Ethics Case Study of the Week: Let’s Throw a Party for Clients!

By Gary Sarkissian posted 12-06-2021 12:03

CFA Institute’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct outline 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 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 the circumstances, continuous learning remains imperative in an evolving investment industry and an adapting regulatory environment. 

For that reason, each week we feature a sample case from CFA Institute’s Ethics in Practice Casebook.  Many cases are built upon real-life examples that may involve a regulatory matter or even a CFA Institute Professional Conduct investigation.  At the end of each 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.

Let’s Throw a Party for Clients!
King is a successful investment adviser with a number of high-net-worth clients who are very happy with him as their adviser. Many of King’s clients recommend his advisory services so that their friends and family can achieve the same positive results. King encourages these recommendations as a way to build his business. Each year, King holds an elaborate party for those clients who have referred new clients to his advisory firm to thank them for these referrals. At the party, King distributes nominal gift cards to attendees. In some instances, King offers discounts on advisory fees to clients who have provided him with referrals that prove to be particularly lucrative. Many of the clients attending these celebrations have been referred to King by other clients and they have, in turn, continued the cycle of recommending King to a wider circle of friends and family. King’s actions are

 A. acceptable as a proper method for client development.
 B. acceptable as a reward for client loyalty.
 C. acceptable as long as he treats all clients fairly.
 D. unacceptable.

Click the “Analysis” button below to see the analysis for this case, and feel free to discuss in the comments below.  The completion of this case qualifies for 0.25 hour of Standards, Ethics, and Regulation (SER) credit

This case relates to CFA Institute Standard VI(C): Referral Fees, which states that CFA Institute members must disclose any compensation, consideration, or benefit paid to others for the recommendation of services. In this case, King provides an elaborate party; distributes gift cards; and, in some cases, offers discounted advisory fees to those clients who referred particularly lucrative clients to him. These benefits must be disclosed. The facts of the case do not state whether King discloses the benefits that he gives for referrals to the potential incoming clients. The fact that some of the clients later become aware that he pays for referrals when they themselves are paid such fees is insufficient disclosure. If King wanted to hold a party or give gift cards to all his clients to reward their loyalty, whether or not they provided referrals, that would be acceptable. Arguably, King treats his clients fairly because he is offering the opportunity to receive these benefits and fee discounts to all his clients, so long as they make referrals to his business. Whether the clients access these benefits by making referrals is up to them. But regardless of whether King is treating all clients fairly, by not disclosing the benefits and compensation he awards for referrals, he has violated Standard VI(C). Choice D is the best answer.

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© 2019 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.