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Advisors can ensure investors understand as much as possible by avoiding ‘using all kinds of fancy terms for all the different types of fees,’ one expert says.

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Financial advisory fees remain a confusing subject to the vast majority of Canadian investors despite a decades-long effort by the investment industry and its regulators to provide greater clarity and transparency. That means financial advisors remain in the ideal position to help close that comprehension gap.

According to the results of a survey the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada (MFDA) released in June as part of a more expansive research report, fewer than one in five Canadian investors could identify correctly what types of costs are included in current fee summaries.

“The challenge we have today is that most investors don’t get a full picture of all the fees,” says Jean-Paul Bureaud, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Advancement of Investor Rights (FAIR Canada), “they only get a partial picture and they might not appreciate that it’s a partial picture.”

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Advisors can clarify that to clients relatively easily by making clear that current fee summaries only include the fees for advice and trailing commissions on mutual funds, he says, and that other costs – such as fund management fees and operational costs – also apply.

Advisors can also ensure investors understand as much as possible by avoiding “using all kinds of fancy terms for all the different types of fees,” Mr. Bureaud says.

In fact, the MFDA’s report states, “Even experienced investors struggle to understand key terms and how their choices influence the type and amount of fees they pay.”

That means even when dealing with sophisticated clients, advisors should not assume “MER” is universally understood to stand for management expense ratio, or what it means. Breaking down jargon such as “trailing commissions” in simple terms – perhaps as an annual fee the advisor receives each year a client holds a particular investment – will also help avoid misunderstandings.

Instead of simply noting what fees are or are not included in existing disclosures, the MFDA report urges advisors to get as close to total cost reporting as possible.

London-based global firm The Behavioural Insights Team ran an experiment on behalf of the MFDA testing four formats of expanded cost reporting. Three of them specified investment fund charges while the fourth, known as the “control” option, included only a disclosure that other charges, such as fund management and operation costs, applied.

Only 23 per cent of investors exposed to the control option were able to identify their total cost of investing correctly, while between 54 per cent and 70 per cent of investors exposed to the other three options were able to do so.

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Karen McGuinness, the MFDA’s senior vice president of member regulation and compliance, says part of the reason the experiment succeeded was a focus on using plain language.

“When we did the format, initially, we were using industry terminology because it was just second nature to us, but we brought in the behavioural research firm and they were the ones who said we need to set up this information in a way that’s more easily digestible for the average retail investor,” Ms. McGuinness says.

Nevertheless, the MFDA report warns that dealers and advisors shouldn’t assume sharing more cost information will always lead to better comprehension among clients as they will eventually hit a point of diminishing returns.

Rather, the report recommends they should “eliminate any information presented in the fee summary that is unlikely to be useful to investors. People have limited attention [and] this is especially significant when information is complex.”

To establish a baseline for how much any given client already understands – and therefore how much education advisors should attempt to provide – regulators have developed a number of quick and straightforward tools for that purpose.

For example, the B.C. Securities Commission runs the InvestRight website that includes fee calculators and a short quiz designed to gauge investors’ overall comprehension of investment fees.

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“It only takes about five minutes to answer the questions, and a lot of people would be surprised at what they learn,” says FAIR Canada’s Mr. Bureaud.

The Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) operates a similar website – GetSmarterAboutMoney – that offers even more comprehensive tools and resources.

Meanwhile, regulators are working on a new set of disclosure rules to replace the second phase of the customer relationship model (CRM2) that has been in place since 2016. The goal of what’s being called CRM3 is to provide what the MFDA’s Ms. McGuinness calls “total cost reporting,” as it should get disclosures as close as possible to breaking down all the fees investors pay and not just those their advisor receives.

Although there’s no timeline for when CRM3 will be complete, Greg Pollock, president and chief executive of Advocis, says advisors will need to be more transparent with their clients on fees before the current bull market goes bust.

“Investors tend to look at the bottom line, and if they see that year-over-year returns are looking pretty good, they don’t get too focused on the fees simply because they’re satisfied with the overall performance,” he says. “But it does raise the question of what happens in a bear market when performance suffers. That really gets people’s attention.”

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