At first blush, the results of this year's Report Card series reveal a retail investment industry that appears to be remarkably stable. Yet, much like the proverbial duck that looks calm on the surface but is paddling furiously below the waterline, that headline stability masks some significant shifts in the business's various distribution channels.

Investment Executive's (IE) annual Report Card roundup demonstrates remarkable continuity in many of the industry's basic demographic characteristics. For example, the average age of all the advisors surveyed this year rose by barely a year, to 50.5 years old from 49.3 in 2016. Similarly, the average tenure in the industry rose by almost a year to 20.5 years from 19.7 years in 2016.

These small increases suggest that the basic makeup of the overall survey population remains relatively consistent from one year to the next. There have been no big shifts - such as a sudden influx of rookie advisors or a wave of retirements - that would show up as outsized or unexpected changes in these metrics.

This same continuity extends to the average advisor's tenure with his or her current firm, which rose by almost a year to 12.2 years from 11.5 years. This slight rise indicates that most advisors are staying put at their current firms and there's not a great deal of poaching or advisors jumping from firm to firm.

At the same time, the results of IE's Report Card series do reveal one notable demographic difference vs the previous year - and it's a decidedly positive change. This year, there's a greater percentage of women showing up in IE's advisor sample. In fact, 21.7% of the advisors surveyed across all of IE's Report Cards were female, up from 19.5% in last year's survey. Furthermore, the percentage of female advisors was higher than it was last year in three of the four distribution channels in IE's Report Card series.

The lone exception to this trend is the brokerage business. Not only does the brokerage channel field the smallest proportion of female advisors - at just 13.5% - but it's also the only distribution channel experiencing a decline in that demographic over the past year, with the population of female advisors in the survey series dropping from 14.6% in 2016.

For the full-service and mutual fund dealers, the banks and insurance agencies, the percentage of female advisors rose year-over-year. By far, the banks continue to boast the highest proportion of female advisors, at 45.3%, an increase from 42.2% last year. The percentage of women whom IE surveyed this year also ticked upward in the insurance business (to 20.5% from 17.1%) and among the fund dealers (to 17.6% from 14.3%) compared with 2016. Outside of the banking business, female advisors continue to account for a clear minority of the investment industry's front-line personnel - but the overall trend may be toward greater gender equality.

Turning to some of the average advisor's basic financial metrics, the headline data again portray relatively little change year-over-year. For example, IE's research found average assets under management (AUM) for the entire universe of surveyed advisors to be more or less unchanged from last year, at $78.5 million vs $78.3 million in 2016. This stagnation in average AUM holds even as the number of client households the average advisor reports serving has crept upward a bit to 282.3 this year from 270.3 in 2016.

Yet, this flat reading in average AUM for the retail investment business overall is masking markedly divergent experiences for the different distribution channels in the industry. For example, advisors at brokerages and insurance agencies are enjoying an increase in average AUM year-over-year - although the AUM data for insurance advisors is notoriously volatile, given small sample sizes and the secondary status of the investment business for many of these advisors. In contrast, average AUM dropped notably for bank branch-based advisors and, to a lesser extent, fund dealer advisors.

Notably, advisors at brokerages have extended their lead decisively over their bank branch-based counterparts in the race for the lead in average AUM.

In last year's survey, the contest was much closer, with the average advisor at a bank branch reporting $95 million in AUM vs $113.3 million for the average brokerage advisor. This year, though, the average brokerage advisor reported $129.7 million in AUM vs the average bank branch-based advisor's drop in AUM to $85.2 million.

Various factors may help to explain this shift, including the fact that bad publicity surrounding certain sales practices at the banks earlier this year may have driven some clients away from bank branch-based sales forces. Although mapping the decline in bank branch-based advisors' AUM vs the rise in brokerage advisors' AUM definitively is difficult, there is a considerable shift in the AUM picture for both of these advisor populations.

Advisors at fund dealers also saw average AUM decline year-over-year, but the dip in their average AUM was more modest than the drop for bank branch-based advisors' AUM, in both absolute and relative terms. Still, this latest fall-off in average AUM among fund dealer advisors to $36.6 million from $39 million in 2016 leaves these advisors in a distant third place for average AUM.

Looking at the data in terms of advisor productivity (as measured by AUM per client household) rather than the distribution channel reveals some conflicting trends. For example, the top 20% of advisors across all four distribution channels reported an AUM increase this year on average. Overall, the top 20% reported $177.6 million in AUM, up from $171.7 million in 2016. Conversely, the AUM of the remaining 80% of advisors declined year-over-year to $53.8 million from $55.6 million in 2016.

The data also show that the average number of client households being served by both the top 20% of advisors and the remaining 80% rose a bit over the past year. Although the top-performing advisors serve about half as many accounts as the remaining 80% of advisors, the average client household roster of the top performers still was a bit heftier this year, rising to 144 from 133 during the past year.

Among the remaining 80% of advisors, client numbers also rose year-over-year to 278 households from 239 households.

In addition, advisor productivity was down slightly year-over-year for both the top performers and the remaining 80% of advisors. For the top 20%, average productivity dropped below the $1.5 million mark this year and dropped below the $240,000 level for the remaining 80% of advisors.

This stark difference in productivity between top performers and the remaining 80% of advisors also is evident in the trends in account distribution data. For example, the average top performer reported that only about 9.5% of his or her book is devoted to accounts worth less than $250,000, down from 13.3% last year. At the same time, the top 20% of advisors reported that almost half (47.3%) of their accounts are worth more than $1 million, up from 43.3% in 2016.

In contrast, for the remaining 80% of advisors, just 10.3% of their accounts now are worth at least $1 million, whereas almost half (47.5%) of this advisor segment's accounts are worth less than $250,000.

Analyzing the account distribution data in terms of distribution channel, slightly more than a third (34.2%) of the average brokerage advisor's book is devoted to accounts worth at least $1 million. In contrast, less than 8% of fund dealer advisors' and bank branch-based advisors' accounts lie at this rarified level.

Instead, the single largest account category for fund dealer advisors is the sub-$100,000 accounts, which comprise 28.7% of the average fund dealer rep's book vs just 8% for brokerage advisors and 17% for bank branch-based advisors.

These trends in AUM and account distribution also flow through to advisors' bottom lines. This year, just 4% of brokerage advisors reported earning less than $100,000 a year, down from 6.5% in 2016. By comparison, 45.4% of bank branch-based advisors and 20.4% of fund dealer advisors reported earning less than $100,000 annually. Overall, 22.1% of the advisors in IE's Report Card surveys reported earning less than $100,000 a year.

At the same time, brokerage advisors accounted for the lion's share of the investment industry's top earners this year: 10.5% of brokerage advisors reported they earn more than $1 million a year, compared with just 2.1% of fund dealer advisors. No bank branch-based advisors reported earning more than $1 million annually. Insurance advisors came in a close second, with 9.5% of these advisors claiming that they earned more than $1 million a year.

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