After my experience the past year as chairman of the Financial Services Institute, I have a message for our government's leaders in Washington: While the financial services industry as a whole has been tarred by Wall Street's brush, independent financial advisors are not the enemy - in fact, we are the invaluable solution. As American investors have made abundantly clear in recent years by embracing the independent advisory model, Main Street needs us, and we serve Main Street's best interests.
American investors understand the value of independence. They know the difference between an advisor focused on their needs and one focused on the directives of an investment banking arm who may be pressured to cross-sell the product of the month.
Industry data bears this out. Wirehouses' share of advisory assets declined to 41.1% at the end of 2011 from 47.8% at the end of 2007, according to Cerulli. Investors are voting with their dollars, and the independent industry is winning.
Independents understand that a client's trust isn't simply earned once - it has to be earned every day, by adhering to the highest ethical standards and placing the client first at all times. We understand this because our livelihoods depend on it. It's simple: if we lose our clients' trust, we're out of business. This perspective is what allows us to develop long-lasting, often multi-generational, relationships with our clients.
This dynamic has also created a culture of compliance that regulators and lawmakers fail to recognize. Too often, policy and regulation is driven by anecdotal encounters with bad actors, rather than the best interests of investors. The extreme regulatory burdens placed on independent advisors fail to take into account our industry's abiding commitment to compliance, which often exceeds that found at bigger firms.
For our industry to remain healthy and viable as a crucial source of independent financial advice for Main Street Americans, lawmakers and regulators need to understand our business model and the culture of compliance that drives us. They need to understand the vital role we play for investors, and see the strength of our commitment to clients.
This is why collective advocacy through well-organized industry associations is vital. As individuals, we simply cannot yell loud enough to make our message heard in Washington and the states. Working together through groups such as FSI gives us the concerted, focused voice we need to make our case. And it gives us the strength to stand up for our interests when regulators and legislators choose not to take our views into account.
If you are an independent financial advisor, there is no need to watch in isolation as legislators and regulators in Washington and elsewhere determine the future of your business. By getting involved in industry-wide advocacy organizations, you can make your voice heard. For our industry - and our clients - to thrive, we must continue to work together to secure a more business-friendly regulatory and legislative environment. Our clients' well-being and our livelihood depend upon it.
Joe Russo is 2012 board chairman of the Financial Services Institute and CEO of Advantage Financial Group in Naples, Fla.