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Custodian vs. Broker-Dealer: What’s the Difference for Your Firm?


In the world of finance and investment, custodians and broker-dealers play crucial roles in safeguarding and facilitating transactions. Understanding the roles and differences between these entities is important for financial advisors and their clients. While custodians and broker-dealers serve integral functions in the financial industry, they have distinct responsibilities and regulatory obligations.

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What Is a Custodian?

Custodians are financial institutions or entities responsible for safeguarding and holding financial assets on behalf of their clients. Their primary duty is to ensure the security and integrity of these assets, which can include stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other valuable securities.

They physically or electronically store securities, preventing them from being lost, stolen or damaged. This role is particularly vital for institutional investors, such as pension funds and mutual funds, as they entrust custodians with significant assets.

Custodians also handle settlement processes. When securities are bought or sold, they ensure the smooth transfer of assets between buyers and sellers, reducing the risk of settlement errors. Additionally, they manage corporate actions like dividends, stock splits and mergers, ensuring that the client’s interests are protected.

What Is a Broker-Dealer?

Broker-dealers serve as the middle-person, helping to facilitate securities transactions.

On the other hand, broker-dealers are financial intermediaries that facilitate the buying and selling of financial securities in the market. They act as agents for investors, executing orders and providing access to various financial markets.

Broker-dealers have two primary roles: execution and market-making. In the execution role, they execute client orders to buy or sell securities. This can be done electronically or through a human broker, depending on the type of service the investor prefers.

Market-making is another significant function of broker-dealers. Some broker-dealers engage in this activity by offering to buy and sell securities from their own inventory. They profit from the spread – the difference between the buying and selling prices of a security.

Custodians vs. Broker-Dealers: Key Differences

Custodians and broker-dealers are distinct entities in the financial industry, each serving a unique purpose. As a result, there are several key differences to keep in mind.

Beyond their primary functions, which are different, custodians and broker-dealers generally hold client assets in distinct ways. Broker-dealers pool client assets and hold them on their balance sheet – a practice known as holding assets in “street name.” Custodians, on the other hand, segregate client assets and do not keep them on their balance sheets. This separation is a fundamental principle to ensure that client assets are protected in case of the custodian’s insolvency or other financial troubles.

Custodians, meanwhile, generate revenue through fees charged for their custody and safekeeping services. Brokerages generate revenue through commissions, spreads and fees associated with executing trades.

Both custodians and broker-dealers are subject to regulatory oversight, but the specific regulations and compliance requirements may vary. While the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) regulates bank custodians, broker-dealers typically register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and fall under the direct oversight of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a self-regulatory organization (SRO).

Custodian vs. Broker-Dealer: Which to Use

In the decision-making process between a custodian and a broker-dealer, advisory firms should keep in mind factors like their transaction nature, investment objectives and necessity for safety.

A firm holding a large volume of high-value securities might consider a custodian for secure asset storage, while a firm involved in active trading would likely use a broker-dealer for their swift execution of trades.

No matter what you decide, you may find it difficult to find the time to acquire the client leads that you need to succeed. You may want to enlist the help of a lead generation service, amongst other benefits or time-saving solutions. SmartAsset’s Advisor Marketing Platform (AMP) offers financial advisors services like client lead generation, automated marketing and more. Learn about SmartAsset AMP today.


Can Clients Have Both?

A financial advisor meets with a pair of married clients.

Can a client of your advisory firm have both a custodian and a broker-dealer? The answer is yes. In fact, it’s quite common for individuals to utilize the services of both entities in their financial strategy.

Clients may opt for a custodian to ensure the safety and proper record-keeping of their assets. This provides peace of mind, knowing that their investments are securely held. Simultaneously, they can engage a broker-dealer to actively manage and trade these assets, seeking investment opportunities and making informed decisions.

There are instances where a firm might find the need to use both a custodian and a broker-dealer. For instance, a firm possessing a diverse and sizeable portfolio might rely on a custodian for preserving assets while also using a broker-dealer for expert insights into market trends and investment opportunities. The decision to use both depends entirely on the specific needs and circumstances of the firm.

Bottom Line

Both custodians and broker-dealers play important roles in financial management, each with their distinct advantages, services and fee structures. Choosing between them, or even considering a combination, depends on analyzing your firm’s unique needs, investment aspirations and client base.

Tips for Growing Your Financial Advisory Business

  • Artificial intelligence may be able to help you deliver better services to your clients, and potentially, scale your business. A recent SmartAsset survey found that 57% of advisors are already using ChatGPT or are interested in testing it out.

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