Education and networking were on order at the annual Financial Planning Association conference in Nashville, Tenn., this weekend. But inside the garish, biosphere-like Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center outside Nashville, larger philosophical issues loomed.
Nearly 3,000 financial planners, many of them certified financial planners (CFP), attended the event, which attracted more than 250 vendors as well. But other than education and networking, the subject on the minds of many of the attendees was the fate of the financial-planning profession’s Code of Ethics, the document that governs the more than 52,000 holders of the CFP designation. In the summer, the CFP Board proposed amendments to the Code that would allow CFP holders to “opt out” of their fiduciary duty to clients if they disclosed it in writing to the client. The FPA leadership blasted the proposal, as did members in comment letters to the board and FPA. The “revisions fail to enhance consumer protections or advance the profession of financial planning,” wrote Dan Moisand, FPA president, in a letter to the CFP Board. Subsequently, Sarah Teslik, the CFP Board’s CEO and leader in the effort to change the Code resigned in mid-October.
The CFP Board is working on new drafts but there won’t be any decision for some time, says Karen Schaeffer, chair-elect of the CFP Board of Standards.
The conflict is partly an issue of growth, but of the wrong kind say many planners. More registered reps are achieving CFPs—but by law do not have to honor the fiduciary standard of care required by CFP holders. In fact, major wirehouses, such as Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney, strongly encourage the designation for their reps. At Smith Barney only a select portion of advisors can be fiduciaries to individual and institutional retirement plans, whereas Merrill does not allow any advisors to submit to such arrangements. Yet, the two b/ds’ reps are far outpacing all others in getting CFP designations, says Marvin Tuttle, executive director of the FPA.
The issue also reflects a larger battle that is still ongoing: the fight over the SEC’s Broker-Dealer Exemption Rule—the so-called Merrill Lynch rule—that allows registered reps to position themselves as financial advisors without registering with the SEC and without acting as a fiduciary, the standard for financial advisors under the Financial Advisers Act of 1940. (Reps are exempt as long as any financial advice they give is incidental to the transaction.)
Separately, some members of the FPA say the organization is getting overly “righteous” and many are increasingly feeling alienated. One registered investment advisor who also has a broker/dealer, and who wished to remain anonymous, says he is fed up with a growing snobbery at the FPA about the way financial planners are compensated. “There’s a growing ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude among the FPA that if you’re not a fee-only planner you’re a criminal,” he says.