I would not call being a registered investment advisor a particularly risky business.
While it is true that RIA firms handle a range of sensitive information and issues for clients, they do not habitually engage in the sorts of a missteps could incur a fine, the loss of the well-regarded CFP or some other punishment. We spoke to at least a couple of compliance consultants who say that is precisely the sort of thinking that ensnares a lot of firms.
These days, however, some RIA firm principals are paying closer attention to aspects to certain blind spots in their operations. They are looking at business lines, product sales and service offerings that could invite close scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Whether it is in the context of launching a new firm or running an annual check-up on a well-established existing company, RIA firms are slowly moving to ward a risk-based compliance model for their firms.
It is happening for a number of reasons, compliance consultants say—naturally.
First, the industry is seeing advisors of all stripes take an interest in hybrid business models, as Schwab Advisor Services and Pershing Advisor Services each found in separate reports in recent weeks. “The more complex your related businesses are, the more holes that can exist in your system,” said Bryan Hill, president of RIA Compliance Consultants, based in Omaha, Neb.
Even if we lay aside the impact of more advisors doing business as hybrid firms, the industry as a whole is embracing the idea of shaping their compliance procedures around what could go wrong in the context of their firms. It might sound like a fundamental part of doing business, a given. But as Hill points out, a lot of principals just can’t see the vulnerabilities in their own firms.
“It’s sometimes hard to step out of your box and see what the risks are,” Hill said in a recent telephone conversation. “Every firm that I have ever talked to thinks they are not high risk, because they have accepted the risks and know the risks. They don’t view the risks as objectively as they should.”
Here are a couple of examples that could force a few RIA firms to do a double take on their compliance policies. At RIA Compliance Consultants, Hill has advisory firm clients that identify niche clientele of their own, say senior executives of publicly traded firms. He advises the firms to prohibit advisors from trading in the security of the executive’s firm, or monitor the trades that are happening in the account and watch for short-term trading with very profitable results.
Getting caught in an insider trading scandal could happen to any advisory firm if it is not careful. Right now, Raj Rajaratnam, the former head of the hedge fund Galleon Group, is on trial for insider trading. The entire issue of insider trading is front and center for a lot of securities firms, on Wall Street or elsewhere.
Last week, the SEC proposed a rule that would require certain financial institution, including broker-dealers and investment advisors with $1 billion or more in assets under management, to disclose the structure of their incentive-based compensation practices. The proposed rule would also prohibit the institutions from maintaining compensation arrangements that encourage inappropriate risks.
Steve Thomas, the compliance director at Lexington Compliance, thinks the transition to state supervision for firms with $100 million or less in assets will also raise new questions for advisors.
“What you’re going to see for the next … maybe 5 years, is firms will have to get smarter about ‘what is an examiner looking at when they look at my firm’,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “Firms are going to have to be more educated about what regulators are looking for. They are getting a lot smarter.”
But does all of this translate to a steady march of RIA firms to a risk-based model? Not necessarily, according to Brian Hamburger, founder and managing director of Market Counsel, an Englewood, N.J., based compliance consulting firm. For all of federal and state regulators’ claims of bringing tighter supervision to independent advisors, hundreds of firms can go for as many as 10 or 15 years without undergoing a thorough examination.
Still, there are signs that business practices are changing, and for the better, Hamburger said. “The industry is growing up. Part of that maturation process is identifying the complexities and distinctions among firms.”