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Investment advisors see more risks for economy in 2015

Investment advisors are less bullish on the economy than they were a year ago, according to a new survey, but their outlook on U.S. financial markets remains largely positive.

The latest TD Ameritrade Institutional RIA Sentiment Survey, released Thursday, found 2014 was a strong year for registered investment advisors who saw double-digit growth in clients, revenue and assets. Sixty-three percent said they added clients over the previous six months, at an average growth rate of 14 percent. About two-thirds of RIAs saw an increase in revenue, while assets under management increased by 17 percent on average.

But recent volatility in the markets and a series of unsettling geopolitical events in Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere have tempered their outlook for the year. Only half feel upbeat about the U.S. economy, and 17 percent are somewhat or very pessimistic—three times as many as a year ago. Nearly two-thirds of advisors surveyed said geopolitical tensions have also negatively affected clients' market views.

Fred Tomczyk, chief executive of TD Ameritrade, Inc., told CNBC he's not surprised by the concerns expressed by advisors and their clients. "These are times that test whether you've got that risk appetite," he said, but added, "when you look around the world, the U.S. is still probably the best place to be."

Indeed, investment advisors remain upbeat about the U.S. market, despite recent volatility and the possibility that continued appreciation of the U.S. dollar could weigh on corporate earnings (and, by extension, equities). According to those surveyed, U.S. equities represent 53 percent of their clients' assets, a 23 percent increase from 2010, while international holdings have dropped by two-thirds to 9 percent of client assets today.

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Ford worker on the assembly line at the Ford Dearborn Truck Plant, Dearborn, Michigan.
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The concerns about the economy may not come as a surprise given the length of the U.S. recovery and the weak global economy. "We are now in the 67th month of this economic recovery, which is longer than the average expansion cycle in the post-World War II era," Jonathan Hill, a senior investment strategist at Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust, said in a recent report. But he cautioned that "any indication that this means we are `due' for a downturn may be misleading."

It's more instructive, he added, to look at economic data since the end of the 1970s inflation crisis. The U.S. economy is "far less susceptible to the short swings of boom and bust" than it was before then, he said, and the last three expansions have lasted considerably longer, an average of 95 months.

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That bodes well for investment advisors, two-thirds of whom said they anticipate strong revenue growth again in the coming year. In fact, 32 percent predict that assets under management will increase at a faster rate over the next six months than they have in the last half year.

"The steady movement of assets into the independent wealth management channel shows no signs of slowing," Tom Nally, president of TD Ameritrade Institutional, said in a statement. "RIA firms that have the ability to scale service and add capacity will be well-positioned to take advantage of the growth opportunity in front of them."

The survey of 301 independent registered investment advisors with firm assets under management averaging $232 million was conducted between December and January by Maritz on behalf of TD Ameritrade Institutional, a division of the TD Ameritrade online brokerage.