And contrary to what some investors might expect, rates of misconduct are much higher at some of the largest financial advisory firms. At Oppenheimer & Co., for instance, nearly 20 percent of advisers had been in trouble for misconduct.
Finding such high rates of misconduct at well-known firms could be a sign that not enough investors are checking their advisers before they agree to do business with them, said Gregor Matvos, associate professor of finance for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “There’s a segment of the population that doesn’t know this information is out there,” Matvos said.
The financial divisions that work more closely with mom-and-pop investors, such as those saving for retirement, were on average more likely to have a higher rate of misconduct, Matvos said. On the other end, the departments and firms that work with institutional investors, who might be more informed about fees, suitability and the complexity of investment vehicles, had lower rates of misconduct.
Some firms are revamping their efforts to track misconduct and reprimand advisers. Oppenheimer said in a statement to The Washington Post that it has “made significant investments” to address risk and compliance issues. “Oppenheimer recognized the need to address these legacy issues head on, and we are confident that we have put in place safeguards to ensure that our advisors and other employees meet the highest ethical standards,” the firm said.
Advisers aren’t let off the hook completely after being disciplined for misconduct, but many of them are able to stay in the industry where they might mistreat other investors, the research found. About half of the advisers who had been disciplined for misconduct left the firm they were working with, according to the paper. Of those who left their companies or were fired, almost half found work with a different firm within the year.
Once they landed new jobs, advisers were very likely to act up again. Researchers found that nearly 40 percent of the advisers who had been disciplined once became repeat offenders, having two or more cases of misconduct. For retail investors, the trend can be reason enough to avoid advisers who have been in trouble even once, Matvos said, since they would be “more likely to do it again.”
Investors can look advisers up through services such as BrokerCheck, which will show if the adviser is registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. The tool will also show what firms advisers have worked at, if they’ve been subject to regulatory actions and if they’ve disclosed any customer complaints or criminal convictions. Investors also can use the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC) search tool called SmartCheck that makes it easier for savers to do a background check on their advisers using BrokerCheck and other databases.