Is the bar simply too low for becoming a financial advisor, where almost anyone can hang out a shingle with a minimum of training?
That is the question respected financial planner and writer Michael Kitces recently raised in a piece for Financial Planning Magazine.
He notes that even insurance brokers, who can't technically be paid for financial advice, can bill themselves as advisors.
One possible solution, Kitces contends, is to make the certified financial planner designation, or CFP, similar to the CPA. That would mean making it a license granted by a government-backed board or regulator, possibly on the federal level.
There are key services that CPAs can legally provide that those who are simply accountants can't, such as preparing an audited financial statement.
By contrast, the CFP is a trademark. No regulator grants CFP licenses, and, by extension, there are few, if any, legal barriers preventing unqualified advisors from attempting to offer the same services.
The idea is drawing strong support from CFPs, who would like to see what is now a respected professional designation be given legal weight along lines of the CPA.
The current system allows too many people to bill themselves as financial planners or financial advisors, when instead they are effectively sales people pushing different financial products and getting paid through commissions, CFPs say.
"I cannot just call myself a doctor and practice medicine or call myself an attorney and practice law," notes Jason Lina, lead advisor at Resource Planning Group in Atlanta, and a CFP. "What Kitces is getting at is the idea that people who provide financial advice can currently do so without any meaningful training or licensing."
As it stands now, many consumers don't understand the fundamental difference between a CFP and someone without that designation who hangs out a shingle as a financial advisor, financial planner, or a wealth manager.
In addition to all the work that goes into earning the CFP designation and maintaining it through continuing education, certified financial planners have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their clients.
If they violate that standard, they can have their designation revoked by the CFP Board, a private, professional organization.
That means you can't, for example, push a client into buying an insurance policy or rolling over an IRA if it's not in their best financial interests, even if you stand to make money from the fees or other revenue that would be generated.
But someone who calls himself a financial advisor, but who is not a CFP, is under no obligation to put the client's interests before his or her own.
Yet awareness on part of the general public of this key fact is fairly dim.
"The big problem, however, is that consumers don't know they're getting advice from someone without expertise or education in financial planning because anyone can market himself or herself as a "financial planner" or "wealth manager,"" Lina notes.
Sallie Mullins Thompson, a CFP and a CPA in New York, contends that stock brokers and insurance agents who bill themselves as financial advisers and planners are "misleading the public."
"These brokers/agents are basically selling products - they do not develop holistic plans that clients need to pursue their financial goals effectively, Mullins Thompson says. "I also think there are WAY too many people calling themselves financial advisers and planners without the needed training, education, skills, oversight, and CE requirements. This is a MAJOR pet peeve of mine - being both a CPA and CFP."
Nor is it just stock brokers and insurance agents who are calling themselves financial advisors, notes Allan Moskowitz, a CFP at Transformative Wealth Management in El Cerrito, Calif., but also "reverse mortgage salesmen, brokers, securities salesmen, ect."
A bookkeeper, for example, can call herself an accountant but not a CPA. It should be the same with financial planning, Moskowitz says.
He notes the certification process requires a considerable commitment of time and work.
"The certification process should stand for something," Moskowitz says. "There is also the mandate of a fiduciary process which CFP's must meet, but not everyone that calls themselves financial planners. So there is a higher level of service required of CFPs. "
Mark Brinser, a CFP at Stewardship Advisors in Mount Joy, Penn., says a good place to start would be to allow only professionals with CFPs to call themselves a financial planner or a financial advisor.
There is already an SEC exam for those seeking to be licensed as an investment advisor and that is the name they should be allowed to use, connoting their specialty discussing and advising on investment options, Brinser notes.
The same should be true for registered representatives who work on behalf of broker/dealers and sell products on which they are paid a commission. They also should not be allowed to call themselves financial planners or financial advisors, but just registered representatives, he says.
"I would love to see the various titles thrown around actually mean something so consumers can better understand the background of the person to whom they are entrusting their finances," Brinser says.
Making the CFP more like the CPA would also help protect the public from "bad actors," says Sarah Carlson, founder and private wealth advisor of Fulcrum Financial Group.
"There are too many bad actors out there in the financial service industry and it is confusing and dangerous for the public," Carlson says. "The CFP has educational and ethical standards and if a professional has made mistakes, it is reasonable to the public to be able to know that history before doing business with them."