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Last year was a test for investment advisers, and it’s only partly because the markets were generally garbage.

The real challenge for advisers: Did they reach out to clients to discuss what the sharp decline in stocks meant to their financial plan?

In the J.D. Power 2019 Canada Full Service Investor Satisfaction Study, overall levels of client satisfaction with their advisers declined slightly. It was the first decline since 2008 and a reminder of how a bad year for the markets can strain client-adviser relationships.

What defined an adviser who delivered good service last year? To some extent, it was the effort made to explain what the heck happened to the markets and investor portfolios.

The study found that 32 per cent of investors said their adviser did not discuss portfolio performance in the previous year.

Mike Foy, senior director of wealth intelligence at J.D. Power, said clients who indicated that their adviser did discuss performance with them were substantially more satisfied overall than clients whose advisers did not talk about returns. And yet, fewer clients said their adviser talked about performance compared with previous years.

“The data suggests these conversations happen less in volatile markets, but they’re more important and should happen more,” Mr. Foy said.

According to the J.D. Power study, other top ways advisers generate value for clients are providing an appropriate level of contact and incorporating client goals into investment strategy. Mr. Foy summarizes the findings by saying advisers who have the most satisfied clients tend to act like coaches or teachers.

The largest declines in performance satisfaction last year was among affluent investors, or those with assets exceeding $500,000.

“They simply have more to lose, and then tend to be older,” Mr. Foy said. “If you’re 40 and you’ve got 25 years of work ahead of you before retirement, you’re much less concerned than if you’re planning to retire in three years and you don’t know if that’s possible any more.”

One of the most depressing findings in the study is that understanding of fees remains low, even after the introduction of higher standards for fee disclosure a couple of years ago.

Almost half of investors said they have noticed changes in the information provided to them by their firms, but just 31 per cent said they have “complete” understanding of fees. That was down from 32 per cent last year.

Among the firms covered in the J.D. Power study, Edward Jones ranked highest for investor satisfaction for a seventh straight year. Assante Wealth Management was second, followed by BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc., CIBC Wood Gundy and Raymond James Ltd., all tied for third.