Is "independence" dead?

A trio of top custodial executives discussing big trends for the RIA sector downplayed the term -- at least as a marketing advantage -- during a panel this week at the MarketCounsel summit in Las Vegas.

"I don't know if we can keep defining ourselves as independent," said Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services President Mike Durbin. "What is independence?"

"We need to continue to define our relevance," he added.

Schwab Advisor Services head Bernie Clark echoed the concern. "Independence may not be enough to sell [the RIA offering] in the future," he said.


One challenge: As independent advice becomes more valuable, larger players are moving in on the space, buying out firms -- as in Boston Private Bank & Trust's blockbuster $60 million deal for Banyan Partners in July -- and thus eliminating that independence.

"I think you will see a wirehouse buy a big RIA within next 10 years," predicted the panel's third member, Pershing Advisor Solutions CEO Mark Tibergien.

Such dealmaking will raise a question, he noted: "Are you talking about independence of ownership or independence of thought?"


Like other speakers panelists over the course of the three-day event, the custodial executives suggested a fiduciary standard as a differentiating factor -- even saying they intended to work together to boost awareness and education, which Clark said were "among our biggest challenges."

Even the phrase "investment advisor" -- once an indicator that a planner was governed by the 1940 Investment Advisers Act -- has lost its currency as a signifier to consumers, executives lamented.

"The word advisor has been purloined" by wirehouse brokers, Tibergien said. "We need to stand up to that abuse of the language."

"When someone is becoming an RIA, they are fundamentally changing their business models … becoming client advocates instead of product advocates," Tibergien added.

The growing number of RIAs over time has, in itself, become a branding challenge, noted one attendee.
"It used to be easy to say, 'I'm independent, I'm objective' -- that was your value proposition," says Halbert Hargrove CEO Russ Hill, who cites his four-digit CFP ID number as proof of his longevity in the industry.

"I don't think that's enough anymore," he added. "We're all going to have to figure out how to explain why we're better than everyone else."

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