Are You Exploiting Your Fiduciary Advantage?

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Right now, you should be running. At top speed. With a flag in your hand, ready to plant it in the ground.

Get the reference? It’s from Far and Away, that ‘90s movie where Tom Cruise plays an Irish immigrant on a land run in the Old West. He’s running across the open prairie with a flag in his hand, looking for a little plot of land to claim. Then, just in the nick of time, right as a posse of competing land rushers comes riding up over the hill, he and Nicole Kidman plant their flag and stake their claim. It’s very dramatic.

It’s also an apt metaphor for RIAs. You occupy extremely desirable territory in the market. But a herd of new claimants is coming to take it from you, if you don’t plant your flag and stake your claim right now.

I’m talking about your fiduciary advantage. RIAs stand in a unique position in the market, as the only advisors bound by law, ethics and even their compensation structure to put their clients’ interests first. It’s an enviable differentiator. Unfortunately, investors don’t always recognize that distinction—and the landscape is about to become even more confusing for them.

Regardless of whether or not the DOL rule ever goes into effect, there’s no question that the public is now more aware of the concept of a fiduciary than ever before. Clients have finally heard of it. They like it. And they want it.

Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily know where to find it. They think, “of course” their own broker—or their insurance agent, or the person selling them an annuity—has only their best interests at heart. Otherwise it wouldn’t be legal, would it? And they seem so nice.

We all understand the difference between a suitability standard and a fiduciary standard. But most investors don’t, and we’re not doing nearly enough to teach them. The fact that regulators and the industry allowed everyone to call themselves “advisors” hasn’t helped matters any. And perhaps the words “best interests” and “fiduciary” are too apple pie—they sound good, but in a vague, unspecified way.

What if you were to try to approach the problem from the other direction? Forget the fiduciary standard for a minute. Teach your clients what suitability really means, and how it permits significant conflicts of interest. Give specific examples of why something that’s technically suitable for a client’s situation still might not be in their best interests. You could walk your clients through the sale of a hypothetical overpriced annuity. Tell them to imagine they are a senior widow who has just sold her house and wants to turn her home equity into dependable income. Explain the annuity’s internal cost structure, its early withdrawal penalties, and how it could prevent her from leaving money to her grandchildren. Maybe even show them how a commission grid works.

Once you start sensing a little surprise from your clients—maybe even a little anger—tell them that the annuity sale would pass the suitability standard with flying colors. But it wouldn’t pass your standard. Because you’re a fiduciary.

Look, everybody knows fiduciary means “good” now. Other kinds of advisors are going to start covering themselves in that glory whether they deserve it or not. If the DOL rule goes into effect, this is your chance to claim your territory and protect it against newcomers. If it gets scuttled due to industry pressure, then investors will see Wall Street once again openly fighting against putting their clients’ interests first. That sorry spectacle could offer you the perfect chance to distinguish yourself as a proud fiduciary.

You have a higher standard. Raise it up. Show it off. Or someone else will take it away.