On June 25, WealthManagement.com staff reporter Diana Britton reported the CFP Board’s latest press release trumpeted that it is stepping up misconduct enforcement on its members in advance of the July 1 implementation of its newly revised Code of Ethics.
Call me cynical, but the CFP Board's latest proclamation that it is going to finally get serious about enforcement rings hollow and appears to be a masterful but thinly disguised attempt to whitewash the findings of last July's damaging Wall Street Journal expose.
In the press release, the CFP Board claims that its internal investigation found 1,240 CFPs with unreported FINRA disclosure events that it plans to pursue. The release states that this total represents just 1.4% of the total number of CFPs in the U.S. and that approximately 40% of this number seem to represent minor, non-client-related tax liens. Thus, the central message the Board would like to convey is that just a tiny fraction of CFPs have misconduct issues.
However, the CFP Board's numbers do not jibe with the figures reported in the Wall Street Journal article. WSJ investigative journalists Jason Zweig and Andrea Fuller found more than 6,300 CFPs with disclosure events on FINRA Broker Check that did not appear on the CFP verification site. The count would have likely been even higher had the reporters also scoured the SEC IAPD database for disclosure events linked to CFPs who do not hold brokerage licenses and are registered as only investment advisor representatives under an RIA. According to Zweig and Fuller, the actual percentage of CFPs with disclosure events seems to be in the 8%-10% range, which is much higher than the less than 1% figure the CFP Board is attempting to float. The Zweig-Fuller range also seems to be consistent with findings in a few recently published academic journal papers on the subject of advisor misconduct.
While the CFP Board did not reveal the screening criteria it used to produce the list of 1,240 of its CFP members with unreported disclosure events, the process of cross-referencing the FINRA Broker Check and SEC IAPD disclosure records against the CFP Board's membership list is a relatively simple task—not the labor-intensive manual search process that the CFP Board wishes to portray. The cost of creating a screen-scraping algorithm to gather the FINRA and SEC national disclosure records for all financial advisors is only a few thousand dollars and can probably be produced in less than a week. If the CFP Board were to release its national membership to the screen-scraping firm, the cross-referencing could be completed in a matter of hours. An even easier way to gather the data might be for the CFP Board to ask the Wall Street Journal for the 6,300 names. I am guessing the reporters still have those records.
Equally misleading is the notion that the CFP Board is now going to thoroughly investigate each of the 1,240 members it has identified. What is there to investigate? The failure to report SEC and FINRA disclosure events has always been a violation of the CFP Board's standard of conduct. Is the CFP Board going to investigate to see if the regulatory agencies' enforcement actions were wrong? All 6,300 CFPs in the WSJ report failed to report the disclosures to the CFP Board. One year later they are still appearing as clean on the CFP verification site, and none appears to have been sanctioned for violating the conduct policy.
As for the CFP Board's apparent epiphany that relying on individual CFPs to self-report regulatory disclosures might not be particularly effective, the CFP Board has known about this for years. Practicing CFP and Wall Street Journal columnist Allan Roth documented this in his widely read 2012 article, "Is the Fiduciary Standard a Joke?" I also documented it in a January 2019 article entitled “Michael Kitces is Wrong About the CFP Board.”
For a high-profile example, it is my understanding that the disclosure events pertaining to media personality and CFPB "Goodwill Ambassador" Jill Schlesinger, CFP, were well-known both inside and outside of the CFP Board, but her profile on the CFP verification site remained clean. Ms. Schlesinger appears to have quietly stepped away from that post sometime in early 2019 when rumors of the pending WSJ story began to percolate.
If one needs further evidence of the CFP Board's continued commitment to placing its interests above those of consumers, look no further than CFP Board General Counsel Leo Ryzdewski's comments last week suggesting that CFPs who have a single personal bankruptcy filing will no longer be required to make that disclosure on the CFP verification site (though public disclosure is still required by FINRA and the SEC). Count me in the camp that says most consumers would consider a personal bankruptcy filing a relevant and material fact when determining whether to hire someone to help manage their personal finances.
The CFP Board has a long history of spinning a narrative that it is the savior of the financial planning profession. To be clear, the organization has an even longer and well-documented history of placing its interests above the interests of the consumers it purports to protect. This false narrative has done immeasurable harm to consumers and has done much to foster regulatory confusion. Additionally, there is a growing body of published research suggesting, contrary to the messaging in the CFP Board's multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, the CFP mark may send a false ethical conduct signal to consumers.
John H. Robinson is the founder of Financial Planning Hawaii and a co-founder of software maker Nest Egg Guru.