Ethics Case Study of the Week: To Refer or Not Refer?

By Gary Sarkissian posted 08-03-2020 08:00


CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct codify the ethical guidelines for the investment profession that are critical to maintaining the integrity of capital markets and investor trust.  Members, candidates, and even firms make a commitment to uphold these standards as they help elevate ethical decision-making universally around the globe.  

As investment professionals, we are certain to face important ethical decisions in our day-to-day activities.  Some scenarios we encounter will be straightforward, while others may be more complex.  No matter what circumstances we face, continuous learning remains imperative in an investment industry that continues to evolve with products undergoing innovation and a regulatory environment continuing to adapt. 

For that reason, each week we will feature a sample case from CFA Institute’s Ethics in Practice Casebook.  Each case is built upon a real-life example that may involve a regulatory matter or even a CFA Institute Professional Conduct investigation.  At the end of the case is a multiple-choice question that addresses the ethical nature of the actions taken in that case.  

This week’s case involves Standard VI(C) Referral Fees. 

To Refer or Not Refer?
Raphael, an investment adviser for Enright Financial Solutions (EFS), enters into an understanding with a friend who is a lawyer regarding the referral of clients. Raphael will refer EFS clients needing legal services to the lawyer in return for the lawyer recommending clients needing financial advisory services to Raphael and EFS. This arrangement is

A.  acceptable because there are no payments involved.
B.  acceptable as long as the lawyer discloses the arrangement to the clients he refers to Raphael.
C.  acceptable as long as EFS is aware of Raphael’s agreement with the lawyer.
D.  unacceptable.

What do you think is the correct choice?  Feel free to discuss in the comments below and make sure to check back later this week as we post the analysis.  The completion of this case qualifies for 0.25 hour of Standards, Ethics, and Regulation (SER) credit

[Update – 8/6/2020]
Welcome back!  Here is the analysis of this case

This case deals with a mutually beneficial referral arrangement whereby service professionals refer clients to one another. Although such an agreement is not necessarily unethical and may ultimately be beneficial for the clients, there is a potential for a conflict of interest that must be disclosed. CFA Institute Standard VI(C): Disclosure of Conflicts, Referral Fees requires members to disclose to their employer, clients, and prospective clients “any compensation, consideration, or benefit received from or paid to others for the recommendation for products of services.” This disclosure allows both clients and the employer to evaluate any partiality shown in the recommendation of services and the full cost of those services. Although there is no money changing hands between Raphael and his friend, there is mutual consideration and benefit. The fact that no money is exchanged would not preclude disclosure (Choice A).

Choice B addresses the disclosure issue but places the onus of disclosure on the lawyer and not on Raphael. Standard VI(C) requires Raphael to disclose the referral arrangement to any clients he refers to the lawyer and any potential clients referred to him by his friend. Choice C also addresses the disclosure issue by correctly stating that Raphael must disclose the arrangement to his employer. But this does not go far enough because Standard VI(C) requires disclosure to be made to clients, prospective clients, AND the employer. Does Raphael disclose any information about the arrangement to this clients or EFS? The facts of the case do not mention that he made the appropriate disclosure. The CFA Institute Ethical Decision-Making Framework calls for you to identify all relevant facts before making a decision. Assuming Raphael made no disclosure to his clients or employer, this arrangement would be unacceptable (Choice D).

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© 2018 CFA Institute. All rights reserved. You may copy and distribute this content, without modification and for non-commercial purposes, provided you attribute the content to CFA Institute and retain this copyright notice. This case was written as a basis for discussion and is not prescriptive of how a business situation or professional conduct matter should or should not be handled or addressed. Certain characters mentioned are fictional to facilitate discussion, and any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental.