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Advisers grapple with doubt as they ready for fiduciary rule

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Advisers are moderately confident that they and their firms will be ready for the fiduciary rule even as they rush to adapt systems and procedures and worry about the rule's impact on low-net-worth clients.

On a scale of 1 to 10, the average top 100 adviser self-reported a score of 7.8 in fiduciary readiness.

Josh Giuliano, an adviser with Citizens Bank in Cranston, R.I., gave himself a seven even though the majority of his business is already fee-based and even though he has been meeting with and doing the right thing by clients all along. What caused him to push down his score down to a seven, he says, is that "many things are still not 100% clear." He bemoans the lack of clarity surrounding the timing of what is supposed to happen when.

"Anytime you have change, you're going to have anxiety, which is why as much as I read and as much as I try to prepare I can only give myself a seven," Giuliano says. "You just never know everything."

Matthew Griffin, an adviser with Family Trust Credit Union in Rock Hill, S.C., was equally modest in his self-assessment. He, too, gave himself a seven even though his book of business and that of his firm was more than 90% fee-based.

"I'm not so sure that I would ever feel completely prepared just from the magnitude of how much change there's likely to be," Griffin says.

Data for chart only reflects the Top 100 Bank Advisers; it is not company-wide.

Aside from having conversations with clients about the upcoming changes, Griffin says he hasn't had to do anything major to prepare because of the heavy concentration of fee-based business he is fortunate to have. He has started to run more financial plans himself, rather than have someone else run them for him, and is planning to sit for the CFP examination next year.

"We're moving into this new world. This is something I need to go get," he says of his planned CFP designation.

His firm is also busy incorporating a new risk-tolerance metric, developed in anticipation of the rule, into its investment policy statements. "We just tightened everything up and added specificity to it," he said of the new metric.

Not all advisers were as guarded about their preparedness as Griffin and Giuliano. Evan Mayer, an adviser with SunTrust in Boca Raton, Fla., claims not having any reservations about his readiness for the rule, giving himself a perfect score of 10. His confidence, he says, stems from the fact that all of his clients are required to have a financial plan, which aligns with the fiduciary mandate to always act in the best interest of clients. "I mandate that or I won't bring them aboard as a client," he says.

Overall, the advisers half-heartedly accepted the rule, saying that while it was needed to raise the profile of the industry it would undoubtedly lead to unintended consequences.

"I think it will force us to raise our game a bit, which is always a good thing," says Giuliano.

Giuliano fears, however, that with increased documentation and greater regulatory scrutiny he will not be able to spend as much time with clients and spend more time behind the scenes.

"I hope that the positives will outweigh the negatives," he says.

Mayer sees big opportunities for advisers who are adapting to the changes, saying that they will be able to fill positions left by those exiting the business. "I think this is going to weed out advisers who were not doing what's in the best interests of clients all the time," he says.

While Mayer describes himself as "pro-fiduciary rule," he nonetheless sees a potential negative side to the rule. Like Giuliano and Griffin, Mayer worries that the legislation will shortchange lower-asset clients who will be shunted to robo or do-it-yourself investing platforms.

"I believe that every client deserves the right of having someone sitting in front of them who can actually advise on big financial issues," Mayer says.

Griffin echoes similar concerns, noting that higher compliance costs will squeeze margins on smaller accounts and force "mom and pops" into less expensive but less helpful digital platforms.

"You shouldn't have to have $1 million to have access to financial advice," says Griffin.

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