Fee- vs. Commission-Based Advisor: An Overview
The investment advisor field encompasses a variety of professionals. Some advisors are money managers and stockbrokers who analyze and manage portfolios. Other financial advisors focus on financial planning and often help with other aspects of a client's financial life, such as real estate, college financial aid, retirement planning, and tax planning.
However, regardless of the area of focus of the investment advisor, they typically fall into one of two categories: fee-based (or fee-only) and commission-based.
Investopedia refers to investment professionals with a strict fiduciary responsibility who advise clients or manage their financial assets as "advisers." We refer to investment professionals who follow the suitability standard as "advisors."
Fee-based advisors usually charge their clients a flat rate (or an "à la carte" rate), while commission-based advisors are compensated by commissions earned from financial transactions and product sales.
Which compensation type is better is the question. The answer may come from understanding the differences between the two and, ultimately, the costs of each.
- A fee-based advisor collects a pre-stated fee for their services, which can include a flat retainer or an hourly rate for investment advice.
- A fee-based advisor charged with actively managing a portfolio would likely charge a percentage of the assets under management.
- A commission-based advisor's income is earned entirely from the products they sell or the accounts that are opened.
- A hotly debated topic is whether commission-based advisors keep the investor's best interests at heart when selling an investment or security.
- Some fee-only investment professionals may require a minimum account balance of $500,000 to $1 million.
Fee-Based Financial Advisor
A fee-compensated advisor collects a pre-stated fee for their services. That can be a flat retainer or an hourly rate for investment advice. If the advisor actively buys and sells investments for your account, the fee is likely to be a percentage of assets under management (AUM).
It's important to note that the income earned by fee-based advisors is largely paid by clients. However, a small percentage of the revenue can be earned from commissions paid to the advisor by brokerage firms, mutual fund companies, or insurance companies when the advisor sells their products.
Within the compensated-by-fee realm of advisors, there can be a further, subtle distinction. In addition to fee-based advisors, there are also fee-only advisers whose sole source of compensation is fees paid by the client to the adviser.
For example, a fee-only adviser might charge $1,500 per year to review a client's portfolio and financial situation. Others might charge a monthly, quarterly, or annual fee for their services.
Additional services, such as tax and estate planning or portfolio checkups, would also have fees associated with them. In some cases, advisers might require that clients have a minimum amount of assets, such as $500,000 to $1 million, before taking them on as a client.
Fee-only advisers have a fiduciary duty to their clients over any duty to a broker, dealer, or other institution. In other words, upon pain of legal liability, they must always put the client's best interests first, and cannot sell their client an investment product that runs contrary to their needs, objectives, and risk tolerance.
They must conduct a thorough analysis of investments before making recommendations, disclose any conflict of interest, and utilize the best execution of trades when investing.
Commission-Based Financial Advisor
In contrast, a commission-based advisor's income is earned entirely on the products they sell or the accounts that are opened. Products sold by commission-based advisors include such financial instruments as insurance packages and mutual funds. The more transactions they complete, or the more accounts they open, the more they get paid.
Commission-based advisors can be fiduciaries, but they don't have to be. The laws state they must follow the suitability rule for their clients. That means that they can sell any products that they believe suit their clients’ objectives and situation.
The yardstick for suitability is a fairly subjective one. They do not have a legal duty to their clients. Instead, they have a duty to their employers (e.g., brokers or dealers). Further, they do not have to disclose the conflicts of interest that can occur when a client's interests clash with those who are compensating the advisor.
Criticisms of Commission-Based Advisors
Each investor can have their own investment goals, financial objectives, and risk tolerance level. One of the core criticisms of commission-based advisors is whether they keep the investor's best interests at heart when offering a particular investment, fund, or security.
If the advisor is earning a commission from selling a product, how can an investor know, with certainty, that the investment being recommended is the best option for them? Perhaps it's actually a product that primarily benefits the advisor. To better understand how commission-based advisors work, it's important to know how they're employed and compensated within the financial community.
How Commission-Based Advisors are Compensated
Many commissioned-based investment advisors (including full-service brokers) work for major firms, such as Edward Jones or Merrill Lynch. However, these advisors are employed by their firms only nominally.
More often than not, they resemble self-employed, independent contractors, whose income derives from the clients they can bring in. They receive little or no base salary from the brokerage or financial services company, though the firm may provide research, facilities, and other forms of operational support.
To receive this support from the investment firm, advisors have some important obligations. The most important of these provides the firm with its revenues. Advisors must transfer a certain portion of their income to the firm. This income is earned through commission-based sales.
The problem with this method of compensation is that it rewards advisors for engaging their clients in active trading, even if this investing style isn't suitable for that client. It also may involve selling products that don't benefit the client.
Furthermore, to increase their commissions, some brokers practice churning, the unethical activity of excessively buying and selling securities in a client's account. Churning keeps a portfolio in flux, with the primary purpose of lining the advisor's pockets with commissions from transaction fees.
The Huge Cost of Conflicted Investment Advice
A 2015 report, "The Effects of Conflicted Investment Advice on Retirement Savings," issued by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, stated that "Savers receiving conflicted advice earn returns roughly 1 percentage point lower each year . . . we estimate the aggregate annual cost of conflicted advice is about $17 billion each year."
Costs of Fee-Only Advisers
Fee-only advisers have their drawbacks too. They are often seen as more expensive than their commission-compensated counterparts. Indeed, the annual 1%-2% they charge for managing assets will eat into returns.
A small percentage charged each year can appear harmless at first glance, but it's important to consider that the fee is often calculated based on total assets under management (AUM).
For example, a millennial who is 30 years old and has $50,000 invested with a fee-only adviser who charges 1% of AUM might pay $500 per year. However, when the portfolio is valued at $300,000, that 1% fee equates to $3,000 per year. And when the portfolio reaches $1 million, that seemingly harmless 1% fee jumps to $10,000 per year. Compounded over many years, these costs add up and can make a dent in what your portfolio might have returned.
Investors need to weigh the benefits received from the adviser's services against the ever-increasing amount of fees that they pay as their portfolios grow over the years.
What's more, although fee-only professionals help investors avoid the problems of churning, there should be no misunderstanding that brokerage commissions are not eliminated entirely. Investors still need to pay a brokerage firm to actually make trades. The brokerage may charge custodial fees for accounts as well.
The Fiduciary Rule
The debate over fee-based versus commission-based compensation for advisors heated up in 2016, with the advent of the Department of Labor's (DOL) Fiduciary Rule.
The ruling mandated that all those managing or advising retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, comply with a fiduciary standard. This conduct of impartiality involved charging reasonable rates as well as being honest about compensation and recommendations.
Most of all, it required that such professionals always put a client's best interests first, and never operate contrary to their objectives and risk tolerance. Advisers could be held criminally liable if they violated these rules. Never fully implemented, the DOL's Fiduciary Rule was rescinded in 2018.
Some fee-based advisers (such as money managers) already tended to be fiduciaries. In fact, if they were registered investment advisers, they were required to be. Commission-based advisors (such as brokers) weren't required to be fiduciaries. Though never fully implemented, the Fiduciary Rule sparked fresh conversations about advisors' conflicts of interest and transparency about their compensation. Many investors were unaware of both issues.
A report conducted by Personal Capital in 2017 found that 46% of respondents believed advisors were legally required to act in their best interests, and 31% either didn't know if they paid investment account fees or were unsure of what they paid.
The Bottom Line
There's no simple answer to which is better—a fee- or a commissioned-based advisor. Commissioned services might be suitable for investors with a smaller portfolio where less active management is required. Paying the occasional commission is not likely to erode all of the portfolio's returns over the long-term.
However, for investors with large portfolios who need active asset allocation, a fee-only investment adviser might be the better option. The key for investors is to understand upfront why an advisor recommends a certain investment to ensure that it's in their best interests.