whose promoter left the state.
Besides detailing abuses, the hearing is billed as studying whether existing law is adequate to protect customers, whether all financial planners should be registered with the SEC and whether disclosure is enough to resolve the conflict of interest that occurs when the same person gets a percentage on the products he or she recommends.
If regulation is deemed necessary, should it be conducted by the SEC, an existing or a new self-regulatory organization, or by the states? Are registration and oversight sufficient, or should educational, ethical and procedural standards be set?
While there is growing recognition within the financial planning industry that some type of regulation is necessary to boost its professionalism, widespread disagreement exists about how it should be structured. Most association executives questioned conceded that anyone who bills himself or herself as a financial planner or who does a substantial amount of financial planning should register with the SEC as an investment adviser because investment advice is the key to that process.
Last month, the National Association of Securities Dealers, which regulates the over-the-counter stock market with oversight by the SEC, announced that it would begin a pilot program in July to extend its regulation to investment advisers who are NASD members. Later, all investment advisers could be included. It also is working at devising a national examination.
IAFP favors this approach, but wants to make certain that a standard is established for the process of financial planning -- consultation, written plan and follow-up -- as well as the products. Fee-only planners would accept a self-regulatory organization but want the SEC to enforce consumer protection. The 16,000-member Institute of Certified Financial Planners in Denver, which offers certification in planning, doesn't want to concede the examination function to NASD. It prefers the status quo with more disclosure.
Groups representing regulated professions, such as law and accounting, are skeptical about more regulation.