Surviving in a Post-Merger Financial World
Over the last two years we have experienced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As a result, financial institutions have come under assault from all angles, including its customers, suppliers, and regulators. And as we have watched the walls cave in on the banking and brokerage industries, we have seen a tremendous amount of consolidation. Like it or not, we need to adapt to the new environment.
The accelerated change began in early 2008 with the collapse of Bear Stearns and negotiated merger with JP Morgan Chase. Since then we saw the largest investment banking failure (Lehman Brothers), and the largest banking failure in history (Washington Mutual). Other mergers included the marriage of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, the combination of Wachovia into Wells Fargo, and most recently the blending of Smith Barney into Morgan Stanley. These changes don’t even take into account the disruption caused by the government control of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.
So what does all this change mean for consumers and investors?
1) Rise in Customer Complaints: Change is not always a good thing. Customer complaints rose 54% in 2008, and climbed 86% in the first three months of 2009 according to FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), a nongovernmental regulator of securities companies. The main complaint is “breach of fiduciary duty,” which requires the advisor to act in the best interest of the client. Making the complaint stick can be difficult if the broker only must fulfill a “suitability” standard. To combat the suitability limitation, investors would be well served by investigating an independent Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) who has a fiduciary duty towards clients.
2) Less Competition = Higher Prices: The surviving financial institutions are now in a stronger position with the power to raise prices. Pricing can surface in various forms, including higher brokerage commissions, administrative fees, management fees, ATM fees, late fees, 12b-1 fees and more.
3) Customer Service Weakens: The profit pool has shrunk as lending has slowed and the real estate gravy train has come to a screeching halt. By cutting expenses in non-revenue generating areas, such as customer service, the financial institutions are having a difficult time servicing all their client questions and concerns. There is still fierce competition for lucrative accounts, but if you are lower on the totem pole, don’t expect extravagant service.
4) Increased Regulation: Consumer pain experienced in the financial crisis will likely lead to heightened regulation. For example, the Obama administration is proposing a consumer protection agency, but it may be years before tangible benefits will be felt by consumers. Financial institutions are doing their best to remove themselves from direct oversight by paying back government loans. In the area of financial planning, proposals have been brought to Congress to raise standards and requirements, given the limited licensing requirements. Time will tell, but changes are coming.
Investing in a Post-Merger Financial World: Take control of your financial future by getting answers from your advisor and financial institution. Get a complete list of fees. Find out if they are an independent RIA with a “fiduciary duty” to act in the client’s best interest. Research the background of the advisor through FINRA’s BrokerCheck site (www.finra.org) and the SEC’s Investment Adviser Public Disclosure Web site (www.sec.gov). Get referrals and shop around for the service you deserve. Survival in a post-merger world is difficult, but with the right plan you can be successful.
For disclosure purposes, Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC is an independent Registered Investment Advisor in California.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.