Trust but Verify

by Christopher Lakatosh

Few people would argue if I said that your health is your greatest asset. Given the importance of physical health, it is wise to work with a caregiver that you trust implicitly. Doctors proudly frame their educational accolades on the wall, are backed by large health networks, and possess specialized skills and experience a layperson does not have. The general public expects a vetting process allowing only the best and brightest to practice medicine.

A close second to physical health, in terms of importance, should be financial wellness. Doctors go through stringent training and accreditation procedures, but can the same be said for professionals in financial services? The industry has tests ensuring a basic level of competence, but the hurdles to begin practicing are not nearly as rigorous as those in the medical field.

Investment services, unlike medicine, also have varying levels of responsibility that firms owe to their clients. In some cases, the duty owed is merely to ensure that an investment is suitable at the time of purchase, whereas, in other instances, an ongoing duty of undivided loyalty exists. The distinction may seem subtle, but in plain English, would you rather have a service provider who merely chooses what is suitable for you or one that must act in your best interest? There is also a myriad of legal means by which the provider of services can be compensated, not all of which are fully disclosed. Given the potential for misaligned interests between investors and their financial advisors, an implicit trust may not suffice. How, then, can investors structure their relationships with advisors to more closely align with those found in the medical field?

By asking a simple question: “Are you a fiduciary?” Investment fiduciaries provide advice and direction for their clients. Fiduciaries work with individuals, institutions such as corporations and not-for-profits, and retirement plans. Today, advisors are even applying a fiduciary process in the wealth preservation and insurance markets. The same principles can be applied to all aspects of a client’s financial plan.

So, what is a fiduciary? A fiduciary is a party that owes a legal responsibility to another. A fiduciary is required to make decisions that are in the best interests of the people and assets in their care without regard to their own wellbeing — it is a relationship of undivided loyalty and trust. A fiduciary should always be willing to commemorate this great responsibility in writing; otherwise, the promise of loyalty is not worth the paper it is written on.

There are critical factors in the due diligence process before engaging a financial professional. Client goals and needs, professional experience, asset management philosophy, tenure, and advanced designations are all important considerations, but a base level of peace of mind can be achieved knowing that you are interviewing a fiduciary.

The role of a fiduciary is so important that the SEC has recently approved its new Best Interest Regulation that provides a framework for regulation of investment professionals. It is no coincidence that the SEC Chairman Rob Jackson said in his prepared remarks that “investors should seek out true fiduciary advice from financial professionals who have chosen to hold themselves to a higher standard.”

I was raised to believe that trust is earned, never given. I teach my children this lesson. I believe you can and should trust. Trust should be nurtured and deepened over time, and even after it is earned, I still believe we should all follow the wisdom of President Ronald Regan to always, “Trust but verify.” The fiduciary standard should act as that explicit verification.

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