Canada’s advice credentials landscape, with its diverse mix of designations and organizations that provide them, has been criticized for its complexity.
Some industry experts see the “alphabet soup”—a catch phrase coined by one of Canada’s leading financial journalists to describe the multitude of symbols and letters dominating the designations space—as a barrier to understanding the role and value of financial advice credentials.
Coupled with a lack of clarity, this complex landscape may breed confusion among consumers—and even within the advisor community.
Making sense of the “alphabet soup” is essential to the future development of advice as a profession. How can designations be made clearer to those who provide financial advice and those who benefit from it? What role do designations play in helping to ensure advisors serve the best interests of their clients and operate in a professional and ethical manner?
While these questions continue to generate some lively debate, the financial services industry has an obligation to clarify the value and positioning of designations for investors, advisors and all market participants, within the context of the evolution of Canada’s advice landscape and the megatrends that have shaped it.
The Canadian landscape: the paradigm shift
Over the last few decades, Canada’s financial services landscape has undergone a radical transformation. The original “raison d’être” for the country’s investment industry used to be simple—to connect the supply and demand sides, or, in other words, those who had capital and those who were in need of it. The assumption, which probably was not that far off the mark, was that clients just wanted to make money. The concept of financial planning, as we know it today, did not exist, and, aside from the presumed singular goal of accumulating wealth, there were little, if any, discussions around investor needs.
One defining factor in the development of Canada’s financial services industry has been the country’s regulatory environment. Historically, the Canadian financial services landscape has been shaped by regulatory requirements addressing different levels of product risk. In our country, advisors are approved to deal in certain investment vehicles by acquiring licenses to sell specific products, through specific distribution channels. For example, one type of license is required to offer mutual funds, and yet another to sell stocks and bonds.
Over the last 20 years, however, there has been a shift in the mindsets and behaviour of industry participants from a dominant focus on products, as well as their associated risks and corresponding licensing requirements, to a growing emphasis on investor needs. Minimum regulatory standards for different financial roles have been raised over time to increasingly focus on what competencies within the advisor-client relationship are most critical, and to make sure advisors and other professionals have the knowledge, experience and ethical values needed.
There is also a growing realization among all industry participants that, above and beyond regulatory requirements, advisors should have a more sophisticated understanding and, in many cases, specialized expertise to support increasingly complex and diverse investor needs and investment products, and to address the challenges of an evolving Canadian market within today’s interconnected global economy.
An example of such specialized knowledge is the qualifications required to serve high-net-worth individuals. Affluent Canadians are looking for advice professionals who understand their more complex financial and non-financial needs, such as wealth preservation, tax and estate concerns, and business succession planning. These advisors must be able to play a quarterback role in bringing together a client’s tax and legal advisors to form a more holistic plan. Traditional, tactically-focused investment or financial planning services may no longer be enough for this expanding group of clients.
Another similar trend in this paradigm shift towards greater investor focus is the industry’s growing commitment to protecting them from the risks of insufficiently informed or unethical counsel, including situations that involve actual or perceived conflicts of interest. Regulatory and professional regimes focus on the issues—and solutions—surrounding advisor training and proficiency, client relationships and advisor duties, including enhanced suitability requirements, and compensation incentives that align the interests of advisors and investors (see “Professionalism and proficiency in the financial services industry: why it matters more than ever,” IIROC report for the 8th annual conference of the Canadian Institute of Financial Planners, June 14, 2010.)
This paradigm shift has been driven by a number of social and economic trends:
- Investor needs are becoming increasingly complex and diverse, influenced by such factors as the aging population, changing family structures, culture, lifestyle, wealth levels and a greater propensity to save for future financial needs other than retirement.
- There is a growing number of small business owners, which often lends an added layer of complexity to an advisor’s assessment of a client’s financial situation.
- The financial services landscape has evolved. The industry has seen the amalgamation of distribution channels, financial exchanges now encompass traditional and alternative trading systems, and there has been a tremendous proliferation of new financial products for investors. Reflecting the increasingly complex nature of client needs and investment products, there continues to be a shift from transaction/commission-based business to advice/fee-based relationships.
- With industry and investor expectations growing, all within an environment of greater risk, advisors are increasingly expected to have a deeper and broader knowledge of their clients, as well as product and market dynamics, while assuming a more professional, holistic and consultative approach to managing client assets.
- Finally, the recent turmoil in financial markets spawns greater risk and less confidence towards markets and advisors.