The Securities and Exchange Commission last week chimed in on the continuing debate over regulation of financial planners, but the agency's effort won't do much to resolve it.
At issue is whether planners should be regulated, and if so, whether it be done by government or by the planners themselves. A major industry organization, the International Association for Financial Planning, has have been pushing for federally sanctioned self-regulation. But a steady drumbeat of consumer complaints, mostly involving conflicts of interest or incompetence among planners, has prompted concern in Congress and some state legislatures.
Two years ago, after hearings that showcased some of these complaints, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecommunications and finance subcommittee asked the SEC to study financial planners. The panel wanted to know who planners are, who their clients are, how the planners are paid, how they learn their business, and how well a pilot self-regulatory program run by the National Association of Securities Dealers seems to be working.
The SEC staff report, released Thursday, didn't break much new ground -- discovering, among other things, that the typical planner is a reasonably well-educated, middle-aged male, as is is the typical client.
But the report again highlights problems dogging the profession at a time when the increasing complexity of today's financial world is generating widespread interest in its services.
The SEC staff found that: "The term 'financial planner' is not a very precise term" and "indeed anyone who wishes to" may use it. The report also noted the "vast discrepancy" among estimates of the number of financial planners, citing figures that range from 50,000 to 250,000.
Surveys show that 20 percent or more of clients rate their planner as unsatisfactory.
Most planners' earnings depend on commissions from financial products they sell to their clients, a situation that presents "continuing conflict of interest problems." The report noted that among those inspected by the SEC, failure to disclose commission arrangements to clients appeared commonplace.
Among investment advisers, people who provide advice on securities investments for pay and who are therefore regulated by the SEC, agency inspections on average turn up "deficiencies" more than half the time. Some investment advisers are financial planners and some are not, so the results may not be directly applicable to planners.
The study also reviewed a pilot program of the National Association of Securities Dealers in which the NASD undertook inspection of the financial adviser activities of its members. The SEC staff concluded that the NASD "is capable" of carrying out these reviews, though it recommended additional training of investigators and pointed out several potential problems if felt needed attention.
However, an aide to subcommittee chairman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) noted that SEC followup inspections turned up nearly four times as many violations as the NASD study.
The commission itself has taken no position on the staff report, which makes no recommendations about if or how planners should be regulated, something Markey found disappointing.
"The SEC study provides a useful compilation of customer and adviser demographics for the financial planning industry but avoids presenting instructive proposals to address the real world problems in that industry," he said. "What we need from the SEC in this area and others is action, not merely reflective numbers-crunching."
Indeed, Markey's staff said the report leaves them uncertain as to how to proceed, indicating that legislation, if there is any, is some time away.
In the meantime, what if you need a planner?
The good news is that there are many well-qualified, highly professional planners in the business. These men and women can help you set goals, evaluate needs and risks, and lay out a road map so you can make the best use of your money. They can't make you rich -- and beware of anyone who says he can -- but they can help figure out what you'll need in order to, say, send your child to college, and let you know if there is any realistic way to do it.
The bad news is that there are some out there who will put widows of modest means into high-risk tax shelters that are, at best, inappropriate but that pay the planner a fat commission.
Before choosing a planner, first decide if you really need one. If you are interested in finance and like studying stock tables or real estate listings and the like, you may well be able to do your own planning. On the other hand, if you're so far in hock that your Visa bill looks like the federal deficit, what you may need is debt counseling, not financial planning.
If you do decide to look for a planner, the College for Financial Planning recommends these steps:
Interview at least three. Ask friends and colleagues for names. Professional associations such as the International Association for Financial Planning (based in Atlanta, but with chapters locally) can supply names and in some cases credentials.
Get from each planner, and examine closely, several plans he or she has done for other clients. Also, insist that the planner give you names of other clients as references. Talk to these clients to see how they feel about the services they got. The college doesn't mention this, but these references should include some long-time clients; the nature of financial planning is such that it may be years before a client can be sure a plan is satisfactory.
Ask for names of other professionals with whom the planner consults -- lawyers and accountants, for example. No one can be an expert on everything, and a good planner will have other experts he can refer unusual questions to.
Make sure -- and this is very important -- that you understand how the planner is compensated. Do you pay a fee? If so, is that all he gets, or does he sell financial products on commission? Those who get commissions argue that they are professionals and would be cutting their own throats in the long run if they gave bad advice for the sake of collecting commissions. At the same time, many people, including the SEC staff, are uncomfortable with this arrangement on the grounds that the potential for conflict of interest is always there.
Use common sense, and keep using it after you've chosen a planner. Is the planner interviewing you thoroughly enough to get the information he needs? Has he provided a detailed plan that incorporates the information you've provided? Does he keep his file on you, and your plan, up to date? Do the investments seem to make sense for you?
When the answer to any of these is no, then it may be time to move on.