In June of 2019 the Securities and Exchange Commission approved several new rules governing how financial firms work with individual investors. The new rules were designed to help consumers understand the nature of the relationship they have with a financial services firm and the people who work for that firm. These rules apply to both brokers, and also fiduciary investment advisors.
What is Form CRS?
The Securities and Exchange Commission created a new form, called the Customer Relationship Summary, also known as “Form CRS”. The regulations require brokers and investment advisors to deliver a copy of Form CRS to their customers. The new form is also required to be posted on the website of the broker or investment advisor. The new form is intended to make it easier for you to decide whether you should hire a particular firm or individual.
The relationship summary is required to be short and written in understandable language. The form should contain an introduction which describes how the firm is regulated – as a broker, or an investment advisor, or both. The relationships and services section of the document describes the services the financial firm may provide. Form CRS also has a summary of the fees, costs, and potential conflicts of interest an advisor may have.
In theory, Form CRS should make it easier for you to understand whether your advisor is a fiduciary, legally obligated to act in your best interest. In practice, the Dual Registration Loophole will continue to cause confusion among consumers.
Watch Out for the Dual Registration Loophole
The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates two types of firms: broker-dealers (also called Brokers) and Registered Investment Advisors. Registered Investment Advisors are fiduciaries. A fiduciary is someone legally obligated to act in your best interest. Brokers are not fiduciaries. Brokers have a much lower standard of conduct when they make recommendations. Brokers are allowed to accept commissions for selling financial products. This often creates a conflict of interest. When a Broker recommends an investment product, you never know if it is the best thing for you, or it simply pays the best commission to the broker.
Some firms are registered as both Brokers and as Registered Investment Advisors. This is the Dual Registration Loophole that allows some advisors to market themselves as fiduciaries while still collecting commissions. In a perfect world, Form CRS would clearly describe when your advisor is acting as a fiduciary, and when they are acting as a broker. Firms taking advantage of this loophole can publish two separate versions of Form CRS. One form will describe the firm’s activities as a fiduciary, and another form will disclose the firm’s activities as a broker. If you choose a firm that uses dual registration, make sure you understand when they are acting as a broker, and when they are acting as a fiduciary investment advisor.
Choosing a financial advisor can be a life-changing decision. Form CRS can give you important information to help you make that decision wisely. Take the time to read a prospective advisor’s Form CRS and understand the services they actually provide, and how they make money. Most importantly, understand whether your advisor is a fiduciary, obligated to work in your best interest, or a broker who is free to put their own interest first.
Matthew A Treskovich | CPA/PFS, CITP, CMA, CFP®, AEP®, MBA, CLU, ChFC, FLMI
Chief Investment Officer