Investment Managers and Investment Consultants:
Similarities and Differences
by Gregory D. Wait, April 20, 2010
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There are many investment terms that are tossed about which can be confusing to a typical investor. I have been reminded recently that a seemingly simple term, Investment Advisor, can mean different things to different people. Professionals in our industry use labels such as Investment Advisor, Financial Planner, Financial Advisor, Financial Consultant, and Investment Manager to try to neatly describe what they do for a living. Often, a client misunderstands the label or believes that all investment professionals provide the same service.
With this article, I would like to distinguish between two labels: Investment Manager and
Investment Consultant. Firms in either category are likely to be considered "Registered Investment
Advisors" under the jurisdiction of the Securities & Exchange Commission or their respective state
securities department. The investment advisor label can be very broad, and investors seeking to
employ an advisor must be clear about the services they will be receiving. Often decisions to hire an
advisor are made based on quoted fees…it is important to understand what services are being
provided for the quoted fee level and to understand why one firm's fees may be lower or higher than
Investment management firms "manage" portfolios for their clients, and have the discretion
to buy and sell securities as they determine most appropriate based on their philosophy and
methodology. By taking discretion over the portfolio, investment managers are not required to
receive approval from their clients in order to make trades in the portfolio. The methodology used
by these investment managers (also referred to as "money managers") are reflective of their "style"
of investing. For example, a "value style" stock portfolio manager may consider the price/earnings
ratio, price/sales ratio, dividend yield and other metrics to determine if a stock is undervalued
relative to its current market price…they are looking for a good "value" when purchasing a stock. A
"growth style" stock portfolio manager may consider forecasted increases in sales or earnings when
purchasing a stock, regardless of its current market price. There is no right or wrong with either
style, and there are many successful managers that have used both styles.
By hiring a single investment manager, an investor's returns will be entirely dependent on
how that manager is able to perform. The performance of any single manager is highly dependent
on the style employed, and whether or not that style is "in favor" during any particular time period.
For example, growth style managers generally outperformed value style managers in the late 1990's,
but value managers outperformed growth managers in the early years of this decade.
Conversely, an investment consultant does not "manage" portfolios, nor does a consultant
typically have discretion over the activity in client accounts. A true consultant develops very specific
investment strategies according to a detailed assessment of each client's attitudes toward risk,
income needs, time horizon, anticipated cash flows, tax considerations (if a taxable account), and
other factors based on client-specific situations. The strategy is customized according to client
objectives, rather than the consultant's philosophy or style.
After an investment consultant develops an appropriate strategy for a client, it would then
search for the investment management firms to manage each portion of the strategy. Typically, a
consultant's search may result in 5-10 different investment managers for a client's portfolio…each
one specializing in the specific asset classes (i.e. stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, cash) that
comprise the client's strategy. An investment consultant would conduct manager searches using
sophisticated screening and performance measurement analysis to find the most appropriate
managers for the client. In addition to quantitative performance measurement analysis, consultants
would also review qualitative factors such as an assessment of the manager's organization, personnel,
assets under management, regulatory history, etc.
An investment consulting firm is typically retained to monitor the performance of each
investment manager in a client's portfolio, most commonly on a quarterly basis. Investment
manager returns are compared to the performance of established benchmarks and peer groups of
like managers, in order to determine relative performance in addition to absolute performance.
Absolute returns are fairly easy for any investor to see, but relative performance often provides a
better indicator of the reasons for good or bad returns. By measuring the performance of each
manager and understanding the reasons for such performance, an independent consultant can
objectively recommend that the manager continue to be retained by the client or that the manager
should be replaced. Using this approach, any single manager can be replaced without disrupting the
rest of the client's portfolio.
An investment consultant must be truly unbiased with recommendations of money
managers to its clients, and must be able to clearly provide conflict-free advice. Advisors who work
for firms that also offer investment management services are not truly client consultants, as it is
extremely difficult for them to not be conflicted with their recommendations.
The fees charged to clients vary between investment management firms and investment
consulting firms. It is very common for an investment manager to charge an annual fee based on a
percentage of client assets managed. Investors may hire managers via multiple investment
"products," including a mutual fund or a separately-managed account. Annual investment
management fees may range from as low as 0.05% for passively-managed products (such as mutual
funds that mirror a market index) to upwards of 3.0% for actively-managed products (such as
emerging markets stock funds). Some investment managers offer products that charge
performance-based fees in addition to annual management fees. Asset-based or performance-based
charges are appropriate, as both fee structures incent money managers for good performance.
The fees charged by investment consulting firms may be based on an hourly rate, a flatdollar
fee, or an asset-based fee depending on the services performed for each client. True
investment consulting firms do not accept commissions from any money management firm in order
to avoid conflicts of interest. The consultant's fee is separate and distinct from the investment
managers' fees. An independent investment consultant can often negotiate management fees on
behalf of its client, or can screen for the lowest cost investment products. It is possible to retain
investment managers and an investment consultant for a combined fee that is less than dealing
directly with an investment management firm.
In the end, an investor pays an investment management firm for performance and pays an
investment consulting firm for client-specific services provided, such as strategy development,
manager searches, performance measurement and evaluation, and reporting. A true consultant
provides independent, objective advice and serves as a financial advocate for the client. In the ideal
scenario, the investment managers and investment consultant are not adversaries, nor competitors,
but work together to deliver a positive outcome for the client. Many of the very best investment
management firms make no attempt to staff for client-specific situations, but rather they focus on
the execution of their investment strategy and philosophy. Therefore, they are very willing to work
with client consultants.
By retaining an investment consultant, an investor would likely have a very well-diversified
portfolio with multiple money managers in multiple asset classes. The approach used by
independent investment consultants should provide clients with complete transparency of fees and
portfolio holdings, with the knowledge and understanding of portfolio performance…rather than a
blind dependence on a single money manager. An investment consulting firm has a fiduciary duty to
act in the best interest of its clients, and is solely compensated by client fees…not commissions or
incentive bonuses from money managers.
According to The Committee for the Fiduciary Standard, there are five core principals of the
authentic fiduciary standard. I have added context to each of these principals:
- Put the client's best interest first – be an advocate for the client.
- Act with prudence; that is, with the skill, care, diligence and good judgment of a
professional – advice must be based on sound principals and extensive research.
- Do not mislead clients; provide conspicuous, full and fair disclosure of all important
facts – provide written documentation for all recommendations.
- Avoid conflicts of interest – do not accept compensation from any investment
management firm, or any source other than clients.
- Fully disclose and fairly manage, in the client's favor, unavoidable conflicts – an
advance discussion of any potential unavoidable conflicts is important.
There have been many recent, and well-publicized, charges of fraud against investment
managers and other financial intermediaries. By retaining an independent investment consultant, an
investor improves (but, of course, does not eliminate) the odds of avoiding such situations. Caveat
Gregory D. Wait, CEBS is President of Falcons Rock Investment Counsel, LLC, an independent investment consulting firm located in Mequon, Wisconsin. Greg is a member of the Investment Management Consultants Association.
According to the Committee for the Fiduciary Standard, the authentic fiduciary standard refers to the well-developed body of fiduciary law established by the Advisers Act and other laws and regulations.