Steps for Implementing the RIA Business Model
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A good number of CFA® charterholders consider adopting the RIA (registered investment adviser) business model. There are several reasons to do so. Some institutions and individuals only hire RIAs. Even clients who do not require that an adviser be registered may find registered advisers more appealing. (It should be noted, however, that a federally registered adviser may not make any inference that government registration equals government approval of the adviser; most if not all states are likely to have the same restriction.) In addition, a charterholder might be attracted to the structured disclosure form (Form ADV), which allows the adviser to provide clients with detailed information about his or her business, including advisory personnel, fees, and any conflicts of interest.
To be fair, there are some downsides to being an RIA that should be pointed out: there are specific rules and requirements to which you must adhere; there are annual renewals to update and file; and there is the possibility of a regulatory examination. But, all in all, most charterholders will find the benefits of the RIA business model outweigh the negatives. Whether you already have a practice or are considering starting an advisory business, the following steps will help guide you through the RIA process.
ARTICULATE YOUR BUSINESS
As obvious as this may sound, articulating the purpose of your business is the most important step in meeting the requirements to become an RIA. So, take the time to write a detailed description of your business. Use the answers to the following questions as a starting point:
- What services are you providing or might you realistically provide in the near future? For example, are you offering investment advice on all types of securities or just mutual funds? Are you making the trades for clients or are you simply making recommendations for the clients to act on? Are you managing a mutual fund or a private fund? Are you offering any ancillary services?
- Who are your target clients? Are they high-net-worth individuals, nonprofit institutions, corporations, and/or mutual fund shareholders? Are they pension funds that have ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) considerations?
- What types of fees are you charging (e.g., fixed fees, fees based on assets under management, or performance fees) and in what amounts? Are you charging different types of fees for different types of clients?
- What third parties—such as a broker, a prime broker, and/or custodian—are you using and what are their functions? Are any of them affiliated with your advisory business? Do you have any arrangements with other businesses to refer you business? Are there other businesses with which you partner?
- Are there any conflicts of interest involved in your operations, either actual or potential? For example, are you charging some clients a performance fee that provides an inherent incentive for the adviser to favor a particular investment vehicle? Do you manage both a fund and separate accounts? Are employees allowed to personally trade in the same securities that the adviser recommends to clients? Do you plan on having soft-dollar arrangements?
REGISTER WITH THE SEC OR STATE
If you have a going concern with at least $25 million in assets under management—or if you have a new advisory business that you expect to reach that level of assets within 120 days—and/or you will be the manager of a mutual fund, you must register with the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). You will also need to register as an RIA with the state in which you have your principal executive office, as well as possibly other states in which you do business, depending on the requirements of that state. You will need to consult the securities law and accompanying rules that govern investment advisers in those states to determine whether you need to register.
Please remember that if you are an adviser registered with the SEC, you will also need to submit what are known as notice filings in the state in which you have your principal office and certain other states in which you do business. In most states, the test is whether you have six or more clients residing in that state, but each state has its own requirements for notice filers.
You can register as an investment adviser, whether with a state or with the SEC, by completing and filing Form ADV, Parts 1 and II. Filing is accomplished through a combination of the IARD (Investment Adviser Registration Depository) system and paper submissions. The SEC requires that a balance sheet accompany the Part II section if you ask for prepayment of fees of more than $500 per client and six or more months in advance. States often require additional forms, which may include financial statements, proof that adviser representatives have the appropriate qualifications, and proof of adequate insurance coverage.
Although much of Form ADV is “check the box,” it is critical to carefully consider the answer to each question. If you think an answer requires more than a simple yes or no to be complete—and quite a number, especially in Part II, will—provide additional explanation in the space provided. When completing the form, remember that it will be clients (some of whom may be disgruntled, despite your best efforts) and regulators who will read this document; full disclosure of each aspect of your business will benefit you in the long run.
ESTABLISH YOUR INVESTMENT ADVISORY AGREEMENT AND COMPLIANCE POLICIES
Together with the many documents you need to set up a business and register as an investment adviser, there are a number of other documents that you will need before you can operate as an RIA.
One of these is an investment advisory agreement between you and your client. This document must be tailored to the specifics of your business, but make sure it discloses: (a) the services you will or may likely provide, (b) the type of fee you will charge and the amount of the fee, (c) the basis on which the fee will be charged (prospectively or retroactively, quarterly or at other intervals), (d) whether you have discretion over the client’s assets, (e) whether it is you or the client who has the duty to vote proxies, and (f) whether there are any actual or potential conflicts of interest of which you want the client to be made aware. If you are becoming the adviser to a mutual fund, there are additional requirements contained in the applicable federal law, the Investment Company Act of 1940.
Some institutions and individuals only hire RIAs. Even clients who do not require that an adviser be registered may find registered advisers more appealing. In addition, a charterholder might be attracted to the structured disclosure form, which allows the adviser to provide clients with detailed information about his or her business, including advisory personnel, fees, and any conflicts of interest.
State regulations vary but may include many of these requirements. For example, New York State regulations require registered advisers to have a code of ethics, to maintain specific records, and to have an income statement and balance sheet either audited or certified by management; CFA charterholders will generally be granted a waiver from the state qualification requirement.
PRODUCE YOUR MARKETING MATERIAL
Your marketing material, which includes your website, is an important part of your business’s success. In writing the copy, keep in mind that the very nature of this material invites a positive “spin” on you and your business. Even some of the most cautious advisers are apt to paint a totally rosy picture, make promises, or fail to point out risks (in addition to rewards).
While the SEC does not require you to file your marketing material, many states do. And if you are advising a mutual fund, FINRA® (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) will review and make changes to your marketing material. In any case, if there is an examination of your advisory business or a regulatory inquiry, the marketing material is likely to be a focus. A balanced presentation of your advisory business is the safest bet.
While these steps will help you transition to the RIA format, it is wise to bring in a professional—in this case a lawyer or compliance expert experienced in the investment-adviser field—to assist you.
–Susan I. Grant is a lawyer with an independent practice who, following graduation from Columbia Law School, has spent her career providing counsel to members of the financial services industry, both as in-house counsel and as part of a major NYC law firm.