Selecting Investment Professionals
Before you begin to work with an investment professional—even one who has been recommended to you by someone you know—it's essential to check his or her background. The good news is that the Internet has made this kind of information relatively easy to find. Investing a few minutes of your time up front may save you time, money and other trouble down the road.
FINRA BrokerCheck is a free tool that allows investors to check the professional background of brokerage firms and brokers currently or formerly registered with FINRA or a national securities exchange, as well as current or former investment adviser firms and representatives. BrokerCheck information is drawn from filings by regulators, firms and investment professionals. It includes current licensing status and history, employment history and, if any, reported regulatory, customer dispute, criminal and other matters.
Through BrokerCheck, investors can:
Some investment advisers and their representatives appear in BrokerCheck because they are also registered as or associated with broker-dealers. However, to do a thorough check of any investment adviser, you should ask for—and carefully read—the firm's registration document or "Form ADV."
Investment advisers must register with either the SEC or a state securities regulator, depending on the amount of client assets they manage. In general, a firm that manages $110 million or more in client assets files its Form ADV with the SEC while a firm below that threshold must register with the state securities agency in the state where the firm has its principal place of business. Although the SEC does not separately register individual representatives of investment advisory firms, many states do.
Form ADV has two parts. Part 1 has information about the advisory firm's business and whether they've had problems with regulators or clients in the past. Part 2 describes their services, fees and investment strategies. Before you hire an investment advisory firm, examine both parts of Form ADV, and then ask for an explanation of anything you don't understand.
In addition to asking the firm for a copy, you will be able to find an advisory firm's most recent Form ADV online through FINRA BrokerCheck or the SEC's Investment Adviser Public Disclosure (IAPD) website. You can also obtain information about investment adviser representatives through FINRA's BrokerCheck, the SEC's IAPD website or by contacting your state securities regulator.
Resources for Other Investment Professionals
Apart from FINRA BrokerCheck and the SEC's Investment Adviser Public Disclosure database, you can get licensing information for other types of investment professionals as follows:
|Type of Professional||Licensing Body or Regulator|
|Accountant||State Board of Accountancy|
|Lawyer||State Bar Association|
|Insurance Agent||State Insurance Commission|
|Financial Planner||Confirm whether the planner is licensed by or registered with the SEC, FINRA or a state regulator and check with that regulator|
You might also be able to learn more about a professional's education and experience from his or her professional designations and membership in professional associations. Many organizations maintain databases of people who meet their criteria. You can check these lists to make sure an individual using a specific designation is properly credentialed.
A good place to start is FINRA's Professional Designations Tool. You'll find a list of credentials, the requirements the individual has to meet to be entitled to use the designation, and much more. But always bear in mind that not all designations carry the same significance or require the same amount of effort to obtain. To make meaningful comparisons, you will want to find out whether the granting organization requires continuing education, has a public disciplinary process, provides a means to check a professional's status and otherwise ensures that a professional designation is more than simply a string of letters.
Some designations require formal certification procedures, including examinations and continuing professional education credits. Other designations may merely signify that membership dues have been paid. Still others are simply marketing devices. For example, someone may call himself a 'senior specialist' to create or build rapport by implying a certain level of training on issues important to the elderly. But, that designation might require no special training, except perhaps in sales techniques targeting the elderly.
Background checks are only part of the homework you need to do when checking out a brokerage firm. It's also a good idea to find out if the firm is a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, which provides limited protection of up to $500,000 per customer, including up to $250,000 for cash, if the firm becomes insolvent. SIPC does not, however, protect against losses resulting from a decline in market value.You can get more information about SIPC and what it covers at www.sipc.org.