What Is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA)?

A Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) is a person or firm who advises high-net-worth individuals on investments and manages their portfolios. RIAs have a fiduciary duty to their clients, which means they have a fundamental obligation to provide investment advice that always acts in their clients' best interests.

As the first word of their title indicates, RIAs are required to register either with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or state securities administrators.

Key Takeaways

  • A registered investment advisor (RIA) manages the assets of individual and institutional investors.
  • As a buy-side investment service and fiduciary, RIAs must register with the SEC and state regulatory agencies.
  • Paid much like portfolio managers, RIAs usually earn their revenue through a management fee comprised of a percentage of assets held for a client (typically 1% per year of AUM).

Understanding RIAs

Regulated directly by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), RIAs are considered to be acting in a fiduciary capacity, and so held to a higher standard of conduct than registered representatives. This fiduciary standard mandates that an RIA must always unconditionally put the client’s best interests ahead of his or her own, regardless of all other circumstances.

RIAs are also required to disclose any possible conflicts of interest to their clients and act in an ethical manner in all of their business dealings. Some RIAs charge clients a percentage of their assets under management while others charge either an hourly or a flat fee to dispense advice. Advisors who choose this model for their practices must obtain a Series 65 license.

Paid much like mutual fund managers, RIAs usually earn their revenue through a management fee comprised of a percentage of assets held for a client. Fees fluctuate, but the average is around 1%. Generally, the more assets a client has, the lower the fee he or she 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 (AUM).

Who Needs to Register as an RIA?

The Investment Advisers Act of 1940 defined an RIA as a "person or firm that, for compensation, is engaged in the act of providing advice, making recommendations, issuing reports, or furnishing analyses on securities, either directly or through publications."

Which regulators advisers need to register with depends mostly on the value of the assets they manage, along with whether they advise corporate clients or only individuals. In general, advisers who have at least $25 million in assets under management or provide advice to investment companies are required to register with the SEC. Advisors managing smaller amounts typically register with state securities authorities.

Registering as an RIA isn't meant to denote any form of recommendation or endorsement by the SEC or state securities regulators. It means only that the investment advisor has fulfilled all the requirements for registration. For advisors who register with the SEC, the required information includes the advisor's investment style, assets under management (AUM), fees, any disciplinary actions, and, for a firm, the key officers. Other requirements include the RIA informing the SEC of any potential conflicts of interest that have arisen for them in their work, or that might do so in future. Filed using Form ADV, the submission must be updated annually to include information such as any new disciplinary decisions against the RIA. The form must be made available as a public record.

Some critics complain that it is too easy to become an RIA compared with the obligations for other professionals. Investopedia writer Mark Cussen describes the entrance requirements for becoming a RIA as "barely a blip on the radar screen compared to those of other prestigious occupations such as law, medicine, or accounting." He advocates for rigorous examinations and coursework such as those required for such designations as Certified Financial Planner (CFP). Those, he says, could "help to elevate the level of service that [RIAs provide] to the public."

The RIA's Ongoing Obligations

Beyond simply registering to receive their certification, RIAs must follow certain practices and procedures when furnishing advice to their clients. Those include disclosing any risks or possible conflicts of interest of the specific transactions they recommend, and ensuring the client understands those.

If, at any point, an advisor is confronted by a client over the suitability of an investment, the burden is with the advisor to demonstrate that all measures were taken to disclose the risk, as well as to ascertain suitability.

From the perspective of the SEC, documentation is everything. If the SEC were ever to get involved in the investigation of an investor complaint, it requires full documentation on the investment strategy used, along with client records that demonstrate knowledge of the client’s investment profile and risk tolerance.

RIA Competitors

RIAs tend to compete with the following groups for the provision of investment services:

  • Mutual funds
  • Hedge funds
  • Wire house firms (e.g. investment banks) - via wrap programs for individual brokers
  • Online or discount brokers who cater to do-it-yourself investors
  • Roboadvisors