The Future Has More Assets and Fewer Staff

A few data points in particular jump out of a new Charles Schwab study that clearly indicate the fundamental changes experienced by the advisory industry in the last decade.

Wave 20 of Schwab Advisor Services’ Independent Advisor Outlook Study (IAOS) marks a decade of data on independent financial professionals’ views of the industry, their businesses, their clients, and the investing environment.

For the 10-year anniversary edition of IAOS, Schwab “looked more closely at how advisers’ perspectives and practices have changed over the last decade and captured how they expect the industry and their businesses to continue to evolve in the decade to come.”

Reviewing the data, there can be little doubt that advisory practices have evolved in a pretty significant way since 2006. For example, average assets under advisement per independent firm started the decade at $251 million, growing to reach $339 this year. Yet average staff size is down significantly, dropping from an average of 27 staffers per firm down to 17 this year.

“Over the past decade, the advisers in the IAOS study have built businesses that have achieved growth and scale against a backdrop of volatility, market highs and lows, and forces of change ranging from the regulatory environment to technology,” observes Bernie Clark, executive vice president and head of Schwab Advisor Services. “They have done this with a constant focus on their clients, while embracing change and seizing opportunities.”

Given the reduction in staff size, it’s reasonable to assume the increased adoption of scale-building technology in both the investment and client relationship management portions of the business have paid off for many firms. Further, according to the research, advisers are “no longer spending the majority of their time working in their physical offices, and as they look ahead, this trend becomes more pronounced … Where once the advisers’ time was focused mainly on portfolio management and asset allocation, this is now changing.”

Interestingly, it appears that some industry practices are not going away, despite other areas of major reformation. For example, most new clients are still acquired through referrals, as has been the case in the last decade, and Charles Schwab says there is no indication in the data that this will change.

NEXT: Fiduciary embrace 

It appears from the Charles Schwab analysis that advisers have come to grips with a future that is to be dominated by the fiduciary standard and restrictions set up by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act—at least when it comes to servicing defined contribution (DC) or individual retirement account (IRA) clients.

“In the past, today, and in the future, advisers see their role as a fiduciary as being at the center of the value proposition they present to clients,” the study concludes.

It does not appear that advisers believe building a stronger fiduciary relationship with clients will necessarily require more face-to-face time. Many will take advantage of video conferencing, social media platforms, etc. According to the research, advisers believe technology will have a profound effect on the way independent firms do business over the next 10 years, and more than three quarters (78%) believe changes will be “noticeable compared to how their firms operate today.”

Advisers remain mixed in their outlook when it comes to automated investment platforms.

“When asked about the prevalence of automated investing offers among RIA firms broadly in the next 10 years, there is a divergence of opinion,” Charles Schwab finds. “Overall, more than one-third of advisers say their firm currently uses an automated investment solution, or is very or somewhat likely to offer one in the next 10 years … Notably, age affects the outlook on automated investment management.”

Roughly half of Millennial-aged advisory professionals say they will offer a robo-solution in the next decade, versus one in three Gen X or Boomer advisers, who appear much more committed to traditional business tactics. Still, the vast majority of advisers hope more efficient systems will allow them to serve more clients—and that the bulk of client documents will be handled digitally in the future.

The full analysis is available for download here