The Massachusetts Securities Division – one of the most active and sophisticated in the nation – recently issued a Policy Statement “to provide its state-registered investment advisers who establish concurrent or sub-advisory relationships with third-party robo-advisers with guidelines on how to best comply with the Massachusetts Uniform Securities act and meet the fiduciary duties owed to their clients.” That may be the longest sentence I have ever written.

So let’s start with the basics: what is a robo-adviser? Generally speaking, a robo-adviser is an online wealth management service that provides automated algorithm-based portfolio advice. Of course, a traditional adviser may also utilize software based data but they typically employ that data in the context of more personalized advice and wealth management or retirement planning. A few examples of robo-advisers in the marketplace today are Covestor, Market Riders, Asset Builder and Flex Score.

The problem, at least as I see it, is robo-advisers dressed up as fiduciaries. Some, and in particular one ubiquitous SEC registered RIA, actually promotes itself as a premium fiduciary with unparalleled individualized portfolio construction. In my opinion, it is not. Not even close. Unfortunately, the SEC has failed to take action against such cynical charades, but the Massachusetts Securities Division is doing what it can do within its jurisdictional constraints.

According to the new Massachusetts policy, any investment adviser registered pursuant to the Massachusetts Uniform Securities act must:

  • Must clearly identify any third-party robo-advisers with which it contracts; must use phraseology that clearly indicates that the third party is a robo-adviser or otherwise utilizes algorithms or equivalent methods in the course of providing automated portfolio management services; and must detail the services provided by each third-party robo-adivser;
  • If applicable, must inform clients that investment advisory services could be obtained directly from the third-party robo-adviser;
  • Must detail the ways in which it provides value to the client for its fees, in light of the fiduciary duty it owes to the client;
  • Must detail the services that it cannot provide to the client, in light of the fiduciary duty it owes to the client;
  • If applicable, must clarify that the third-party robo-adviser may limit the investment products available to the client (such as exchange-traded funds, for example); and
  • Must use unique, distinguishable, and plain-English language to describe its and the third-party robo-adviser’s services, whether drafted by the state-registered investment adviser or by a compliance consultant.

If you want to review the flesh on these bones, click here. Now, if only the SEC, California, Missouri, Florida and… would follow Lantagne’s lead.