Larry Elford is not associated with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, but he is a kindred spirit. The month-long "occupation" of Wall Street, ostensibly as a protest against corporate greed, uses the slogan, "We are the 99 per cent."
It's a way to point out the injustice inherent in the outrageous fortunes of the super rich and the contention that those fortunes were acquired through less than honourable means.
Elford's story is that he walked away from a 20-year career as an investment adviser in Lethbridge, Alta., managing a $100-million book of business and earning a solid six-figure income.
But after going public with advice to clients about things such as how to buy mutual funds without paying commissions and minimizing management fees, he started getting push-back from within the bank-owned brokerage firms for which he worked.
"I could see the people who were being made vice-president were the ones who were selling the funds that came with two different commissions and the chance of a trip to the Indy 500," he said.
Elford quit the game in 2004 and has been on a crusade ever since, focusing, among other things, on a particular form of dishonesty that he claims has become institutionalized within the world of retail investment management in Canada.
To put it far more briefly than Elford ever would, he contends the public is being misled -- and overbilled -- by the financial services industry, which pushes commissioned salesmen in front of clients but insists on calling them "advisers."
"We're told, 'Trust me. I am an adviser,' but I don't have an adviser licence," Elford said. "I've been ranting for five years, saying, 'How dare you let commissioned salespeople claim to be a professional consultant.' "
Elford said one of the glaring offences perpetrated across the land is the trend in the industry to use in-house funds, along with the hefty management fees imbedded in mutual funds and "wrap accounts" that leave us with about half as much as we might otherwise have for our retirement years.
He claims that many advisers who encourage clients to use a wrap account ultimately migrate mutual-fund holdings into the in-house funds, making the parent company and the adviser much more money than if they bought the brand-name funds.
He said all the adviser needs to ensure is that the investment is suitable to the client -- not that it is necessarily in the client's best interest.
To some extent, Elford's concerns could be addressed by the standard consumer caution of "buyer beware."
For many of us, that might do the trick, but Elford claims that for the little old lady or gentleman, there is little or no accountability. (The abysmal track record in Canada of prosecuting white-collar crime is a case in point.)
He was to make a free public presentation Thursday night in Winnipeg. He is self-financing his public awareness campaign, including the cost of producing a documentary film called Breach of Trust, The Unique Violence of White Collar Crime (available to view free at www.breachoftrust.ca).
For some of us, what Elford is talking about are just the machinations of a profitable industry that has evolved in such a way that there is a lot of easy money to be made. Which isn't to say there are not advisers doing a good job, including fee-for-service advisers who don't receive any commissions on sales.
Considering the calamitous Wall Street meltdown in the fall of 2008, it is disconcerting to some that so little has changed. Those huge bonuses are still available to the ones taking the biggest risks.
A proposed new regulation in the United States called the Volcker Rule would prevent banks from making those risky trades on their own account. But Bloomberg reported this week that even Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, said it is likely to be delayed and watered down.
Regardless of the strength of Elford's claims, he may not be the guy to elicit the kind of popular sentiment required to prompt fundamental changes to reduce abuses in the financial services industry.
But public displays such as Occupy Wall Street give more people pause and probably inspire other Larry Elfords to become even more vocal about hidden costs and sophisticated trickery to which many of us don't even know we're being subjected.