October 30, 2015

CCO Series (2015) - Client Suitability

As a fiduciary, an RIA firm is required to make investment decisions in the best interests of its clients. When making decisions regarding the investment options for accounts an RIA firm needs to be able to defend such decisions as being reasonably suitable to the goals and needs of its beneficial owners. Regulators will seek to ensure that decisions made by the firm during the course of providing its services primarily benefit the client and are suitable for a particular account's objectives. Documentation that define a fund's investment objectives or a model portfolio strategy will be compared against the trading history and the decisions made for clients to validate whether or not the firm is making suitable investment decisions when providing its services.

RIA Client Suitability In a Nutshell

Client suitability starts with information about how the RIA firm's investment managers will provide its advisory services and the information about the client or fund that will be relied upon to guide those decisions. For a typical retail RIA situation, this may include your client profile, risk tolerance questionnaire, investment policy statement (IPS), or client notes capturing similar information. For structured investment products this may include the operating agreements, offering documents, and similar information about the funds, parties and entities involved. As these documents are executed, modified, updated or amended the advisor should keep and maintain this additional documentation for their firm's books and records.

Risks related to strategies used by an RIA firm must be disclosed to clients through Form ADV. Specifically in Form ADV Part 2A, the Disclosure Brochure, Item 8 Methods of Analysis, Investment Strategies and Risk of Loss should contain information regarding how the firm's investment management services will be applied to the client's accounts and the potential losses that can occur due to the way the firm will invest the client's assets. It is important for firms to review these disclosures and ensure they accurately reflect the firm's investment methods and cover the risks related to the firm's advisory services.

Confirming Suitability

After collecting a client's information, having them sign an advisory agreement and providing a copy of your ADV and other new client paperwork, suitability becomes a compliance matter for the relationship as you move to digest the information and start making investment decisions for the client's account(s). While your documentation may tell the client to notify your firm of any changes to their profile, goals or objectives, every RIA firm still has an obligation to reach out to the client and confirm the information you have is still accurate and that ultimately to confirm your current understanding of what is suitable for that client.

Confirming suitability can take the shape of having the client complete a new risk questionnaire, sign a new IPS, or to have a meeting with the client where you discuss the management of their account and address suitability matters. Documenting this confirmation is critical to the firm's books and records for compliance purposes on this topic, and can take the form of client notes indicating suitability was discussed and the results of that discussion, or the updated formal documents such as the questionnaire or IPS. For fund managers, this activity means ensuring that the decisions being made for the fund are reasonably accomplishing the objectives of the fund as described in its documentation and ensuring that due diligence documentation is retained for various non-public investments. By having this documentation in your firm's books and records you can demonstrate that your firm has upheld their fiduciary duty when making investment decisions for its various clients.

Through the Regulator's Eyes

Regulators expect RIA firms to maintain documentation on each advisory client to support the investment decisions made for their account(s). During an examination, regulators will typically ask firms to provide their risk questionnaires or similar documents used to obtain information about their clients, and will also request information about trades in client accounts, and will reconcile the two to ensure that decisions made for clients are suitable and that there is a rational basis between the documentation, analysis and investments. Further, regulators will review the information in your firm's disclosure brochure to reconcile to the types of investments to ensure that the strategies and risks are properly and fully disclosed to clients.

CCO Best Practices

  • Review new client documentation templates to ensure it captures what you need to make decisions for their account(s).
  • Verify that suitability documentation is on file for each client.
  • Review client trading history to ensure decisions made are suitable for that client.
  • Confirm suitability with each client at least annually to ensure decisions are still in their best interest.
  • Review Form ADV to ensure the investment strategies, methods of analysis and risks of loss reflect current investment decisions, products and practices.
  • Be wary of clients raising suitability questions or concerns as they can quickly turn into complaints about investment decisions made in their account(s).

The AdvisorAssist CCO Series is a collection of blog posts that cover each of the elements of your RIA's compliance program. Each post will provide an overview of one compliance topic, including our insights on how regulators view each topic as well as some practical steps to help Chief Compliance Officers address this topic. As always, we would welcome your comments and thoughts.

Michael Conlon

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