Brokers, CFA charterholders, and fiduciary duty: Charterholders are not always fiduciaries
CFA charterholders have strong feelings about fiduciary duty. This showed up in responses to my blog post on ” ‘CFA credential implies a standard of care not always upheld,’ says Forbes opinion piece,” which discussed brokers and fiduciary duty. So I’m happy to see that the CFA Institute has addressed this topic in “What’s a Broker to Do? Fiduciary duty and obligations under the CFA Code and Standards (registration required)” by Jonathan Stokes, head of Standards of Practice at the CFA Institute.
CFA charterholders who are brokers aren’t always fiduciaries
Stokes sums up the obligations of CFA charterholders who work as brokers as follows:
Although members and candidates must comply with any legally imposed fiduciary duty, the Code and Standards neither imposes such a legal responsibility nor requires all members to act as fiduciaries. In particular, the conduct of CFA charterholders who are broker/dealers may or may not rise to the level of being a fiduciary, depending on the type of client, whether the broker is giving investment advice, and the many facts and circumstances of a particular transaction or client relationship. (Bold added by Susan Weiner.)
Obligations vary by broker type
Charterholders challenges and obligations vary by broker type, according to Stokes’ article.
Execution-only brokers are not subject to fiduciary duty, but conflicts of interest should be disclosed. “Among the conflicts brokers should disclose are whether they offer different levels of services to all clients and whether they pay referral fees to outside organizations,” writes Stokes.
Retail brokers‘ clients should understand they’re in a relationship with conflicts of interest. I wonder how many grasp this. Clients often don’t absorb the significance of what’s written in a hastily skimmed client agreement.
For those who work in a sales capacity rather than a true advisory role, the client relationship is often based on the understanding that the range of investment advice is limited to that firm’s proprietary products or to other firms with distribution agreements with the brokerage firm…. Where the client agreement clearly states the nature of these conflicts, the client is deemed to understand that he will receive selective and potentially conflicted investment advice.
Institutional brokers “pose a particularly challenging area for application of the Code and Standards,” says Stokes. He notes that “disclosure of all relevant transaction details, including costs and commissions, is essential.” Moreover, “With multiple clients’ interests and objectives at stake, the institutional broker must remain impartial and reconcile (to the best of his or her ability) any conflicting client directions.”