Why Investment Advisers Forgo Commissions

By Garmhausen, Steve | American Banker, September 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Why Investment Advisers Forgo Commissions


Garmhausen, Steve, American Banker


Byline: Steve Garmhausen

Darryl Presley, a financial adviser at First Bank in Lexington, Tenn., passed on the chance to make a quick killing this year when two clients asked him to invest $3 million.

He could have pocketed $150,000 or more by charging the traditional up-front sales commission. Instead, he persuaded the clients to invest nearly all their money through accounts that would pay him an ongoing fee for providing investment advice.

Such an arrangement cost Mr. Presley in the short run - "April would have been an unbelievable month," he said - but should prove more lucrative for him and for his $2 billion-asset unit of First South Bancorp Inc. in the long term.

"I pretty much put 90% of that money in fee-based accounts," said Mr. Presley, whose bank has $300 million of investment assets under management. "I just felt it was a much better fit for the client."

One-time sales commissions can bring advisers roughly 5% of the total amount invested, but fee-based accounts can pay about 1% of the total assets in the clients' accounts each year. That means fee-based accounts with $3 million or so can bring an adviser $30,000 a year for as long as the adviser manages the account.

If the assets grow, the adviser is paid more - which means that the adviser's interests are more closely aligned with the client's.

A small percentage of community banks have offered fee-based advisory services for several years, but only in the last 18 months or so have many of them begun to shift away from the commission-based approach to investment services, bankers and third-party marketers say.

Kevin Maas, director of strategic initiatives at PrimeVest Financial Services Inc., a unit of ING Group NV, said he and other third-party marketers have been trying to get banks to switch to the fee model for years, arguing that the income stream is more consistent, and that many wealthy clients tend to favor it.

Several factors - including the success of other banks, competitive pressure from nonbank advisers, and the gradual drying up of the cross-selling referrals that have fueled bank investment programs - have persuaded bankers to make the switch.

"In the past we were pulling the producers and the financial institutions" toward fee-based advisory services, Mr. Maas said. "That has switched - now they are doing the pulling."

A gradual decrease in referrals is part of the reason Fulton Financial Corp. in Lancaster, Pa., is starting to offer fee-based retail advisory services. Its Fulton Financial Advisors partnered with Raymond James Financial Inc. in June to create a fee-based advisory service.

"The low-hanging fruit has been picked," Dave Hanson, the chairman and chief executive of Fulton Financial Advisors, told American Bankerin July. "The larger banks that got deeply into the brokerage business earlier on generally went to the fee-based approach earlier. Some of us got into the game a little bit later, so we're just a few years behind in that life cycle."

John Houston, managing director of Raymond James' financial institutions division, said that Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. started offering fee-based accounts in 1999. "Banks are so far behind that it can't happen too fast."

In the traditional commission model, brokers have no stake in the outcome of an investment sold to a client. In fact, they have incentive to persuade investors to buy and sell as much as possible, so they can rack up commissions. Under the fee-based model, advisers, who are paid for giving advice and managing a client's account, stand to gain if the account's value grows.

"It puts the client and the adviser more on the same side of the table," said Mr. Presley of First Bank, which started offering fee-based accounts four years ago and now has 10% of its assets under management in them.

The approach does carry ethical risks, including a temptation for advisers to invest too aggressively in the hopes of a better payday, or to discourage clients from cashing out. …

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