CEFEX-Designated Advisers Offer Sponsors Fiduciary Muscle

March 7, 2014 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - CEFEX designations are gaining more widespread adoption, and some say that working with an adviser with the designation could benefit plan sponsors.

“The organization emulates the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which outlines business, government and society standards,” explains Carlos Panksep, managing director of the Centre for Fiduciary Excellence (CEFEX), in Toronto. “In most industries, there are published standards for quality,” he notes. The ISO provides a host of public standards, and CEFEX operates the same way, issuing certifications that are based on set standards.

“We’re like a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval for financial services,” Panksep tells PLANSPONSOR. With a growing number of applicants, the designation functions as a sort of quality control for the financial services industry.

The fiduciary aspect of financial services is critical, and CEFEX has a strong interest in firms that serve the retirement industry because of its highly regulatory nature. CEFEX works with investment fiduciaries and industry experts to improve risk management for institutional and retail investors, and certification helps determine the trustworthiness of investment fiduciaries, Panksep says.

Advisers who carry the designation can make fewer mistakes and better manage client expectations, according to Panksep. “We would argue that the client benefits when the adviser has these formalized, sophisticated processes in place,” he says. Panksep adds that some plan sponsors include a question regarding CEFEX certification in their requests for proposals (RFPs). “I also know that some consultants to plan sponsors use the certification in their search criteria,” he says.

In the last three months, CEFEX granted six certifications to advisers, compared with two certifications for the same period a year ago. In 2013, a total of 11 certifications were given. The designation has been given out for eight years, and two substantial broker/dealers, LPL and NFP, have both given weight to the organization. NFP entered a strategic relationship with CEFEX to provide resources for its advisers to gain certification.

According to Panksep, advisers often explain to plan sponsor clients that an adviser with the certification can help in the documentation process, since plan sponsors are obligated to conduct due diligence on their service providers and this brings the benefit of additional due diligence.

Panksep points out the industry is going through a lot of discussion and debate about the right standards of practice for those giving advice. “The suitability versus the fiduciary standard debate creates a fog,” Panksep notes. “This certification allows an adviser to say, ‘Regardless of everything, here’s a fiduciary standard that we adhere to. And we adhere to it sufficiently that we allow an independent party to come in and audit our books.’”

Doug Prince, CEO of ProCourse Fiduciary Advisers in Indianapolis, Indiana, says his firm sought the designation because it specializes in the retirement fiduciary space, and the certification lends credibility to its operations. The process was not cheap. The firm had to hire an outside accredited investment fiduciary analyst (AIFA) to conduct the CEFEX audit, and Prince says that gathering the paperwork and data took two to three months.

The process involves work and planning, according to Prince. It is not immediate or quick, but it was worthwhile to help track the consistency of products and services they deliver. Hearing from an independent appraiser that the firm indeed delivers what it tells its clients it delivers was a comfort. Prince says also that the designation helps his firm to differentiate its service model from that of other advisers, as well as from a fiduciary perspective.

Going through the examination and audit led Prince’s firm to make a few minor tweaks in language in a client’s investment policy statement, in one case. The process helped to validate that the firm is acting soundly because someone who has looked at other advisers can help improve other’s practices. “It brought some things to light,” he says. Nothing was wrong, but language could be added or reworded to improve it.

“Anytime you can get another adviser to look at everything and give us comments on how we’re doing—how is that a bad thing?” Prince asks. “We’re just trying to do the best we can for clients, and any advice we get is helpful. We think it’s important to have someone come in and look at our clients to see that we’re actually doing the things we say we’re doing. It puts our clients in the best position possible.”

Prince says in addition to a helpful value-add for plan sponsor clients, in some rare cares, the client’s fiduciary liability insurance provider may even charge lower fees for working with an adviser whose process has been vetted and analyzed, and is therefore less risky.

Plan sponsors themselves can also go through CEFEX to receive the investment steward designation, which demonstrates fiduciary excellence based on a fiduciary best practice standard. “We have not placed a big effort in educating plan sponsors,” Panksep says, and just a handful of plan sponsors currently carry the designation. A noteworthy holder is the Palm Beach County Clerk Office Local 1298 – part of LiUNA union organization (the Laborers' International Union of North America).

However, Panksep adds, “with the recent increase in DOL audits and enforcements on plan sponsors we feel that more plan sponsors will seek independent fiduciary assessments.” CEFEX recently repositioned its program on its site to better explain the details to investment stewards.

Half of the adviser registrations—65 total, according to Panksep—are for smaller firms that serve the small to midsize plan market, with plan assets less than $100 million, although a few manage plans with $100 million to $200 million in assets. They are an elite group, he says, but they represent about $100 billion in invested assets, a combination of institutional and individual assets.

Panksep describes these smaller advisers as “quite transparent.” Some seek the designation in order to demonstrate that they are aboveboard. “The program creates transparency and leads to accountability for the adviser,” he explains.

Not everyone who applies for the designation receives it. It is rare, Panksep says, but some firms do not pass the audit. “Typically they know what to expect because it’s an open standard,” he says. Anyone can prepare adequately, but adherence to a fiduciary standard is especially critical. A former investment adviser who was an outspoken 401(k) fiduciary advocate but who was later found to have seriously breached his fiduciary responsibilities did not make the cut.

At a recent informational meeting with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Panksep says the SEC acknowledged that CEFEX could be a helpful mechanism to help determine the risk of an adviser. “They believe there are methods and systems to help the SEC understand how to prioritize which advisers to examine,” he says. “Having a private market-driven assessment complements the SEC’s compliance program.”