It’s often said that clients of financial advisers should be allowed to choose for themselves how they pay for advice. The client-choice argument is often advanced in support of asset-based fees. In the current environment, where asset values have plunged, client portfolios have shrunk in value and advisers’ incomes have declined, it’s an issue worth revisiting.

It’s true that advisers whose principle source of revenue is a fee calculated on the value of client funds invested have “skin in the game” and share their client’s interests in generating positive investment returns. It’s also true that asset-based fees are easy to calculate and to collect.

Even so, to say the primary attraction of an asset-based fee is that the adviser shares the client’s interest in generating positive investment returns suggests that advisers who charge in other ways don’t have the same interest. It also suggests these advisers who don’t charge asset-based fees don’t face a risk to revenue if they provide poor investment advice; that argument has been weakened by the fact that it’s never been easier for clients to opt out of receiving advice services if they’re not satisfied.

Asset-based fees place the viability of an adviser’s business at the whim of the markets, and it’s debatable whether exposure to a market event that could wipe out an adviser’s business is actually in the long-term interests of that adviser’s clients. Calculating the price of advice according to the value of a client’s portfolio ignores the intrinsic value of advice itself.

And the financial advice industry desperately needs advice itself to be regarded as valuable if the industry is ever to be regarded as a profession.

What consumers say they want

But in any case, CoreData’s research suggests that if you do let consumers choose how they pay for advice, not many of them will choose an asset-based fee. Earlier this year we asked financial advice clients how they currently pay for the advice they get, if they know (Chart 1 – below); and how they would prefer to pay for advice, if they have a preference (Chart 2 – below).

Around three in 10 (27.3 per cent) clients who have an ongoing relationship with an adviser

currently pay a fee based on a percentage of the funds they have invested. Yet fewer than one in 10 (9.6 per cent) of those same clients say that’s how they would prefer to pay.

By far the preferred method of paying for advice is a fee, quoted upfront, that depends on the scope of the advice they need – almost a third (32.7 per cent) of people who already have an adviser say they would prefer to pay this way.

As many clients (10.0 per cent) would prefer to pay an hourly fee for advice as would prefer to pay a percentage of the money they invest. It should also be noted at around one in eight (12.6 per cent) of clients with an ongoing advice relationship do not know how they currently pay for the advice they receive; and a similar proportion (13.4

per cent) of them don’t know how they’d prefer to pay for advice.

As an aside, when CoreData asked people who do not currently have an adviser but are looking for one, fewer than one in 10 (8.1 per cent) said they’d choose an adviser based on the adviser’s promise of generating high investment returns.

This result undermines the argument for an investment-based advice value proposition; and if an investment-based value proposition is unappealing to consumers then it’s likely that asking them to pay for such a value proposition is likely to be just as unappealing.

Working out how to charge for advice as a professional service, rather than as the result of how much money clients have, is not rocket science and it’s not breaking any new ground to suggest that’s the way the industry should go. It is how other professional services firms already work.

When we determine the cost of our services we don’t link it to the ‘wealth’ of the client we’ll be working with. It makes no difference the process of costing out a piece of work whether the client is small or large, wealthy or relatively resource constrained.

Value the service, not the sale

For a professional services firm, which is what financial advice practices aspire to be, the value of the service is not derived from the wealth of the client, but from the education and experience of those working in the firm, and from the quality of service. Firms with better educated and qualified and more experienced advisers, delivering consistently high quality services, ought to be able to charge more than firms whose advisers are less experience and less highly qualified.

That means linking the value of the services a practitioner sells to the practitioner themselves, not to their clients’ portfolios. For any given service, the cost is calculated with reference to the adviser’s skills, experience expertise and qualifications – and it doesn’t matter if the client’s portfolio is worth $100,000 or $100,000,000.

If a hundred-million-dollar client pays more for advice it should be because the service they need is more complex or more extensive and demands a more skilled or experienced adviser, not because they invest more money per-se.

Financial planning is currently undergoing a critical transition and moving away from its roots as a sales-based occupation to one that sells professional services.

The transition is partly being driven by more enlightened members of the advice community; partly by regulation framed to address critical advice and behavioural failures of the past; and partly by the appalling publicity dished out by the Hayne royal commission.

Transition is often painful. But it’s not as painful as failing to change and evolve and sliding, unmissed and unlamented, into oblivion. Financial advisers are in the enviable position of being able to seize control of their destiny and make the transition work.

Financial planning’s reinvention depends on it adopting the practices and structure of a profession. Its practitioners have a clear choice. They can simply repeat the practices and behaviours of the past in the hope that something will change – that somehow it will suddenly capture the public imagination and people will flock to advisers’ offices in droves.

Or they can seize an opportunity and turn it into something different, and something valued in its own right. But that means letting go of some of the traditional ways of doing things and embracing change. And foremost among those is making it clear to consumers that financial advice is a professional service and that it should be valued as such.

4 comments on “Down markets revive asset-fee argument”
  1. Avatar
    Lindsay Binning

    But – as long as it is, “honest, fair and efficient” as per FASEA.
    Good luck.

  2. Avatar

    I thought all advice services need to be tailored to the client and not templated.

    Why do people like the writer always try to restrict choice and bend the world to their view. NEWSFLASH: that’s not how the world works.

  3. Avatar
    Jeremy Wright

    The one thing that always remains the same, is change.

    The world and people, have to face these changes with a flexible attitude and a flexible approach to how they provide, charge, receive and pay for services.

    There are good and bad points in every strategy.

    The overriding consideration, which some times gets brushed aside, is to allow clients to have the flexibility to pay, based on their willingness and ability, dependent on their current position.

    What this means, is to allow clients to change their mind if their circumstances or attitude changes.

    Cash flow and the ability to pay, corresponds with prioritising what must be paid now and what can be delayed or cancelled, depending on circumstances at any point in time.

    It is always going to be a difficult decision for clients to say, no matter what happens in my life, I will be happy to continue paying for advice one way or the other.

    Circumstances change and a clients ability or willingness to continue paying one way, can also change.

    It always has and always should be, the clients choice on how to pay for advice and providing them with a flexible approach, gives them a sense that their adviser is there in both good and tough times, together.

  4. Avatar

    We have been fee for service (quoted) since 2004 charged monthly to the bank account. One would say a convert then. However the one point I’d add to your 100k vs 100M client, other than complexity, skill and time which you mention is risk. The business could handle a 10% mistake on 100k but would be wiped out with a 1% mistake on 100M.

    In fairness the business risk in wealth advice to incurring culpable loss generally attaches itself to stupidity, lack of discipline or carelessness. However no system is perfect and the risk therefore remains no matter how good the business or the adviser. Risk advice on the other hand is way more risky to a business in my view.

    Secondly like all arguements there is no one size fits all, business or client perspective, and a zealotry for there being only one way is rarely a cogent argument for all players and all situations.

    We do charge percentage fees, but generally to kids of clients, whose fees are below our minimum fixed fees or as a favour to a referrer. When their portfolio grows to catch our min fee we switch them over to the fixed annual fee charged monthly.

    The one point you could have made in favour of the fixed fee arguement is the removal of conflict around debt reduction, investment property or business interests. With a fixed fee my financial motivation is a happy client as that means they’ll pay the next months fee. Therefore I should do my best for them, this being the financial arguement for the adviser. Note: I am not referring to the additional ethical and professional obligations that also exist.

    That to me is a greater alignment of interest than the percentage fee/share the pain arguement.

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