Financial Advice, Competency, and Consent

I blogged recently on a California case about an insurance agent who was sentenced to jail for selling an Indexed Annuity — a complex investment instrument — to an elderly woman who may have been showing signs of dementia. I argued that giving investment advice is just the sort of situation in which we should expect professionals to live up the standard of ‘fiduciary’, or trust-based duty. An investment advisor is not — cannot be — just a salesperson.

But asserting that investment advisors have fiduciary duties doesn’t settle all relevant ethical questions. It settles how strong or how extensive the advisor’s obligation is; but it doesn’t settle just how the financial advisor should go about living up to it.

The story alluded to above again serves as a good example of that complexity. How should a financial advisor, in his or her role as fiduciary, handle a situation in which the client shows signs of a lack of decision-making competency? Sure, the advisor needs to give good advice, but in the end the decision is still the client’s. How can an advisor know whether a client is competent to make such a decision?

In the field of healthcare ethics, there is an enormous literature on the question of ‘informed consent,’ including the conditions under which consent may not be fully valid, and the steps health professionals should take to safeguard the interests of patients in such cases.

The way the concept is explained in the world of healthcare ethics, informed consent has three components, namely disclosure, capacity and voluntariness. Before a health professional can treat you, he or she needs to disclose the relevant facts to you, make sure you have the mental and emotional capacity to make a decision, and then make sure your decision is voluntary and uncoerced. And the onus is on the professional to ensure that those three conditions are met. But there’s really nothing very special about healthcare in this regard. Selling someone an Indexed Annuity isn’t as invasive, perhaps, as sticking a needle in them, but it often has much more serious implications.

Of the three conditions cited above — disclosure, capacity and voluntariness — disclosure is of course the easiest for those in the investment professions to agree to. Of course you need to tell your client the risks and benefits of the product you’re suggesting to them. But of course, many financial products have an enormous range of obscure and relatively small risks — must the client be told about those, too? There’s only so much time in a day, and most clients won’t care about — or be able to evaluate — those tiny details.

Voluntariness might also be thought of as pretty straightforward. A client who shows up alone and who doesn’t seem distressed is probably acting voluntarily, and it’s unlikely that we want investment professionals poking around our personal lives to find out if there’s a greedy nephew lurking in the background and badgering Aunt Florence to invest in penny stocks.

What about capacity? That’s the tough one, the one implicated in the court decision alluded to above. Notice that in most areas of the market, no one tries to assess your capacity before selling to you. I bought a car recently, and all the salesperson cared about was a driver’s licence and my ability to pay. No one tried very hard to figure out if I was of sound mind — beyond immediate appearances — and hence able to make a rational purchase.

Investment professionals do typically recognize a duty to ensure the “suitability” of an investment, and presumably whether an investment is suitable depends on more than just the client’s financial status. It also depends in part upon whether the client is capable of understanding the relevant risks. Being a true professional and earning the social respect that goes with that designation is going to require that financial advisors of all sorts adopt a fiduciary view of their role. That means learning at least a bit about the signs of dementia and other forms of diminished capacity. It also means knowing how and when to refer a client to a relevant health professional. Finally and most crucially, it means putting the client first — solidly and entirely first — and hence being willing to forego a sale when that is clearly the right thing to do.

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