What's Wrong With Earning a Commission From the Sale of a Financial Product?
What's wrong with earning a commission from the sale of a financial product? Nothing. It isn’t any more inappropriate than a car salesperson earning a commission when you buy a vehicle.
Yet there's one important difference. When you buy a car the roles are clear. You know going in that the salesperson is there to sell you their product. You understand it’s your responsibility to do your homework and know what you need and can afford.
That clarity of roles is purposely clouded in the financial services industry. The "salespeople" are rarely referred to as such. Instead they call themselves creatively contrived variations like "financial advisor," "financial planner," "financial consultant," or "financial representative." The only advice a financial salesperson gives is in conjunction with the sales pitch to buy their product, where the incentive for them is receiving a commission.
This pretense that salespeople are working for the customer rather than the financial firm that employs them creates an inherent conflict of interest. The salesperson's financial rewards come from pushing products versus giving client-oriented, comprehensive financial advice.
The conflict of interest resulted in many brokerage and insurance firms in the 1980’s providing incentives for their salespeople to push high commission products while hiding the high fees. Just one of many examples was described in a 1993 article in the Los Angeles Times. Prudential allowed salespeople to cheat customers out of $3 billion of losses invested into 700 Prudential limited partnerships that were high-risk and "rife with misconduct" while telling investors they were "safe, high-yield investments comparable to bank certificates of deposit." The company finally agreed to a fine of $371 million, representing about 12% of what investors lost.
You might think that, 24 years later, things have changed and large financial firms selling products have changed. They haven't. One recent example was the $185 million fine paid by Wells Fargo over charging their customers fees for financial products they didn’t authorize.
Also, two years ago JPMorgan was fined $307 million for product pushing. Last year they were fined $264 million for their part in a vast foreign bribery scheme.
In 2015, one of the top JPMorgan representatives, Johnny Burris, who has been in the business for more than 25 years, refused to steer clients into proprietary JPMorgan funds that he felt had become rife with high fees. As reported in Financial Planning magazine, he was let go by the company.
But wait, that’s not all. If you think Wells Fargo and JPMorgan’s fines were notable, think again. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Bank of America has paid $76.6 billion in 31 settlements from 2009 to 2016. During the same period, Chase Bank paid $38 billion in 22 settlements and Citigroup paid $15.8 billion in 15 settlement cases.
With a track record like this, you might think that consumers would be demanding wholesale changes in the way we regulate financial advice. They probably would be if they were personally aware of how hidden costs and fees cost the average investor thousands of dollars a year. No wonder that big financial firms can afford to pay billions in fines as a cost of doing business.
Other countries, including Australia, Canada, and the UK, have required a distinct separation of financial advice from financial sales. Hopefully the US won't let another 24 years go by with no changes in the way we regulate companies that sell financial products. For those changes to be driven by consumer demand, more investors need to learn about the costs they pay and to realize that sellers of financial products are not that different from sellers of cars.
Alternative Beta Strategies: Alpha/Beta Separation Comes to Hedge Funds
Written by: Yazann Romahi, Chief Investment Officer of Quantitative Beta Strategies, J.P. Morgan Asset Management
A quiet revolution is taking place in the alternatives world. The idea of alpha/beta separation has finally made its way from traditional to alternative investing. This development brings with it a more transparent, liquid and cost-effective approach to accessing the “alternative beta” component of hedge fund return and a new means for benchmarking hedge fund managers.
The good news for investors is that the separation of hedge fund return into its components—rules-based alternative beta and active manager alpha—has the potential to shift investing as we know it. These advancements could democratize hedge funds and, at long last, make what are essentially hedge fund strategies available to all investors—even those who aren’t willing to hand over the hefty fees often associated with hedge fund investing.
A benchmark for alternatives
With respect to traditional equity investing, we have long accepted the idea that there is a market return, or beta—but this hasn’t always been the case. Investors used to assume that to make money in the stock markets, one needed to buy the right stocks and avoid the wrong ones. The idea of a market return independent of skilled stock selection seemed ridiculous to most market participants. Yet today, we would never invest in an active manager’s strategy without benchmarking it against its respective beta.
Interestingly, hedge fund managers have been held to a different standard. Investors have been much more willing to accept the notion that hedge fund strategy returns are pure alpha, and that their investment returns are based entirely on the skill of the fund manager. That notion explains why investors have been willing to accept a “two and twenty” fee structure just to access what has been perceived as one of the most sophisticated and powerful investment vehicles available.
In thinking about the concept of beta, consider its precise definition—the return achievable by taking on a systematic exposure to an economically compensated risk. In traditional long only equity investing, the traditional market beta has been further refined as a number of other risks have been identified that are commonly referred to as “strategic beta.” These include factors such as value, momentum, quality and size. But no one ever said that these risk factors must be long-only.
Over the past decade, as more hedge fund data became available, academics began to disaggregate hedge fund return into two components: compensation for a systematic exposure to a long/short type of risk (alternative beta), and an unexplained “manager alpha.” What they found is that a significant portion of hedge fund return can be attributed to alternative beta. That fact has turned the tables on how we look at hedge fund return. With the introduction of the alternative beta concept, hedge fund managers will have to state their results, not just in terms of total return, but also as excess return over an alternative beta benchmark.
Merger arbitrage—an alternative beta example
The merger arbitrage hedge fund style can be used to illustrate the alternative beta concept. In the case of merger arbitrage, the beta strategy would be the systematic process of going long every target company, while shorting its acquirer. There is an inherent return to this strategy because the target stock price typically does not immediately rise to the offer price upon the deal’s announcement. This creates an opportunity to purchase the stock at a discount prior to the deal’s completion. The premium that remains is compensation to the investor for bearing the risk that the deal may fail.
Active merger arbitrage managers can add value by choosing to invest in some deals while avoiding others. Therefore, their benchmark should be the “enter every deal” strategy, not cash. In fact, the beta strategy explains the majority of the return to the average merger arbitrage hedge fund. And it doesn’t stop there. Other hedge fund styles that can be explained using alternative beta include equity long/short, global macro, and event driven. Note that the beta strategy invests in the same securities, using the same long/short techniques as the hedge fund strategy. The difference is that the beta strategy is a rules-based version that can become the benchmark for the hedge fund strategy. After all, if a hedge fund strategy cannot beat its respective rules-based benchmark (net of fees), an investor may be wiser to stick to the beta strategy.
Implications for investors
What does all this mean for the end investor? Hedge funds have traditionally been the domain of sophisticated investors willing to pay high fees and sacrifice liquidity. Alpha/beta separation in the hedge fund world means that investors can finally choose whether to buy the active version of the hedge fund strategy or opt for the passive (beta) version. Hedge fund strategies can be effective portfolio diversifiers. Now, through alternative beta, virtually all investors can access what are essentially hedge fund strategies in a low cost, liquid, and fully transparent form. For investors who haven’t had prior access to hedge funds, this could be welcome news. Not only can investors look at an active hedge fund manager’s strategy and determine how it has done compared to the systematic beta equivalent, they can also invest in ETFs that encapsulate these systematic strategies.
When looking at one’s traditional balanced portfolio today, there are plenty of questions around whether the fixed income portion will achieve the same level of diversification it has provided in the past. After all, with yields still low, there is little income return. Additionally, the capital gains that came from interest rate declines are likely to reverse. With fixed income unlikely to adequately fulfill its traditional role in portfolios, there is a need to find an alternative source of diversification. This is where alternative strategies may help. For investors seeking to access diversifying strategies in liquid and low-cost vehicles, alternative beta strategies in ETF form are one option.
Looking for an alternative to enhance diversification in your portfolio?
For investors looking to further diversify their overall portfolio, JPMorgan Diversified Alternatives ETF (JPHF) seeks to increase diversification and reduce overall portfolio volatility through direct, diversified exposure to hedge fund strategies using a bottom-up, rules-based approach.
Learn more about JPHF and J.P. Morgan’s suite of ETFs here.
Call 1-844-4JPM-ETF or visit www.jpmorganetfs.com to obtain a prospectus. Carefully consider the investment objectives and risks as well as charges and expenses of the ETF before investing. The summary and full prospectuses contain this and other information about the ETF. Read them carefully before investing.
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