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Have We Rebuilt Trust in the Investment Management Industry?

April 26, 2018

Ten years after the Global Financial Crisis many of us are looking back, assessing what transpired and wondering what has truly changed. Lasting damage occurred on many fronts, not the least of which was a serious erosion of trust in the financial services industry -- and deservedly so.

Our latest global research at CFA Institute, “The Next Generation of Trust,” shows some green shoots: Trust is on the rise around the globe. We attribute this to rising levels of professionalism in our industry. Raising trust remains an ongoing challenge, but a commitment to professionalism and regularly acting in clients’ best interests represents a proven pathway to higher trust levels.

The results of previous surveys had been depressing: Only about half of those surveyed expected investment firms to do the right thing. So it’s encouraging that investor trust levels in the financial services industry have risen since our 2016 survey. The wounds caused by the financial crisis are healing.

But it’s not all good news. With higher trust comes higher expectations, and the industry continues to fall short of delivering on what investors want. In short, the industry will continue to struggle with a trust deficit until it can consistently prove value to clients by demonstrating professionalism and providing solutions, not simply pushing products.

Trust is not merely what persuades an investor to listen to us or to buy what we sell. We need to help clients understand whom they should trust and why. At the highest level, trust stands as critical capital. As an industry we strive to compile trust equity. But the task remains far from complete. In the survey we found a significant gap between what more than 3,000 retail investors expect from their financial advisors and how satisfied they are with the relationship. Only a third of retail investors say their asset manager always puts their interests first, according to our data. That’s beyond disappointing.

Investors surveyed say that their trust in advisors is mainly driven by these priorities: full disclosure of fees; disclosure and management of conflicts of interest; and generating returns better than a benchmark. Yet less than a majority of respondents say that advisors deliver satisfactorily on these factors.

Increased trust cannot be achieved solely via more sophisticated technological offerings, yet technology can be an important component for raising trust. Many investors said they rely on humans for advice but see technology as a complementary tool. Smart use of technology indeed increases trust when combined with a human touch.

Brand is increasingly seen as a proxy for trust. Dominant brands hold a clear advantage with mindshare, but respondents said personal relationships trump brand. And about three-quarters say it is important that the firm they work with employs investment professionals with credentials from respected industry organizations. Granted, I am biased, but that’s where a CFA charterholder comes in.

Investors' views vary by country to country and by age groups, of course. Millennials rank the industry higher on trust than baby boomers, perhaps because they might not have been in the workforce or witnessed a significant decline in their portfolios during the financial crisis.

Trust, though, remains the singular fundamental factor facing the industry around the world. Trust, much like reputation, takes years to build but can be destroyed in an instant.

Our findings provide a roadmap for how the investment management industry can increase its credibility and address investor concerns. Trust hinges on professionalism.

Advisors need to demonstrate a strong commitment to ethics, expertise, and transparency to win over their clients -- and create real value for the fees they charge. If only one-third of investors think their advisor puts their interests first, we have much work to do. The challenge to our industry remains to do all we can to earn clients’ trust – and to retain it.