Back in the late 1990s, I worked for a magazine that covered corporate finance and the emerging role of the chief financial officer in U.S. corporations. It was at about that time that companies started looking at their CFOs in a new way. Traditionally, CFOs were, for the most part, the guys who made sure everyone played by the rules and ensured that their companies were being straight with their shareholders. Suddenly, they were being encouraged to behave, think and act as more creative, pro-active contributors to company performance.
It was this new focus on the corporate performance-enhancing role of the CFO that brought us Enron CFO Andy Fastow, WorldCom CFO Scott Sullivan, Tyco International's Mark Swartz, and Rite-Aid's Frank Bergonzi, among many others. They were, to a man, eager to please their bosses and were highly creative and pro-activealbeit illegalcontributors to their company's performance. Shortly after this deluge of malfeasance, the role of the CFO, assisted by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, was ushered back to its traditional, not-so-creative function where it has, very rightly, remained (again, for the most part).
When pressure to enhance company performance is brought to bear upon a specific group of players within a company, bad things can happen. That's why the current push to transform the wealth management division of every major American bank into its profit center bears watching. As banks de-emphasize, and in some cases dismantle, their credit, securitized products and proprietary trading operations, it's just a matter of time before the mandate that advisors and their executives be revenue creators and leverage the broader capabilities of their firm runs smack into the inevitable uniform fiduciary standard, if not the law.
Advisors, "encouraged" to steer clients to other parts of the company for products and services, will increasingly see their compensation depend on such cross-selling efforts. The pressure will mount as company revenue continues to decline from other divisions. How will the public prime directive of the financial advisor"put the client first," a phrase uttered by every single executive interviewed for this month's special section ("The State of Wealth Management")avoid colliding with the firm's corporate directive to bring in more advisory fees and help other divisions close deals?
The tension between these two imperatives may not end well for advisors, their clients or their parent firms. Anyone in the wealth management industry who doesn't see the potential end game of this new, intensive focus has either forgotten, or is choosing to ignore, the examples of the very recent past.