Commission-based advice & suitability: a dangerous combination

Smiling confident businessman giving an handshake, agreement and recruitment conceptThe average Canadian investor has little clue how their financial advisor gets paid, or that their advisor is only obligated to provide advice and product recommendations that are suitable, but not necessarily in the best interests of their clients.

Commission-based advice

Why does this matter? Commission-based advice leads to conflicts of interest. Namely, advisors who sell mutual funds are motivated by trailer fees (aka trailer commissions), which is a commission paid by the mutual fund company to the advisor.

According to a recent study by York professor Douglas Cumming, there are three ways that trailer fees cause harm to investors:

1.) More money is steered towards mutual funds that have higher trailer fees;

2.) Money is less likely to be taken out of mutual funds with poorer performance among funds that pay higher trailer fees, and;

3.) Mutual funds that raised their trailer fees experienced a drop in performance, while funds that lowered their trailer fees experienced a rise in performance.

Canadian securities regulators have been mulling a ban of trailer fees or embedded commissions for over two decades. The mutual fund industry, as you can imagine, is vehemently opposed to such a ban.

Why, you may ask? Canadian investors hold more than $1 trillion in mutual fund investments and pay over $5 billion in trailer fees every single year.

Suitability vs. Best Interest


What about suitability versus a best interest standard? Most advisors in Canada are held to a suitability standard, which means before recommending an investment he or she must demonstrate that it’s appropriate based on their client’s risk tolerance, goals, and experience.

Best interest, on the other hand, is a higher standard of care where an advisor must “deal fairly, honestly and in good faith with its clients and act in its clients’ best interests.” Regulators are currently consulting on a proposed best interest standard of care that would be based on five guiding principles:

  • Acting in the best interests of the client;
  • Avoiding or controlling conflicts of interest in a manner that prioritizes the client’s best interests;
  • Providing full, clear, meaningful and timely disclosure;
  • Interpreting law and agreements with clients in a manner favourable to the client’s interest where reasonably conflicting interpretations arise; and
  • Acting with care.

One question: How is this not already in place? Anything short of this is simply a disservice to Canadian investors.

A dangerous combination

Conflict of interest and a lack of regulatory control is a dangerous combination. Here are a few examples of how Canadian investors might be harmed in this environment:

You might pay higher investment fees

Canadians already pay some of the highest mutual fund fees in the world. And Dr. Cumming’s work shows that advisors are more likely to direct your investment dollars into mutual funds that pay them the highest commission.

For example, when given a choice between a Canadian equity mutual fund with a management expense ratio of 2.18 per cent, and a Canadian index fund with an expense ration of 0.42 per cent, most commission-based advisors would choose the higher fee fund.

That recommendation would be “suitable” for any medium-to-long-term investor who can handle the ups-and-downs of the stock market. But is it in the client’s best interest? Not a chance! Overwhelming research shows that higher fees lead to poorer investment performance.

You could get conflicted advice about your pension

Some employees are still lucky enough to have a defined benefit pension plan. If you leave your job, you have to decide whether to take the commuted value of your pension and place it into a locked-in retirement account, or leave it in the plan and collect a reduced pension upon retirement.

Ask your commission-based financial advisor which option you should choose and it’s likely he or she will recommend taking and investing the lump sum. Why? Because your advisor stands to gain from the commission and fees charged to manage your funds. If you keep it in the pension plan, your advisor won’t see a dime.

To be fair, it may be smarter to take the commuted value. But understand that your advisor could be motivated by the idea of a lump sum investment and is certainly not compelled to disclose that conflict to you in advance.

You might get conflicted advice on CPP

Canadians can decide to take a reduced Canada Pension Plan benefit as early as age 60, or holdout for more money by delaying to age 70.

What might your commission-based advisor think of that choice? Take the money early, he or she might argue. There’s no guarantee you’ll live to 95. Invest it with me and add to your retirement fund (and my commissions).

Again, without a best interest standard of care this advice may be harmful to retirees.

You could be encouraged to use leverage

Borrowing to invest is a double-edged sword because you can amplify your losses just as quickly as your gains. Leverage, therefore, should only be used for the most experienced investors who understand the risks involved.

Unfortunately, your commission-based advisor might view your leverage and risk-taking as a way to line their own pockets. One strategy might be as simple and innocuous as an RRSP loan, which is a win-win for the advisor with a loan on the books and additional capital to invest. A little more dangerous strategy might see you tapping into your home equity to invest using something called the Smith Manoeuvre.

Final thoughts

Investors fill out the ‘Know-Your-Client’ form to gauge their risk tolerance and investing know-how. The environment when filling out the form is calm and the investor might eagerly overstate his or her knowledge and temperament.

Unfortunately, the form does little to prepare you for what a market crash feels like when you’re invested 100 percent in stocks. What it might do, however, is give your advisor permission to put your capital into risky investments that generate high commissions and generally lead to poor returns.

That’s why the current commission-based advice and suitability standard regulatory environment is a dangerous combination for Canadian investors.

A best interest standard, coupled with a ban on trailer fees, could see all but the most risky and experienced investors placed into low cost, broadly diversified ETFs or index mutual funds to help them reach their investment goals.

RobbEngenIn addition to running the Boomer & Echo website, Robb Engen is a fee-only financial planner. This article originally ran on his site on Dec. 5th  and is republished here with permission.

Leave a Reply