Registered Investment Advisor: Definition, Duties, and Income

What Is a Registered Investment Advisor?

The financial services industry is a rapidly changing professional environment. As the needs and desires of consumers change, firms engaged in managing money are also evolving.

A registered investment advisor (RIA) manages the assets of high-net-worth individuals and institutional investors and sits on the buy-side of the investment field. They must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and any states in which they operate.

Most RIAs are partnerships or corporations, but individuals can also register as RIAs.

Key Takeaways

  • Registered investment advisors (RIAs) manage the assets of high-net-worth individuals and institutional investors.
  • RIAs can create portfolios with individual stocks, bonds, and mutual funds; they may use a mix of funds and individual issues or only funds to streamline asset allocation and cut down on commission costs.
  • An RIA usually generates revenue through a management fee, which is made up of a percentage of assets held for a client—fees of 0.5% to 2% are not unusual.
  • An RIA must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as well as with any states in which they operate.

Understanding Registered Investment Advisors

Most Americans who participate in the stock market have done so through mutual funds, though crypto has recently been outpacing mutual funds. Exchange traded funds (ETFs) have also become a popular investment class.

As the amount of money that an individual or group has increases, the ability to achieve the best results with mutual funds or ETFs diminishes. This is where RIAs are able to provide additional services mutual funds can't.

What Does an RIA Do?

Paid much like mutual fund managers, RIAs usually earn their revenue through a management fee consisting of a percentage of assets held for a client. Fees fluctuate, some close to 0.5% and others upwards of 2%.

Generally, the more assets a client has, the lower the fee they can negotiate—sometimes as little as 0.35%. This serves to align the best interests of the client with those of the RIA, as the advisor cannot make any more money on the account unless the client increases their asset base.

The most common definition of a high-net-worth investor is someone with a net worth of $1 million or more. Amounts below this tend to be more difficult to manage while still making a profit. If the average management fee is 1% of assets annually, a $100,000 account only earns an RIA $1,000 in annual fees, which is probably less than the costs the firm would incur internally to service the account.

Before hiring a registered investment advisor, make sure they are vetted, which includes opinions from friends and family, have the appropriate credentials, and can demonstrate a track record.

Registered investment advisors can be managing thousands of unique portfolios. This is because high-net-worth individuals and institutional investors are groups with unique needs. The advising firm will work with the clients to design a portfolio that suits their situation.

It could be the client has a large position in one particular stock with a very low cost basis; even though it represents a larger portion of its portfolio than would be ideal for diversification, the tax consequences are too severe to sell the position all at once. Or the client may be drawing down on an account using a combination of interest income and outflows and needs the assistance of a professional to map the asset's life.

An RIA can create portfolios using individual stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. RIA firms can cover the spectrum as far as what goes into their clients' portfolios. They may use a mix of funds and individual issues or only funds as a way to streamline asset allocation and cut down on commission costs.

State of the Industry

The old model of a broker calling wealthy clients with stock ideas is dying. In fact, there has been a mass exodus of client assets leaving this model. There are several reasons for this change, including very high commission fees (the big profit vehicle of the wirehouse firms at the time), and often inadequate diversification.

Many of these brokers were not CFAs or MBAs, just glorified salesmen whose knowledge base was due more to happenstance than true education.

RIAs tend to compete with mutual funds, hedge funds, wirehouse firms—via wrap programs or individual brokers—and do-it-yourselfers for the provision of investment services.

  • Many clients are looking to have a true "financial quarterback," a resource they can use for solid advice on their total financial picture. A good RIA will speak to the client in terms of their overall goals and objectives and review these with the client at regular intervals.
  • Clients increasingly want to have more options and easier access to the decision-makers on their accounts. There are no direct access lines to the managers of a mutual fund account. There is no easy way to ask your mutual fund manager questions like, "Why did you choose to buy Walmart?" or "What's a good estimate for what my capital gains could be this year?" Many clients want this either as part of their education or for their own peace of mind.
  • Mutual fund assets are pooled funds with no tax considerations to any one holder of mutual fund shares. For a wealthy investor, there are simply too many dollars at stake for taxes to not be taken into account.
  • If the client is a large group and there are many interested parties (such as a nonprofit endowment, pension plan, or court-mandated trust), the extra service of having annual reports and other performance attribution can increase the attractiveness of an investment advisor in comparison to a mutual fund.

What Types of Professionals Work for RIAs?

As they operate in many similar ways, the same types of jobs associated with a mutual fund are also found in an RIA: research analysts, portfolio managers, traders, technical/operational staff, and client service professionals.

The research conducted for an RIA is also similar to what you would find at a mutual fund. The main responsibilities include monitoring existing holdings and searching for suitable candidates for purchase.

The RIA provides an additional responsibility through the holdings brought in by clients and requested not to be sold. Many times a portfolio must be constructed around a large position; in these cases, the portfolio manager must devise ways to mitigate the risk inherent in owning so much of one company.

Wealth managers are seen as financial planners, those that create long-term financial plans for their clients, which is different from a registered investment advisor, who is primarily concerned with growing the wealth of its client through investing.

Most firms handle order creation in-house but do not actually execute the trades themselves. For this, they will have established brokerage relationships with firms catering to large orders from institutional clients.

CPAs, attorneys, and other financial professionals are increasingly being hired by RIAs as they attempt to offer all the services a wealthy client could want. Sometimes a separate fee is charged for one-time services, like a financial plan from a CPA or the establishment of a family trust.

Other times, it is all blended into a single management fee. Being able to offer more services under one umbrella opens the doors to truly lucrative accounts: $10 million or more. Many RIA firms have only two or three clients so large they occupy all the resources of the firm. These firms can do quite well.

Why Become an RIA?

An RIA firm is a progressive business in today's changing landscape of money management. It is an excellent place to begin a career or to hone in on a particular aspect of the business after cutting your teeth elsewhere for a few years.

Most RIA firms are owned privately, which can allow for greater opportunities for equity in the company. They are poised for fantastic growth as baby boomers are finishing up their peak earnings years and entering into the highest net-worth phase of their lives.

What Is the Difference Between a Registered Investment Advisor and a Financial Planner?

A registered investment advisor seeks to grow the wealth of their wealthy clients by making investments. RIAs are primarily concerned with the investment portfolios of high-net-worth individuals. Financial planners, on the other hand, are focused on long-term planning for their clients, touching upon the areas of retirement planning, estate planning, investing, and saving for a child's college education.

What Do Registered Investment Advisors Do?

Registered investment advisors invest the money of high-net-worth individuals in order to generate profits; the ultimate goal is to increase the wealth of their clients. They are typically financial institutions that create tailored investment strategies for their clients and invest in a multitude of assets.

How Do Registered Investment Advisors Get Paid?

Because registered investment advisors are held to a fiduciary duty, they do not get paid on commission, which could create a conflict of interest between the advisor and their client. Instead, registered investment advisors get paid based on a feed schedule.

The Bottom Line

Registered investment advisors manage money for extremely wealthy people as well as for financial institutions. RIAs make investments in many asset classes and work together with their clients in designing unique portfolios. RIAs provide a much more detailed and comprehensive portfolio than financial advisors can, particularly with access to more complex investments.

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  1. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Electronic Filing for Investment Advisers on IARD."

  2. Go Banking Rates. "From Crypto to Stocks, Here's Where Americans Are Investing Their Money This Year."

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