Recent efforts from the Ontario government to ensure that only financial professionals with appropriate credentials be able to call themselves “financial planners” or “financial advisors” are being met with resistance from financial services industry associations lobbying to maintain the status quo. If this self-serving push is victorious, it will only benefit the least-qualified providers of financial services and be another setback for professionalization and transparency in the investment industry.
Currently, financial professionals’ titles in any province other than Quebec are borderline meaningless due to lack of standardization and qualifications. These titles do nothing to inform consumers of financial services as to what the financial professional they deal with actually does. Worse yet, these titles give the person providing the service a level of credibility that may be completely unearned and unwarranted.
The provincial government in Ontario – home to the largest population of financial professionals in the country – aimed to rectify all of that when it passed the Financial Professionals Title Protection Act, 2019. (The legislation received Royal Assent in May 2019.) Since then, the Ontario government has entrusted the province’s newest financial services regulator, the Financial Services Regulatory Authority of Ontario (FSRA), to oversee the implementation of the law. Public consultations on the draft regulations closed on Nov. 12.
The proposed regulations would limit the use of the title “financial planner” or “financial advisor” only to financial professionals who hold a qualifying credential. Ontario’s goal is to review the available credentials – such as the certified financial planner and the chartered investment manager – to determine which ones qualify for either title. This will be a substantial improvement from where things stand today, in which anyone can call themselves anything they want.
There are many positive submissions to the public consultations. For example, various investor groups and advocates have argued the proposed rules don’t go far enough because they don’t impose a fiduciary standard. Many have even provided constructive feedback on how the FSRA can make the most of this legislation.
In contrast, some industry associations’ submissions are nothing more than a self-interested preservation of the status quo. They say Ontario’s proposed rules set the bar too high because they would exclude some people who are using either title now from continuing to do so without achieving further designations or credentials.
For example, the proposed rules say that someone who has achieved a licence to sell life insurance products – and no further designations or training – would not qualify to use either the financial planner or financial advisor title. In response, the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association Inc. (CLHIA) and various insurance-centric organizations argue that the existing insurance sales training “meets or exceeds the baseline competency of someone who calls themselves a ‘financial advisor,’” and, as a result, no further qualifications should be required.
Similarly, the Investment Industry Association of Canada (IIAC) argued in its submission on the proposed rules that financial professionals who are regulated by either the Mutual Funds Dealers Association of Canada (MFDA) or the Investment Industry Regulatory Association of Canada (IIROC) should be exempt from any requirement to obtain further credentials or training before using the financial advisor title.
In both cases, the argument is that the existing qualifications are sufficient to merit the use of the financial advisor title and that requiring further training would pose an “undue regulatory burden” on financial professionals. The problem with this approach is that IIROC or MFDA licensing provides people the level of understanding required to sell a product. However, financial advice and financial planning are not focused narrowly on product sales. In fact, they may result in no product sales whatsoever.
Instead, financial planners or financial advisors synthesize information to make well-educated, informed recommendations. Product selection and sales are only a tiny fraction of financial planners’ or financial advisors’ process and are only made after information-gathering, analysis, and synthesis to ensure the right fit.
The FSRA has already singled out the course that qualifies someone to sell insurance in Ontario as falling short of the standard required for the financial planner title. The course leading to MFDA licensing similarly falls short of that standard. In fact, Jason Watt, a full-time instructor at the Business Career College, a financial services course provider that’s recognized nationally, says “the mutual fund licensing course represents a bar of proficiency no better, if not lower, than the standard set by the life insurance sales training course.”
If the submissions from the CHLIA, the IIAC and others pushing for the status quo are accepted, title reform in Ontario won’t amount to anything more than rubber-stamping the entire financial services industry as-is – turning this entire exercise into a perfect example of regulatory capture.
The winners of title regulation will be the least-educated and least-qualified members of the industry – and the companies that rely upon them for sales revenue. Everyone else – especially consumers of financial services, educated and credentialled financial planners and financial advisors, and the entire financial services industry in Ontario – will lose.
Millennials and members of Generation Z already distrust financial services institutions and are looking at digital alternatives like robo-advisors. Turning title reform into a farce is just one more reason for them to continue to shift away from traditional financial services providers altogether.
Jason Pereira is a partner and senior financial consultant at Woodgate Financial Inc., a financial planning firm under the IPC Securities Corp. umbrella in Toronto.