Customers Following Brokers Are Choosing Their Own Adventure

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For many investors, learning that their broker is changing firms sets off a scenario akin to the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books from back in the day. It goes something like this. Your broker tells you he or she is leaving. You can choose to stay in your current firm and find a new broker, or you can follow your broker to his or her new firm.

If you opt to stay, you're entering the complex and messy courtship that can be forming a new relationship. If you choose to follow, you may be embarking on endless paperwork and hidden fees that come with leaving a firm.

Behind door No. 2 ...
If, after all the decisions are made, the portfolio has taken the fee hits and you're about to settle in with your new firm (and its new fees, and ways of doing business), you may learn that your broker has received a generous compensation package for switching firms. Or you learn that the new funds you just bought into were pushed by someone who is now receiving a commission from those funds. Or you learn that the superior products you were wooed with to switch are no better than the ones you had before, except your portfolio is a little lighter for the change. You've paid heavily to switch, and now you're paying more than you did before to do business with the same person, for similar funds.

Once you know, do you leave? Or are you stuck wondering what sort of situation you've gotten yourself into? Had you known, would you have made the same decision?

No alarms, no surprises
Investors who believe an informed decision is the only good decision will cheer for a new proposal from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority that studies how recruiting bonuses affect transitioning customers. The regulatory watchdog has received approval from its board to open a comments period of two months on a proposal that would require securities firms to disclose recruiting bonuses to clients who follow their broker into the firm.

This is not the first time the issue of disclosure, specifically of recruitment incentives, has been raised. In fact, back in 1993, a committee was formed in the House of Representatives to investigate the disclosure of recruitment bonuses and whether conflicts of interest existed in a lack of disclosure. But that committee had no outcome.

It's important to note that the "comments period" in this case refers primarily to the brokerages that would be affected. The country's 14 largest firms would be the most affected, as they offer the largest bonuses and have the largest number of advisors moving in and out, bringing and taking clients as they go. It's expected that Morgan Stanley, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, and UBS will comment. (It's going to be a busy year for Morgan Stanley, which was recently ranked high in market expertise in the wake of the LIBOR investigation, and which just announced a revamped broker compensation plan.)

Brokers are often recruited with "forgivable loans," which must be repaid if they leave the company before a certain time frame. Public disclosure of recruitment bonuses means that not only clients but also competitors will have access to bonus amounts, which could level out the playing field -- or cause increasing recruitment churn.

The eye of the hurricane
What this means for investors remains to be seen, but as with most investing advice, staying the course is wisest (for now). If you're with an advisor you trust, who is transparent in disclosure of fees and helping with long-term investment and retirement planning, stay the course. The center of the hurricane is the calmest, and new regulation could mean little for happy, satisfied customers who are being treated fairly.

If you're not sure how your broker is being paid, the end of year is a great time to revisit the 12 Questions You Should Ask Your Broker (and Yourself) Before Investing. And if you do opt to change firms, or brokers, do your research. The Motley Fool has looked at the largest brokerage and banking players with more than $500 billion each in assets and found one that's been the lowest risk for investors and customers. Download a free copy of "The One Big Bank Built to Last" on us for a limited time.

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