Following the Money Trail

It’s getting harder for advisors to know whether they’re being paid correctly.

It’s a testament to the increasing complexity of the advisory business: Many advisors—people whose very living depends on their ability to track the ebbs and flows of money—are having trouble understanding whether they’re being paid correctly by their own firms.

Part of the problem, reps say, is the industry’s migration away from the easy-to-audit transaction-based business model. Only a few years ago, checking a typical advisor’s paycheck was about as simple as gathering together copies of the tickets he’d written and then doing some simple math.

Now, with the migration to fee-based advisory arrangements, payouts are based on much more complex data.

“I have a pay stub that is 23-pages long, and has 600 line items that range in value from $0.23 to $1,500,” says one Midwest-based broker. “Yeah, I understand it,” he adds sarcastically. It’s gotten so bad, he says, that one of his peers has hired a third party to audit his paycheck.

The problem is not easily fixed. Reps in fee-based arrangements tend to be paid a percentage of assets under management, and those values are constantly in flux. Adding to the complexity, payout percentages scale up and down as assets under management cross various thresholds. Throw in the fact that many advisors also have some transactional business (which adheres to a separate payout schedule), and you’ve got the makings of one busy pay stub.

“In eight-and-a-half years, my payouts were never right,” says one broker-turned-recruiter. “It might have only been $30 here or $80 there, but they add up.”

The recruiter says he would usually find the errors after running through his yellow dupes and reconciling them with his pay stub. The firm never gave him any trouble about ponying up for the mistakes he caught. However, he notes, “Never once, were the errors in my favor, not in 8.5 [years] times 12 [months].” And to think that was in a simpler time—the era of commissions.

In today’s environment, few advisors bother to check whether they are being paid accurately, mainly because poring over the daily and monthly commission runs is time consuming. Younger brokers have the most trouble finding time for such tasks, because building a practice in the current environment is time-consuming enough. But even more experienced advisors place the paycheck audit low on their priority list. “I’m producing just above $1 million. Half of that volume is fee-based, and I’ve had 15,382 transactions over the past 11 months,” says one Smith Barney broker. “That’s 1,280 transactions a month, so I just don’t have the time to verify the trails.”

Indeed, the second-most common response to ‘How do you know if you’re being paid correctly?’ was ‘I don’t have the time to check.’”

The most common: “I have no idea.”

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