While the rest of the country coped with snow, sleet and ice this week, over 1,000 registered investment advisors were in high spirits as they convened in sunny San Diego for the sprawling cocktail party known as the TD Ameritrade Institutional National Conference. The advisors oozed optimism, excitement and energy and appeared anxious to capitalize on what they saw as their industry’s strong growth prospects.
The gates of the massive San Diego Manchester Grand Hyatt opened on Wednesday as TD Ameritrade highlighted its practice management offering. Then it was party time at the welcome cocktail reception, with over 160 vendors salivating at the chance to harness the asset gathering power of the RIAs. The vendors spilled out of the exhibit room, into the hotel hallways, stairwells and escalators – basically anywhere you can fit a 10x10 booth.
While most folks might assume that a three hour reception was plenty to start the conference, the custodian  hosts from Canada by way of Jersey City and Omaha knew better, and the gathering easily segued into an elegant “after party” on the hotel pool’s decks.
Top of mind for the attendees at the conference was how to retrofit their businesses for growth after surviving the last couple of brutal years in the markets. “We’ve really been in a maintenance mode since the crisis,” said one advisor. “But now with the client demand for our fee-based model, it is time to start growing again and for us to re-invest in our business.” This theme was echoed throughout the conference and reinforced by the many technology and practice management sessions that filled the agenda.
Consistent with the over-the-top-optimism pervading the conference was Thursday’s lunch presentation by Dr. Jeremy “I never met an equity I didn’t like” Segal of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Segal’s data-filled talk made the case, once again, for stocks for the long run. According to his analysis, current market levels are roughly 40% from where they should be, providing a tremendous buying opportunity.
What could get in the way from this rosy view? “The only wildcard we have is government,” the professor cautioned. “The deficit does create concern, particularly long-term entitlement programs.”
A similar anti-government sentiment also surfaced in the standing room only session on the impacts of financial services reform brought on by the Dodd-Frank Act. Advisors need to be prepared for more disclosure, more complexities and a more regulated operating environment, panelists warned.
But even looming regulation couldn’t put a damper on the rest of the program, highlighted by inspirational talks from General Colin Powell, a last minute stand in for Tony Blair, who was called to the mid-east to deal with the Egypt crisis, and DeWitt Jones, a photographer for National Geographic magazine. Jones gave a powerful motivational speech on taking risks, pursuing your dreams and being open to possibilities, themes that the RIA attendees clearly related to as business owners.
As a barometer of the independent advisor industry, the TD Ameritrade conference revealed advisors to be upbeat, engaged and excited at the possibilities for success brought on by the perfect storm of baby boomer retirement, the colossal melt-down on Wall Street and the growing demand for independent advice.
The buoyant conference had to end on a high note – and it did, with a rousing closing night party and a concert by the Doobie Brothers.
Timothy D. Welsh is President and founder of Nexus Strategy, LLC, a leading consulting firm to the wealth management industry. Tim can be reached at [email protected]