While unified managed accounts (UMAs) hypothetically allow advisors to hand off the complex asset management aspect of their jobs, affording them more time to spend on financial planning and prospecting for new clients, take up among advisors has been lukewarm at best, according to a new report by Cerulli Associates.
Indeed, while independent advisors have the most on their plates when it comes to administrative chores, only 35% of them have used UMAs, Cerulli says. Some 56% of advisors at regional firms and 46% of wirehouse advisors have never used a UMA.
The problem is that while UMAs offer a packaged solution, the trade off is that advisors don’t have much control over how their clients’ assets are invested inside current UMAs. Advisors then worry that since they don’t appear to have much (if any) say over UMA allocation, the client will discount the advisor’s worth.
“The big thing is that advisors attach value to selecting investments,” says Jeffrey Strange, associate director at Cerulli in Boston. “Especially in the past couple of years, advisors have sought very flexible programs where they could move all assets to fixed income, or move 30% to cash. UMAs don’t foster that flexibility.”
UMAs’ perceived inflexibility makes advisors worry that when clients ask what they’re doing to protect their assets from volatility, the advisor will have nothing to say other than he’s sure the client’s account is in good hands. In this market, that won’t be good enough for many clients, especially wealthy clients who qualify for UMAs’ high minimums.
To appeal more to advisors, Strange says UMA firms must figure out how to introduce more advisor flexibility without compromising UMAs’ careful tax management strategies. Strange suggests UMA providers might include a 30% “sleeve,” in which advisors can pick and choose allocations from a set menu of investment options, whether that be increasing exposure to emerging markets, buying S&P 500 exchange-traded funds or moving to cash. “That at least would give the advisor something to tell the client,” he says.
UMA providers might also reconsider how they market their services, less as the complex back-office umbrella strategies they are, and more as if the advisor is calling the shots. “They need to give advisors some way of saying they’re running the show, even if they’re not,” Strange says. Otherwise, “how do you get an advisor who’s been positioning himself a certain way for 20 years to change that?”
While UMA providers are still trying to figure out that balance, Strange says LPL is on the right track with its UMA product, which allows advisors to tweak allocations even though they can’t change the underlying investments.