When the Department of Labor’s Fiduciary Rule – created under the Obama administration – failed in 2018, the lobbying efforts of several left-lead financial organizations like CFP Board and The Financial Planning Association seemed to end as well.
Under the Trump administration there have been no pushes of significance to advance financial planning access or availability. While I haven’t been overly surprised by that fact, I have been curious what the lobbyists could be working on to justify their pay. The financial planning advocate in me always was disappointed when consumer outreach funds shifted from beneficial programs pre-2012, to expensive, and largely failed, lobbying efforts.
An answer may have arrived last week when CFP Board released a grand plan for the financial planning industry related to a “roundtable” meeting they conducted last December, where they outline their vision for a “profession” for financial advice. I’ve written about concerns with CFP Board’s activities over the last several years politicizing and cartelizing the financial planning industry, but the ideas within this document – seemingly to create a profession under their control that encompasses everyone and every definition – has to be one of the most concerning of my career.
CFP Board revealed last week that last December they held a “roundtable forum” with “nearly a hundred leaders from the financial advice ecosystem.” The secretive nature of the meeting and the lack of any disclosure of the participants already makes one wonder with a group known for including only supportive voices and punishing dissenters. (Increasing my concern is that punishment is also high on CFP Board’s current issues, as the other recent emails from the board are related to their swiftness in proposing and pushing through penalties for certificants. As many of those commenting on the board’s rules point out their penalties allow a wide range of action for “conduct” which will be political in nature – some mentioning the board can punish advisors for “an act of moral turpitude” or simply opposing the current whims of CFP Board as the progressive, self-appointed leader of financial planning advice – and many suggest they are being done at this time for political expediency).
While the document lacks any pro-market and consumer ideas to expand access to planning – this being a time where fiduciary rules and regulation have destroyed access and regulated product availability – it seems several have been busy on finding ways to control the financial advice profession, and in what appear to be very collectivist ideas.
While CFP Board wants to be known as the standard-bearer and potentially a regulator for the budding profession of financial planning, they have yet to come to terms with or fully explain their own new standards to which these penalties and rules apply. The fact they would attempt to push those “standards” on certificants and non-certificants alike should be a warning to everyone involved in planning (and, for those with a sense of humor shows little planning from the planners).
As a certificant I’ve reached out on numerous occasions to CFP Board for information on how one may meet their rules, and to learn why the rules from CFP Board, a group that claims to support financial planning, presumes that the act of financial planning has no value when done by an independent advisor, but not when done by a large Wall Street firm. I’m a certificant trying to meet their rules, and they have ignored all of my requests.
I may be biased, but one may see a political and deplatforming agenda without even looking hard. It would be hard to believe so many employees at any regulator or certification program are not interested in helping a certificant, ex-volunteer, and ex-instructor meet their obligations without realizing that the lack of concern likely comes from politics. Every regulator I’ve ever worked under has recognized that despite disagreements, it’s the public whose interest we both serve. CFP Board is alone in my experience in not being interested in explaining their rules to a certificant to meet his obligations.
In this era of trying to control the profession, the only clear way to know one is safe that I have found to work as a financial planner is as an employee for a large mutual fund firm not faced with an economically backwards rule that places an individual advisor at risk for taking on a client and forcing that advisor to make some sort of unknowable value decision for that client.
One would think there would be some self-reflection or irony seen in the pushing of rules and penalties to protect the public from financial service product producer self-interest, and yet the largest beneficiary of the rules has been largest mutual fund and brokerage firms. The biggest losers have been independent fiduciary advisors and the public at large – both in terms of their access to advice and the quality of the advice and products available. Consumer interest has been shoved aside for control over the independent advisor and pushing individuals to the largest firms and new, tech firms, neither meet any basic fiduciary definition.
It should seem astonishing that a group which wants to regulate planning has what amounts to a separate and weaker standard for large firms and new tech firms, and an “incomplete” on their rules threatening the truly independent, fiduciary industry, but their time over the last few years has not been spent on clarifying and finalizing one equal standard, but rather on control and penalizing those advisors who strive for a higher standard.
In an article by Knut Rostad for Advisor Perspectives (PDF), Susan John, 2019’s CFP Board chair, seems to acknowledge that many advisors can no longer meet CFP Board’s own standards when it comes to fee disclosure, which was entirely due to CFP Board’s own actions recently to remove critical consumer disclosures from CFP Board’s consumer website. Any real fiduciary relationship starts with total disclosure of costs for the consumer to be able to judge value; CFP Board’s “fiduciary” standard applied to independent advisors is – “Disclose all you want, we’ll judge your decision for you helping that client in the future based on whatever our feelings are at that time.”
John – at the time the prior year CFP Board chair and a past NAPFA board chair – received significant flack on social media for being put out by CEO Kevin Keller as the spokesperson. The use of John as scapegoat has allowed CFP Board to move forward, once again, without consequences to anyone in current leadership.
CFP Board has been no stranger to politicizing financial advice. Over the years Keller has included political extremists as volunteers and employees, and removed those who may question him. Rather than committing to intellectual and political diversity, or even established advisors who can speak to how to grow a practice, many of their volunteers are new to the profession and have not established themselves in their own practices, but have served on his ethics committee during the overhaul of their rules.
And while CFP Board promotes identity politics, they are simultaneously failing at diversity precisely due to this political imbalance. Dr. Gad Saad, professor of marketing and author of the forthcoming The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense, frequently discusses how the new identity politics closely resemble a religion; where postmodern professors have largely destroyed the value of many degrees, implementing it in personal finance will surely be the death of the value of the financial planner. CFP Board’s education programs at university are very frequently taught outside of the business school in schools that are more receptive to postmodernism and socialism, which has a major contributor to the politicization of CFP Board and the planning profession. I would not be surprised to learn that there were a number of extreme, social justice supporting professors and graduate students at this event. In the past, I’ve noted many with no real-world experience on Keller’s advisory boards.
It is obvious that the promotion of one political ideology – one that’s extreme in its postmodernism, progressiveness and social justice – is, by its very definition, anti-diversity. When CFP Board began working on their newest Code of Standards and Ethics, I noted a practioner whose main experience was in teaching special education and her main interest seems to be tweeting Marxism, “punch a Nazi” (often code for a white, male or simply a capitalist in the woke vernacular), and being given a platform to push progressive ideas like reparations serving on his ethics committee. While the profession is largely split fairly evenly between those who consider themselves conservative or progressive, CFP Board’s young volunteers supporting collectivism and identity politics fit with neither group. Though often the most vocal on social media, they represent a very small percent of real-world planners and clients.
I’ve seen several volunteers and the ‘faces’ that CFP Board promotes in its marketing and with the press are more and more a part of this small and extreme political movement (see more on this in my previously linked diversity article). Putting such extremists on these committees would seem to be a massive failure of leadership; unless the goal of the leadership is no longer to provide the most credible credential for the public, but rather to use their credential to politicize finances and eliminate those who would have other views.
This movement works alongside the deplatforming movement – from moderate progressives to conservatives – in other professions and online. I have been the target of Keller’s ‘deplatforming,’ being removed as a volunteer for voicing concern with the harm these fiduciary rule would (and have) done to independent advice, for writing articles promoting the positive aspects of planning (CFP Board specifically mentioned this article to me as a problem), and for being against partnering with groups like FPA, whose regular promotion of socialist concepts, and specifically for pointing out their annual promotion of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as nearly their only economic theory at national conventions, is not compatible with sound personal financial planning.
Some advisors have been looking forward to CFP Board creating a “woke” profession, where people can be deplatformed from being employed professionally due to political disagreements and bullying, rather than have to make their case in arguments with words.
Could CFP Board be creating the first “woke” profession, where those who disagree with the politics are deplatformed and not allowed to practice?
Perhaps more relevant – Do thinking advisors who can pass their exam believe that they will maintain their salary, business value, integrity and value to their clients if CFP Board succeeds?
Advisors who want a truly higher standard frequently contact me to discuss these issues since I’ve been vocal about the lack of leadership at most financial planning organizations, as they have let CFP Board lead and received the benefits from insulating it from criticism, rather than meeting their own mission statements and living up to their fiduciary and leadership responsibilities in their own right. In giving up their independence and ability to criticize CFP Board’s grand experiment building a profession upon a sandy foundation of progressive politics, postmodernism, victimhood and identity politics – rather than capitalism, merit, knowledge, hard work, compassion and facts – they’ve given up the core of their value to the world in exchange for a short-run ‘like’ from CFP Board.
One of my colleagues opined recently that independent advisors have given up our sacred inheritance of a profession consumers value and trust… for nothing more than a bowl of porridge (I would just add that the socialist bowl of porridge isn’t the top quality porridge).
Consumers who believe a fiduciary advisor should be experienced, put politics aside to focus on improving their personal circumstances, have the knowledge and experience to do so, and always put their interests completely ahead of an advisors own (even in the face of conflicting CFP Board standards) will expect professionals recognize the actions of CFP Board in their quest to control financial planning are not compatible with their values and respond accordingly. Unfortunately, doing so puts one in the crosshairs . Father of the fiduciary movement, Don Trone, L5, CEO of 3ethos recently wrote how CFP Board’s standards are “backsliding from where we were 20 years ago.”
I believe we are at a point that is even worse than Trone. Trone’s placing CFP Board in a category of having principles is not accurate. The politics of socialism is the politics of power, not principles. Individual CFP® ceritificants may introduce principles into their practices, but it will be without knowing whether or not they run afoul of CFP Board’s politics. In many cases CFP Board’s political movement will conflict with doing right by consumers, in which case a planner who holds their credential is supporting doing wrong by the client.
And, consumers will reject it all, while the profession loses far more credibility than it ever did to a bad apple or two.
CFP Board’s goal in their meeting summary document is clear that they not only want to disallow advisors to act independently – and I believe deplatform disagreement – but, they also want control over advisors who reject their politically-driven “fiduciary” rules will be subject to them via government regulation. Advisors who think they have somewhere to hide may want to start paying attention.
The publication of the notes from this gathering – five months later – is full of collectivist ideas. From the control over words like “financial planner,” to a less than hidden objective to “develop business models,” to something about “products and services need to be better designed” and if “we don’t” someone else will. Keller’s writing in the past reflects a desire to tell firms what to do – to control the way firms deliver advice – in a typical collectivist fashion.
Like most collectivists, control is most easy to be had when technology replaces critically thinking humans who may oppose moves to politicize. Keller has many firms on his committees who have CFP® certificants as advisors or members who meet with the public, but these firms have an unstated ‘waiver’ for CFP Board’s “fiduciary” rules that will decimate the individual advisor market in the coming years. These firms contribute financially to CFP Board and other supporting organizations; I have requested to know how these conflicts are managed – since fiduciaries are required to manage conflicts – but, in any case any objective observer can see that the standards for and threats to advisors at these firms are less than for independent advisors.
At the present time, CFP Board has transformed itself from a credentialing organization with a decent, fairly comprehensive examination (though one severly and perhaps purposefully lacking on basic economic concepts), to what now resembles a political agenda to control what is allowed in investments, financial advice, and who and the sorts of ideas can be discussed. Not too different than a
In the mini-series Waco, the actor Michael Shannon plays FBI negotiator Gary Noesner. In lamenting his silent endorsement of the FBI’s priorities shift over his career and wondering what he should do at a moment of crisis, he consults his wife. Noesner has passively spoken up to his bosses about his concerns over time, but mostly watched as the FBI increased their power by taking it from the needs and rights of the public.
What is his wife’s response when “talking” to his bosses is not resulting in consequences?
It’s time other advisors speak up – loudly – about the direction of their profession, the damage CFP Board is doing to our value and credibility, and the impact it has had on individuals. And, despite what many tell me who are not certificants – that this does not apply to them – see the document above. CFP Board plans on their politicized “standards” being the standard.
The “transparent” and controlled world CFP Board desires has proven to be one with fewer options for individuals when working with an advisor, the number of firms, new firms have sprung up that outwardly require acceptance of politics and promote deplatforming those individuals and ideas who do not mesh. I’m meeting with many prospects and individuals who are going it alone today, choosing products and strategies without an advisor, because the porridge looks better doing so.
This CFP Board and its volunteers and supporters look very much like the FBI approaching Waco; they haven’t been trained in the basics of our profession in capitalism, freedom, competency, etc., and have given up on peaceful negotiation for militaristic collectivism with the most force to shut down alternative political or personal ideas.
If advisors do not begin to speak loudly, they may need to start looking for new careers. There is no booming financial planning profession in Venezuela (or, as Trone has written, “If the CFP Board were a country, it would be North Korea”), and the end result of the types of control CFP Board seeks will simply make the best choice for consumers to plan more effectively an app on their 5G phone, rather than pay the increased costs CFP Board has imposed on independent advisors for silently advancing conflicted and political advice from their CFP® professional.
I reached out to CFP Board via email on May 24, 2020 to discuss this topic and will update the article with any response. I have also reached out to CFP Board on May 17, 2019 via email, and on numerous other occasions via social media and email to discuss the issues above and to find out how a CFP® certificant can be confident they meet CFP Board’s standards. As of this publication I have not received a response to any request. My volunteer experience with CFP Board lasted from December 2014 until April 2018.