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The Right Decision

More often than not, I find myself agreeing with Michael Kitces’s assessments about the planning profession, including his views on the future of compensation (he sees a migration from AUM), his taste in conferences (which sometimes seems to get political), his promotion of a fiduciary standard (unqualified), the hidden agenda behind the FPA’s OneFPA Network initiative, and virtually all of the technical material he publishes.

But I’ve been having a lot of trouble finding agreement with Michael’s commentary regarding TD Ameritrade Managing Director Skip Schweiss as the FPA’s President-Elect and future chair.

You can read Michael’s Nerd’s Eye View column here: but the gist of it is that the FPA chose a non-CFP and (worse) a representative of a company that provides significant sponsorship money to the FPA, and (still worse) that TD Ameritrade has, in the past, opposed the imposition of a fiduciary standard for all advisory activity at the state level, in opposition to the FPA’s pro-fiduciary stance.

The implication, never directly stated, is that TD Ameritrade bought and paid for the privilege of having one of its key staff members basically take a year off from his various duties (Schweiss’s managerial portfolio includes both the company’s growing independent trust and qualified plan services to advisors, and also advocacy and lobbying on positions important to the planning profession) so that he can be the volunteer leader of the Denver-based trade association. 

And for what benefit, exactly?  TD Ameritrade Institutional will undoubtedly reap some publicity from Schweiss’s leadership position, but as the leading national sponsor of the organization and the prime exhibitor at the FPA’s national convention, the company is already gathering a fair share of attention.  I doubt there are very many FPA members who have never heard of TDAI’s custodial activities.

There is no question that every form of sponsorship represents a conflict of interest for FPA decision-makers, and it’s certainly possible (though even Kitces doesn’t suggest this) that someone, somewhere at the FPA hopes that Schweiss’s role will cement TD Ameritrade’s continued financial support.  But having known Schweiss and worked with him on fiduciary issues for more than two decades, I think it’s more likely that the board members who vote on the next round of leadership looked around the room and noticed that Schweiss has built up a lot of professional credibility with his advocacy work, has deep managerial experience, and happens to know, on a first-name basis, the key people on staff in various Congressional committees, at the SEC and the CFP Board, and even FINRA and SIFMA. 

In other words, it is very possible that, despite the obvious conflicts, he was the standout best person for the job.

As to not holding the CFP credential, I find myself wondering how many people WITH the CFP credential have worked as hard and effectively on behalf of the profession and the fiduciary standard.  The Financial Planning Association has made it clear that it represents all communities under the big tent of financial planning, including support professionals.  If that’s the mission, then perhaps it’s about time somebody in a support role got a chance to lead the organization.

Bigger picture, most of the people I talk to privately agree that the FPA could be doing a lot more for the profession, if only it could get its act together and build a significant membership.  Many of those people are working hard at the chapter level, and they see how the chapters are keeping the organization viable while the home office seems to be rudderless.  There is a huge need for focused leadership and accountability toward a staff that always seems to be blaming external factors for its own lack of progress and success. 

I think the past board chairs—all CFP advisors in good standing—have been excellent people.  But I also think they’ve been much too quick to accept excuses, and allow the staff to focus the board’s attention on anything and everything “out there”—away from the effectiveness of the home office team.  One of the things I know about Skip Schweiss is that he knows the importance of staff functionality, and of accountability when you’re trying to get things done.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the new President-Elect is going to fix 20 years of decline at the FPA.  I think it means that if you look past the conflicts of interest at the FPA, it’s possible that, this time around, the FPA took the right course of action.  Its leaders found somebody who is accustomed to success, who is accustomed to leading, who knows how to run a successful operation, and who deeply loves our emerging profession.

Contrary to what Michael is saying, I have a strong belief that the FPA made the right decision, and I just wanted to  get  that  on the record.