Toward Normative Standards in the Advice Profession

Normative standards can be broadly defined as a consensus among givers of advice on what advice or service best suits a particular set of circumstances. Unlike most other professions, those standards don’t exist among financial planners. That may soon change.

If you catch a cold and go to a doctor – any doctor – you’ll get much the same diagnosis and advice. There are procedures in the medical community to determine if you have cancer, and everybody who is diagnosed with a certain type will get roughly the same procedural recommendations.

This is true in other professions as well. The advice you get from compliance attorneys is boringly similar, and the accounting profession is not (in theory, at least) allowed to deviate from generally-accepted accounting principles. Go to 10 or 15 dentists and you won’t receive wildly different recommendations when it comes to maintaining the health of your teeth.

Compared with those professions, the financial planning world is a wild west when it comes to what Dr. Nathan Harness, professor of financial planning at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX calls “normative standards.” A client who walks into 10 different planning offices is likely to get 10 different portfolio recommendations, very different evaluations of their current will and living trust arrangements, and a wide variation of advice about whether (or how much) to convert from a traditional to a Roth IRA. Some advisors will provide recommendations on long-term care insurance, medical insurance, disability coverage or student debt. Others will consider those areas outside of the financial plan.

Dr. Harness, who serves on the Council for Education at the CFP Board, has participated in the task analysis process that the Board goes through periodically, which he describes as a neural networking exercise where many advisors contribute to a consensus on the tasks that are routinely performed in an RIA office. This led him to consider the much broader question: When those tasks are performed – say, reviewing the client’s will – what does a competent advisor look for? What will the advisor recommend based on what she finds? What, ideally, should she recommend under different client circumstances?