"Where can I take you today?" a mellow voice from the dashboard asks as I settle into the seat.
"I want to talk to a financial planner," I say.
"I have 637 financial planners in my address book," the voice replies. "Please give me additional criteria."
"Fiduciary," I say.
"That category includes all 637."
"Compensated only by fees."
"That does not eliminate any."
"Wow," I say, taking notes.
"That is not a criterion I recognize."
"Sorry. What do you suggest?"
"You could choose a planner who works for BAMMSSBNS or GDBUBSCS," the car offers helpfully, swerving around a pedestrian and narrowly avoiding an oncoming truck.
"I'm sorry. I don't recognize those."
"Bank of America Merrill Morgan Stanley Smith Barney Nomura Securities, or Goldman Deutsche Bank UBS Credit Suisse," the car says with what seems to be exaggerated patience. I have the uncomfortable impression that its cybercircuits think it picked up an idiot.
"Are there any other choices?" I ask timidly.
"Let's restrict it to a BAMM-whatever financial planner who has not been sanctioned by any regulatory authorities or lost an arbitration case."
Instantly, the car zooms out of the slow lane, takes a ramp and whizzes alongside Lake Michigan.
"Wait! Don't you need any more criteria?"
"You have specified the financial planner for whom you were looking."
MEET THE PLANNER OF THE FUTURE
The car makes an abrupt left and skids to a halt in front of a large lake-front office building. "You'll find him in Suite 1745. The elevators are just past the virtual security guard."
"I'm here to talk with a financial planner," I tell the receptionist.
"Certainly," she says cheerfully, handing me an iPad that weighs no more than this piece of paper. I sign a lengthy contract that requires me to resolve any disputes with an arbitrator of my planner's choosing and disclaim all responsibility for bad investment outcomes. It also includes a terrifying list of conflicts of interest. As I hand back the tablet, my planner emerges from the hallway.
The planner's face shows every hour of the 20 years since I had last seen him, but he was not hard to recognize. "Bob, what are you doing here?" he asks.
"It's an undercover assignment," I say quickly as we walk into his office. "Listen, I have a lot of questions and not a lot of time. The last time I saw you, you were one of the most idealistic, client-centered planners I knew. You were a champion of the fiduciary standard. How is it you're working for a big brokerage firm?"
Joe slumps in his chair and motions to me to sit. "It's the only way to get a license these days," he says. "Ever since FINRA took over RIA regulation, it's been a long, slow push until finally you can't practice anymore as an independent advisor. Trust me, I held out as long as I could."
"For a while they just tightened the compliance screws, so it was impossible to do any work unless you were connected to a big compliance department. So I affiliated with an independent broker-dealer who told me I could do what I wanted; no sales requirement. I figured since they had supported FINRA regulation, they'd be around for a while.
"Boy, was I wrong," he continues. "They were the first targets. FINRA decided that all their reps would have to be employees of the firm - to protect the public, you understand, by having closer supervision. The last independent B-D sold out to the brokerage firms five years ago."
"But the car said you were a fiduciary," I protest.
"Everybody is a fiduciary these days," Joe says. "But all that means is that people in the home office monitor everything we do and fill out the right paperwork. And, oh boy, do we disclose. Did you read the contract?"