Ethical Issues for Financial Advisors

Honest financial planners can face real dilemmas when trying to do the right thing for their clients. There are some common dilemmas investment professionals may face, and but also guidance on how you can tackle them.

Key Takeaways

  • Financial advisors manage assets and money matters for individuals who often have less knowledge and savvy about the markets and finance in general.
  • This opens the door for bad actors to take advantage of unsuspecting clients, leading to unethical practices.
  • Some ethical issues revolve around placing clients in suitable investments that may not generate as much income for advisors,
  • Many credentialing bodies and regulatory agencies have imposed ethical codes and compliance standards to help keep advisors above board.

Ethical Issues Today

A generation ago, both the tax code and the financial products and services available were simpler than they are today. For example, if someone wanted to buy stock, a stockbroker would place the trade. If someone needed permanent life coverage, a whole life policy was issued. But now, planners must decide if this traditional approach is better, or whether the client would be better off buying any number of the diverse other products available. Likewise, a client who is put into a universal variable life policy may have actually been better off in whole life.

The problem extends to investments. Putting clients in suitable portfolios means evaluating and sticking with a client's risk tolerance and time horizon. A 70-year old client should not typically be in 90% growth stocks, even if she insists. Even if an investment is suitable in terms of riskiness, an ethical issue involves cost. Perhaps there is an S&P 500 index fund that pays a load to brokers to sell it to clients. At the same time, there are several no-load S&P 500 funds as well as low-cost ETFs that will provide the same market exposure for less cost to the client - even if that means the advisor gets paid far less. The client's needs must be put first.

The modern product maze means that every financial planner faces an ethical dilemma when trying to do the right thing for a client.

Ethical Standards for Professional Advisors

In light of these quandaries, the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards has issued a substantial revision and upgrade of the ethical requirements for its certificants, such as the fiduciary requirement of 2007:

  • All financial planning services must be accorded the care of a true fiduciary, as opposed to merely acting in the client's best interest. This also constitutes a major step up in terms of responsibility, as fiduciaries have a strict set of rules and guidelines that must be followed at all times. For clients, this means that their planners are held to a higher legal standard of care than before.
  • The CFP Board breaks down the fiduciary standard of care, highlighting how investment advisors and broker-dealers were held to different standards before: "It is important to recognize that a financial recommendation that is 'suitable' for a client (as legally required for broker-dealers) may or may not be a financial recommendation that is in the client’s best interest (as legally required for investment advisers)."

The CFP designation is not the only one to define ethical standards for their members to follow. CFA charterholders also must learn and uphold a set of ethical standards, and the Financial Industry Regulation Authority (FINRA) also outlines prohibited practices. 

Fees vs. Commissions

Regardless of what legal or moral standard they are held to, one of the biggest ethical dilemmas planners face is choosing a method of compensation. The methods of compensation for both sales-driven practitioners and planners are often interchangeable since each can charge either fees or commissions for their services. However, this flexibility can often present a moral dilemma for planners who must choose one method of compensation over another.

A fee-based plannerone who charges clients based on a percentage of their assetswill increase his or her compensation simply by making the client's assets grow. If the planner charges the client a fee of 1% of assets under management, then the annual fee collected from a $100,000 portfolio will be $1,000. Therefore, if the planner is able to make the portfolio grow to $150,000, his or her compensation will increase accordingly. This type of compensation could motivate the planner to employ more aggressive investment strategies than would a traditional commission-based broker.

A commission-based planner, on the other hand, is compensated for each transaction, regardless of portfolio gains or losses. These brokers face the temptation to use transactions as a means of revenue, even if they manage to avoid the technical definition of "churning."

In this sense, each type of compensation presents its own set of ethical issues. Ultimately, planners must be willing to subordinate their own benefit to that of their clients, regardless of what business model is used. Take for example a planner that can work on either an hourly fee or a commission basis.

If the planner meets with a client that has $2 million earmarked for retirement, then charging by the hour would result in a total fee of perhaps $5,000on the very high end. On the other hand, choosing to charge the client a commission-based fee for investing the $2 million in a variable annuity could pay as much as a 7% commission, which would earn the planner $140,000. This extreme variance in compensation could easily sway even the most stalwart planner. The key thing to remember is that you must act in the best interests of your client, not your wallet.

Sales vs. Advice

The boundaries between sales and advice in the financial industry are becoming increasingly blurred, as new platforms and methods of doing business continue to emerge. What this usually boils down to is getting clients to do the right thing for the right reason.

Many clients will base their financial decisions on emotions rather than what their planner advises. Suppose a 60-year-old woman has her entire savings of $100,000 in certificates of deposit (CD), and is terrified of risking her principal. If she lives for another 25 years, her savings will likely be depleted long before she dies, since these low-risk investments pay a tiny rate of return that will be offset by inflation over time.

As a planner, you obviously need to get your client to diversify her holdings with a sensible asset allocation, or at least to consider some sort of immediate annuity option. But how far should you go in encouraging her to do this? Is it okay for you to use aggressive, fear-based sales tactics, or even bend the truth a little, in order to help this client? After all, it clearly is in her best interest to do this. Besides, if no action is taken, you could be held legally liable for failure to provide adequate advice.

In this case, the definition of "fear-based" sales tactics is also somewhat subjective. If the planner shows the client a graphic illustration revealing how she will be bankrupt in less than 10 years, is that using fear as a tactic, or is it merely a revelation of reality? The argument can be made that it is both at once.

Luckily, planners do have help in these types of situations. If a client refuses to take your advice, you can present them with a written disclaimer stating that the client or prospect has refused to follow the recommendations presented by the planner. If your 60-year-old client wants to stick to her CDs and she's signed this disclaimer, then you are in the clear.

Problems With the System

The fact is that there is no central ethical resource that is available for all types of financial planners. Commission-based brokers can consult their supervisors or compliance departments on certain matters, but they are likely to get "corporate" answers to many of their questionsanswers that may allow the planner to create a profitable transaction without incurring liability but may not address what is truly best for the client.

CFP practitioners may consult the CFP Board with ethical questions, and other accredited planners may have ethical codes of conduct to refer to as well. Yet non-credentialed planners are essentially on their own for all practical purposes, as the rules imposed by the regulatory agencies are not designed to address many day-to-day issues that planners face as part of their jobs.

The Bottom Line

Despite the onslaught of legislation and regulations aimed at curbing unethical practices (such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002), financial planning in today's world depends more than ever on understanding a client's individual situation and objectives and being willing to do the right thing for them. The correct application of ethics in modern financial planning essentially boils down to having the client understand exactly what they are doing, and why, with full knowledge of the costs and risks involved.

An ethical transaction occurs when a client truly understands the ramifications of the advisor's recommendations and is willing to go forward, assuming that all pertinent laws and regulations are being obeyed. After all is said and done, ethics can still be viewed as simply knowing what the right thing to do is, and then doing it.

Article Sources

Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. CFP Board. "CFP professionals' fiduciary duty when providing financial advice," Accessed June 14, 2020.

  2. Financial Planning Coalition. "Fiduciary standard of care," Accessed June 14, 2020.

  3. CFA Institute. "Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct." Accessed June 14, 2020.

  4. Financial Industry Regulation Authority. "Prohibited Conduct." Accessed June 14, 2020.

  5. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Financial Planners." Accessed June 14, 2020.

  6. U.S. Congress. "H.R.3763 - Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002." Accessed June 14, 2020.