When hiring an accountant or lawyer, you’re billed after services are rendered. In the investment world, it’s not so transparent. With embedded costs, market-value changes, withdrawals and deposits, it hasn’t always been clear exactly what you’ve been charged.
The introduction of fee-based accounts and recent regulatory changes are making significant strides in providing better transparency to investors.
In the past, most types of accounts were transactional, wherein commissions are charged for each transaction. With fee-based accounts, however, advisers don’t receive commissions. Instead, they agree to a set fee schedule, usually charged on a quarterly basis. This fee is normally based on a portfolio’s market value and composition. Buy and sell recommendations are based on the client’s needs and goals. If an investor’s account increases in value, so do the fees paid; conversely, if an account declines in value, fees go down.
The recent increase in fee-based accounts correlates to the implementation of the second phase of the “Client Relationship Model” (CRM), a regulatory initiative passed by the Canadian Securities Administrators in March 2012. The CRM affects both the Mutual Fund Dealers Association and the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada.
While the key objective of CRM1 was relationship disclosure and enhanced suitability, CRM2 is designed to increase transparency and disclosure on fees paid, services received, potential conflicts of interest and account performance. All of these mandatory disclosures are being phased in from 2014 to 2016.
Last July, CRM2 mandated pre-trade disclosure of all fees prior to an investor agreeing to buy or sell an investment. With transactional accounts, an adviser must disclose all of the fees a client is required to pay, such as commissions when buying or selling positions. Many investors have complained about hidden fees, especially in mutual funds. With CRM2, all of these fees now have to be disclosed prior to the transaction.
Certain types of transactions had no disclosure requirements in the past. For example, an adviser used to be able to purchase a bond and embed their commission in the cost of the bond on the trade confirmation slip. Now, fixed-income trades also require full disclosure. In other cases, even if there was disclosure in the legal sense of the word, understanding this disclosure required clients to read the fine print in lengthy prospectus documents.
With fee-based accounts, the client has a discussion about fees with their adviser up front, and an agreement with full disclosure is signed by investor and adviser.
Another reason for the popularity of the fee-based platform is that many advisers can offer both investment and planning-related services. Many advisers can offer detailed financial plans and access to experts in related areas, such as insurance, and will and estate planning.
In a traditional transactional account, where commissions are charged for every buy or sell, it has always been challenging for advisers to be compensated for additional services such as financial planning. Consequently, many transactional-based advisers would not offer these services to their clients.
Fee-based accounts also offer families one more opportunity for income splitting by setting up account-designated billing for their fees. The higher-income spouse can pay the fees for the lower-income spouse.
Another benefit of a fee-based structure for non-registered accounts is the ability to deduct investment counsel fees as carrying charges and interest expense. Anyone who has non-registered accounts would be well advised to read Canada Revenue Agency’s interpretation bulletin 238R2. Investment counsel fees cannot be deducted for registered accounts, but there is the benefit of paying the fees for registered accounts from a non-registered account.
Adviser-managed accounts have been the fastest-growing segment of the broad fee-based group. In this type of account, the adviser is licensed as a portfolio manager and able to use discretion to execute trades. In setting up the adviser-managed account, one of the criteria is that the account must be fee-based. Regulators have made it clear a portfolio manager is not permitted to use discretion when it comes to commissions or transaction charges. One of the starting points to setting up a managed account is to get a defined investment policy statement that sets out the relevant guidelines that will govern the management of the account.