This time of year, Charles Zhang, an independent advisor with Zhang Financial, is typically bombarded with holiday gifts from mutual fund wholesalers. But that’s not the case this season. According to Zhang, the Christmas gifts as well as marketing support from such firms as Vanguard and Dimensional Fund Advisors have been thin.
“This year we almost got nothing,” Zhang said. Even free dinners seem to be off limits for wholesalers. When a DFA rep. recently came and gave Zhang a dinner presentation, Zhang was surprised to find that he had to pay for the meal. This was a first. Typically mutual fund wholesalers pay.
Zhang attributes the drop in gifts to his firm’s shift toward lower-cost, no load investment structures, such as those offered by Vanguard, DFA as well as ETF providers. These lower-cost providers don’t have the budget to buy gifts for advisors and provide the marketing support that higher-cost mutual funds, such as Oppenheimer and Putnam, can offer, he said.
These days, advisors and clients have been seeking out lower cost investment vehicles, as competition heats up and as low-cost ETFs continue to penetrate the marketplace.
“Retail trading volumes are weak, pricing is being pressured by the discounters, interest rates are low and ETFs are constraining sales of mutual funds,” said Brad Hintz, senior analyst at BernsteinResearch, in a report.
John Knowlton, a financial advisor with Oak Point Financial Group in Portage, Mich., said his firm is sticking with the traditional fund families, but he is shifting to the lowest-cost share classes, such as Fidelity’s I shares. “People are really sensitive to price,” he said. But unlike for Zhang, this hasn’t affected the flow of holiday gifts to his firm, he said.
Tom Bartholomew, president of Bartholomew & Company in Worcester, Mass., said he hasn’t seen as many gifts around the office, but he believes it’s more related to regulation than anything else. Under NASD Rule 3060, advisors cannot accept gifts worth more than $100 per year from a single firm. This is not a new phenomenon; the NASD has been cracking down on gift giving for the last five years.
Steve Lear, a financial advisor with Affiance Financial in St. Louis Park, Minn., hasn’t been receiving as many gifts this year, and he sees it as a good thing. Rather than having wholesalers trying to charm him, they are more focused on helping him improve his business.
Some companies, particularly Jackson National Life Insurance Company and Fidelity Advisor Funds, are giving gifts this year in the form of a charitable donation in the advisor’s name. Both Knowlton and Lear received such gifts.