How PWM really works (part 1): past, present, future, and $$$

thebrofessor's picture
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Hey guys, Andy had asked me a while ago to do a blog on PWM, so I figured I'd give it a whirl despite this forum being mostly interested in IB. Most of my partners are out of town so the workload this week is particularly light and I'm not going on vacation until tomorrow.

I aim to cover several areas over multiple blog posts, so please give me ideas for content in the comments or send me a PM. The topics I know I'll address are as follows:

  • history of the industry
  • where it stands today
  • day to day responsibilities
  • compensation, titles, etc.
  • common misconceptions
  • breaking in & exit opps
  • differences between wirehouses and private banks

Please give me feedback on what you want to see, topical, length, whatever. I can't promise how much time I'll be able to dedicate to this after July, but feel free to ask any questions below.

Quick background if you don't know already: mid/late 20's, one of 4 partners on a team at one of the big 3 wirehouses.


I'll spare you the details of how the stock market began and the beginnings of NYSE, you all have Wikipedia just like I do. Essentially my industry exists because some wealthy people wish to defer investment decision making to one person/team. This is how it works now: we work with people who are intellectually capable (for the most part) to manage their own investments, but have no desire to dedicate any time or energy to it. You would be surprised at how many wealthy people have zero interest in managing their portfolios, they would rather spend time & energy finding a trustworthy individual to do it, pay them, and then go to the beach.

There are also those who do not have the intellectual or emotional wherewithal to handle their investments. They may be fine savers, but may also be too chicken shit to buy/hold during bad times, sell during bubbles, and hold when there's noise. Also, many people do not understand how stocks work (the concept of multiples of earnings, all else held equal if earnings go up and the multiple remains, the stock must increase; oversimplification sure, but this is a WSO blog, c'mon), or other investments for that matter. They understand THAT it is important to invest, but not WHY or HOW. Hence, people like me and my partners get hired.

A long time ago, in a boiler room far, far away...

Pre-1990 PWM was confined to stockbrokers, the industry looked very different. This was due to many factors but in my mind the most important factors were greed and access to information (or lack thereof). Before the internet was widespread, the only place to get quotes or research on stocks was from a broker (now called financial advisor or wealth advisor), and eTrade, Schwab, Scottrade et al did not exist, so you had to buy stocks through a broker. If your broker was good (if you bought common names in the 80s/90s or sold munis, you couldn't lose), you did more business with him (yes, there are female brokers, but let's be honest, most are male), and built a relationship that way.

Most compensation was from trade commissions and the ROAs were much higher, because you had zero competition from discount brokers, online advisors (wealthfront/betterment), and proprietary information essentially. To clarify, trade commissions are where you buy shares of a stock and pay me a fee for doing so, but no ongoing fee for advice or to hold the stock. whether you bought or sold, you paid a fee. Brokers were therefore incentivized to get clients to have more transactions instead of prudently growing their assets, because commissions are based on share count, not dollars. if a stock tanked 50% and it's the same # of shares, you got the same commission, so there was a definite disconnect in how business was conducted in that what was good for the broker was not always good for the client.

The present time

Fast forward to today, and I will keep this short. Brokers offer all sorts of services: managed accounts, insurance, financial plans, etc. I won't get into the details too much on this (unless people ask for it in the comments), but basically the way clients pay us now is more for advice than it is for transactions. Transactions can take place anywhere, and my execution is no better than some online broker (except maybe for small caps & bonds). The way fees work now for the most part is clients pay an annual percentage fee based on the assets they have invested with us.

Another difference is in the types of firms out there. as recently as 10 years ago, there were dozens more wirehouses. Quick aside: a wirehouse is a traditional brokerage shop, usually having stock brokers & maybe a small research department. It was called a wirehouse because only firms of some size could have a "wire" into either NYSE or their home office so they could offer quotes to clients or potential clients. While there used to be many of these firms, today the big 3 are UBS, Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch. other names like Smith Barney, Paine Webber, Bear Stearns, EF Hutton, Ferris Baker Watts, Morgan Keegan, Shearson, Dean Witter, and many many others have all been gobbled up or went belly up. Other notable companies are Wells Fargo Advisors, Edward Jones, Scott & Stringfellow, and many more.

Robo-advisors and the future of PWM as I see it

For those of you who don't know, there is a new advisor in town, and it comes in the form of robo-advisors like wealthfront & betterment. Essentially these services were created because some folks have always thought that the only value add an advisor has is in investment selection, that other services that are marketed (estate planning, cash flow planning, planning around executive compensation & concentrated positions), as well as those that are not marketed (proactively reaching out in advance of an issue, hand holding through crises, financial education), have zero value and are not worth the fees an advisor charges, regardless of the level. Also, the inventors of these applications lean strongly towards MPT, EMH, and asset allocation over security selection. They will ask you several questions about risk tolerance, income, assets, and spit out a few ETFs they think you should invest in, all passive (mostly Vanguard), and charge you a mere 25bps on accounts over $10k plus ETF fees of 15bps.

To the surprise of most, I think those services are neither a bad thing nor a threat to my business. For one, it will cause bad advisors to leave the business because they are truly replaceable. And while there will be several individuals who might have otherwise come on board to my practice but would now choose one of those services, my team has enough clients. What services like this will do is split investors into 2 groups: those who value advice and those who don't. Those who don't will never become clients, no matter how good your performance is, no matter how great your team is. That's fine by me, because those who don't value advice would make bad clients anyway, but I won't get into the weeds of that here. The thing is, wealthfront & services like it (I keep using wealthfront as the example because I've tried it, it was one of the first, and you don't need to disclose a bunch of personal info to try it out) are algorithms. They are formulaic (like MPT), they ask you a series of pre set questions and then spit out an asset allocation based on your income, risk tolerance, age, assets, and goals. Sounds good for 25bps, no? The problem is it only scratches the surface.

It will ask questions like "given an average return of 7.3% but ranging from +50% to -30%, how does that make you feel?" or putting that return in a multiple choice like "which of these is most appealing to you?" and "do you want growth, income, or both?" Well all of these sound like reasonable questions and they are reasonable questions, but they make 2 faulty assumptions: people know what they need (not what they want) and people understand the concepts and the math of investment returns. People mostly know what they want, but if someone says they want a low risk portfolio but they need a high return to meet their needs, that's not something a robot can guide them through. On the opposite side of that, if someone wants nothing but growth but they have high spending needs, a robot can't figure that out because the math doesn't work (withdrawals from a highly fluctuating portfolio usually doesn't work well).

I could spend an entire other post on this and I've already written too much on this topic. To summarize, robo advisors are not bad, but they will never replace the value of a good advisor. They are a great alternative for someone who cringes at the thought of paying someone like me and they are probably ok for someone younger with not a lot of means. Once you get some assets and a more complicated situation (spouse, kids, aging parents, higher comp), you should at least talk to an advisor.


As far as I'm concerned, there are 2 roles in PWM, those which generate revenue/support those who generate revenue, and those who consume revenue. Revenue generators include brokers and their support staff (assistants, you may see the title client associate, client service associate, it's all a fancy way of saying "assistant"). Revenue consumers include analysts, managers, receptionists, and back office people. PWM is the only business where your manager is below you (if you're a revenue producer of consequence), your leeway will depend on your branch and the culture of your firm, and most broker-manager relationships are very normal & respectful, but I've seen managers get fired because enough brokers didn't like them, something to keep in mind.


Brokers' compensation (aside from rookies) is 100% performance based. Your salary is $0, but your cap is nonexistent. You earn fees from commissions on trades, fees from advisory accounts (percentage of AUM), and bonuses depending on your firm. Let's use round numbers to make this simple, taking a guy who has $100mm AUM and an ROA of 1% on average, that means his commissions are $1,000,000. Another way to say this is his "production" or his "gross" (short for gross revenue) is $1mm. You'll hear the words production, gross, revenue, gross revenue, and commissions used interchangeably among brokers, it all means the same thing.

Wirehouses will take out 50-65% of this depending on tenure with the firm, level of production, product penetration, and growth. Independent firms (like LPL Financial or Raymond James) will take out 10-30% but you have to pay all of the overhead (office rent, staff salaries, etc.). I'll stick with wirehouses for now since I don't know much about indy shops. At a firm like mine, a 40 year old FA with 15 years of tenure with the firm grossing 1mm would have about a 55% haircut on his commissions. Not counting for other things like staff bonuses, this means his take home pay pretax is $450k. I'll get into the weeds of this a little further along.

Staff & Managers

Support staff will get a guaranteed base salary determined by management, these start at around 30k if fresh out of college and cap out around 60-70k depending on your metro area (probably closer to a 100k cap in NYC/SF). Support staff who are tenured and will be with their broker/team for a long time will usually get a percentage of revenue, albeit small (we'll use 1% to keep it simple). So a broker doing $1mm will give his assistant $10k in commissions, subject to taxes, firm haircut, etc. Some teams do more, some don't at all, we comp our senior assistant as a % of revenue, she'd rather participate in the growth of the business since her salary by itself takes care of her needs.

Managers get a salary paid for by the firm. Some managers are also brokers, so they get commissions plus salary, but to keep their focus on management, most wirehouses cap their revenue (something like $200k). I'll talk about the path to management in another post but I don't know much more about management comp. Same goes for back office & other branch employees not assigned to a broker (minus the revenue part). Comp here varies, someone in treasury will certainly make less than someone in debt syndicate.

Analysts, PM assistants, really anyone helping with investments but not selling

Analysts/PM assistants/non broker investment people are salaried, with one important difference. Your salary is determined by your BROKER, not the firm. This is a very important point I make because many folks come to me asking how to get into this business but they don't want to sell. Analysts are revenue CONSUMERS, meaning your comp is capped, and you're easily replaceable by outsourcing. I'm guessing most of the interest in this forum is on being an analytical type, not pounding pavement looking for clients, you'd rather sit inside, read research, manage money, etc. I'll explain why this doesn't work all the time in PWM.

Let's use a real live example. Let's say your team is huge and you manage 1bn. Let's say you're awesome and your ROA is 75bps, so your production is 7.5mm. a team that large (assuming one main broker) will probably have 4 staff (salaried + revenue share), and 2 analysts/junior brokers. let's say you pay each of your staff 1% of revenue, and your cut is 50% of gross, we're down to 46% of 7.5mm (50% firm haircut + 1% to staff * 4 staff = 54% off the top). The pot is now at 3.45mm. Let's say you split the 450k between the analysts or do 250k to one, 200k to the other, whatever. Possibly add in a revenue share of another $500k between the two and the pot is now down to 2.5mm for you, pretax mind you.

The average haircut on a professional money manager at my firm is 12bps per dollar of commission. if you're paying 2 analysts a total of $950k on production of 7.5mm, you're paying out 12% of your commissions to people who can be replaced for 12bps. These numbers were slightly manipulated to make you get the point, but here's my advice to anyone wanting to be a research analyst, investment analyst, or any non-sales and non-support role in PWM: do the math. There's only a limited number of teams in this space generating the kind of revenue that needs an analyst, and you have to realize that while there are opportunities and the job security is great, there aren't an infinite number of PWM teams looking to hire analysts, and your comp will be capped unless you become a revenue producer.


Finally, on titles. Every firm has internal titles (corporate cash wealth management advisor, stock plan services director), but I'll simplify it: it's based on revenue for the most part, other titles are functions of that advisor's clientele. The haircut will vary depending on the level of production.

  • Managing Director: 2.5mm and up
  • Director/Executive Director: 2-2.5mm
  • Senior Vice President: 1-2mm
  • Vice President: 500k-1mm (some firms have First VP at the 750k-1mm level, meaning VP is 500-750k)
  • Associate Vice President: 250k-500k

Again, please ask questions, give feedback, and request content in the comments below.



Comments (60)

Jul 2, 2014
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Jul 2, 2014

Currently: future psychiatrist (med school =P)
Previously: investor relations (top consulting firm), M&A consulting (Big 4), M&A banking (MM)

Jul 2, 2014

Currently: future psychiatrist (med school =P)
Previously: investor relations (top consulting firm), M&A consulting (Big 4), M&A banking (MM)

Jul 2, 2014

WSO's COO (Chief Operating Orangutan) | My Linkedin

Jul 2, 2014

Currently: future psychiatrist (med school =P)
Previously: investor relations (top consulting firm), M&A consulting (Big 4), M&A banking (MM)

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