3 Types of Financial Advisors: The Goldilocks Edition

Remember the fairy tale about Goldilocks? You know, the little blonde girl who broke into the home of an innocent family of bears, and helped herself to three meals and a nap? 

Moral ambiguities aside, Goldilocks was right about one thing: ultimately, everything comes down to finding out what best fits your preferences. Not too hot, not too cold. We all are looking for something that is just right.

Believe it or not, financial advisors fit a similar pattern. Some might be too conservative, while others might be way too risky for your taste. Half of the battle is deciding what’s just right for you and your financial goals. So let’s figure out which of the three types of financial advisors best suits you—Goldilocks style.

The ‘Too Hot’ Advisor

First up on the financial advisor roll call is our ‘too hot’ money manager— the wirehouse financial advisor. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the term “wirehouse,” this phrase is used to describe a full-service broker-dealer. In the modern financial ecosystem, this can range from a small regional brokerage to a massive international conglomerate. But most typically, this term is used in conjunction with many of the huge household names that most of us know about – it’s all the ‘big names’, we don’t need to call them out…you know who they are.

The origin of this title dates all the way back to when bank branches were primarily connected via private telephone and telegraph wires. This communication network allowed banks to instantly access an up-to-date record of market information, retrieving stock prices and news stories directly from their own head office.

While the term “wirehouse” is a bit antiquated, these firms still remain widespread in practice today. They are generally on the larger side, allowing them to cross-sell their clients with a portfolio of investment advice, trading services, retail banking services, mortgages, lending, and research materials under one roof. Usually, their clientele consists of people focused on buying active investment strategies—A.K.A. individuals looking for their advisor to hire third-party money managers who hang their hat trying to outperform benchmarks or employing exotic strategies rather than creating and settling into a long-term wealth plan. 

The Fire Hazards

A lot of wirehouse activity falls under the “Suitability Standard.” That is, their decisions aren’t strictly dictated by the client’s best interests, which may lead them to recommend strategies that are more “mutually beneficial” for both parties. Which makes sense considering most of these advisors are able to be paid a commission, meaning they earn a percentage every time they buy or sell a specific security for their client and in some cases, their firms are able to receive a kickback on it as well. 

When it comes to some asset classes, there are a variety of similar investments that may be considered “suitable” for a client, leading some wirehouse advisors to recommend the option that earns them the biggest cut.

This Suitability Standard is precisely what makes wirehouses ‘too hot’ for many investors when it comes to money management. And let’s be honest, while it’s certainly possible that a wirehouse advisor’s recommendations are in the best interest of their client, the guidelines governed by the Suitability Standard are far less stringent due to the lack of enforcement and inspection processes. And with an incentive structure that is often severely distorted, this option can potentially become financially hazardous. 

In other words, be careful working with a wirehouse financial advisor— you might get burned!

The ‘Too Cold’

Up next on the list are our ‘too cold’ hybrids. This crowd tends to play hard to get, and might even give you the cold shoulder if there’s not a mutually beneficial investment being made on your behalf. By wearing both the “fiduciary” and “suitability” hats, the hybrid advisor keeps you questioning the relationship status. Are they working in your best interest? Are they being transparent and communicative? Are your incentives truly aligned?

Hybrid advisors occupy an odd position in the advisory world. As both a registered representative associated with an independent broker-dealer and an investment advisor representative of a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), these advisors have the uncanny ability to shift between the two roles at any given moment. Keeping with the metaphor here, you were promised hot porridge but when you take a bite it’s cold cereal. 

Usually, they tend to be affiliated with a corporate RIA at the broker-dealer, but in some cases, they operate as their own RIA. Additionally, they are registered stockbrokers under FINRA, which means they can technically wear two hats. Confused? You’re not alone.

Playing Hard to Get

Hybrid advisors may tell you that their “dual-registration” status provides them with increased flexibility, and while that may be true, you should ask yourself, is that flexibility really in your favor? Can they truly be trusted? 

Involving someone in your financial life requires a lot of trust, and the ambiguity of the hybrid advisor’s loyalty can seem a bit…blurry. You should never assume that an investment advisor is always acting in your best interests, so be sure to press them for disclosures. Which hat are they currently wearing? What other compensation are they receiving for this advice? Is this really the best investment for me, or is it just suitable? As a client, you have a right to these answers. So ask.

The ‘Just Right’

By this point in our story, you’re probably wondering if there’s a financial advisor out there who doesn’t quite reside within the strict confines of the ‘too hot’ and ‘too cold’ extremes. Because maybe, just maybe, you’re thinking the ‘just right’ financial fit could be the one for you. That brings us to the climax of our tale and the introduction of our final character, the RIA.

They’re not too hot— offering risky, expensive investments or too cold— providing possibly conflicted advice, because they’re obligated by law to always act in your best interests. Instead, they’re just right— with most offering premium advice and wealth planning, coupled with regular check-ins so you never get lost in the shuffle.

True RIAs are distinct from our other two personas in that they are strictly fiduciaries. This means they have a fundamental, legal, and unwavering obligation to provide investment advice that always acts in their clients’ best interests, and cannot endorse investment options based on their “suitability” alone. They wear only one hat and must be honest and unbiased with every recommendation. 

RIAs are also required to disclose any possible risks of conflicts of interest when it comes to these investments (whereas other advisors may conceal their other forms of compensation). If at any point a client questions the integrity of a particular transaction, the burden of proof is on the RIA who must demonstrate all risks and disclosures and ensure they were properly communicated and documented throughout the process. In other words, for investors looking for utter transparency from their advisor, RIAs are unquestionably the best choice.

Choosing The Right Fit For You

RIAs tend to be the favorite choice for many investors, but at the end of the day, it’s the firm that truly makes the difference.

This first appeared on Monument Wealth Mangement.

Related: Breaking Down Financial Advisor vs. Fiduciary