Recently, Northwestern Mutual purchased LearnVest, a fee-only roboadvisor. A roboadvisor is an online-based program that helps individuals allocate their investments. This acquisition has raised several eyebrows in the investment community, since Northwestern Mutual and LearnVest have seemingly very different cultures.
Namely, Northwestern Mutual, like many firms, earns commissions from selling products to its clients. Conversely, LearnVest has operated as an inexpensive, fee-only firm that prides itself on providing unbiased advice. I could tell you all day that Northwestern Mutual cannot provide unbiased advice to its clients, but I would refer you to a quote from one of its leaders.
When asked about the LearnVest acquisition, Tim Schaefer, executive vice president of operations and technology at Northwestern Mutual said, “From [LearnVest’s] standpoint, being unbiased in their work is important to their business model,” [The deal] is not to make them Northwestern Mutual advisers or agents, but to allow them to operate their model.”
Now, read between the lines. Or, allow me to provide my interpretation. Original text: “From [LearnVest’s] standpoint, being unbiased in their work is important to their business model.” My Interpretation: Being unbiased is important to LearnVest’s business model but not to Northwestern Mutual’s. Original Text: “[The deal] is not to make them Northwestern Mutual advisors or agents, but to allow them to operate their model.” My Interpretation: Investors don’t have to worry about LearnVest not being able to give unbiased advice because LearnVest employees will not have to become Northwestern Mutual advisors or agents.
Does that mean that a Northwestern Mutual advisor can’t give unbiased advice? And if they can, why can’t a LearnVest employee become a Northwestern advisor or agent?
In all seriousness, Tim Schaefer’s statement is extremely revealing to the astute reader. Bottom Line: If you want unbiased advice, do not go to someone who makes a commission on selling you products. And Northwestern Mutual is far from the only firm that is commission-based. In our industry, clients should not automatically trust their advisors. If your advisor makes commissions, think carefully about who he or she is really working for.