By IE Staff | Mid-February 2008

Trust is something that must be earned, not assumed. More important, it must be given before it can be received.

The financial services industry frequently preaches the importance of trust in the wealth-management and other retail investment businesses. Trust is cited as an article of faith by many of those who make their living by caring for other people’s money.

But all too often, that trust is a one-way street. Firms expect clients to trust them, but they doggedly resist any initiative that would see them relinquish any of their huge power advantage to clients. Industry players routinely deny their fiduciary duty when they find themselves in court with a client; they drag out disputes and resist revealing to clients their options for redress. Now, they are also opposing efforts to build a more robust ombudservice.

The same dynamic prevails in the relationship between firms and regulators. Firms expect regulators to trust them to do the right thing. So, they resist both restrictions on their sales practices and demands for more effective disclosure.

At the same time, firms can be reluctant to invite regulatory scrutiny when they detect suspicious activity, fearing that calling attention to it could lead to sanctions or simply the hassle of a prolonged regulatory investigation. The most mercenary firms are just eager for business, and don’t much care where it comes from.

But trust needs to flow in both directions. If industry players hope to inspire trust — from both clients and regulators — then they need to have a bit of trust in them, too.

The firms must have faith that most clients aren’t going to try to exploit a more robust ombudservice with frivolous claims. Ideally, the dealers would treat client complaints fairly themselves to start with; but that is probably a bridge too far.

Financial services firms should also recognize that regulators aren’t just out to disrupt their business or to collect some trophies for their walls. When it comes to defending investor confidence, firms and regulators have a common interest at heart. Rooting out dodgy activity makes the market more inviting to all potential investors.

If the industry hopes to be trusted, it must realize that such confidence is earned, not won.