Finding a financial advisor who is right for you is an important process. A good financial advisor is there to prevent you from making decisions that would have a negative, unintended impact on you. Who wouldn’t love to have a financial coach to keep you on track to achieve your financial goals?
Just like with any working relationship, it’s a good idea to interview advisors until you find the one who is the best fit for you, your life, and your financial goals. Since you are entrusting your financial well-being to someone, you should get to know them and their financial planning and investing philosophy before committing to a long-term relationship.
As you may have heard the Department of Labor (DoL) has just released its new fiduciary rule in its final form. We previously wrote about the reasons why someone would oppose this rule considering it was created to improve financial transparency and eliminate conflicted advice from advisors. While this rule would still allow advisors to keep their “conflicted” commissions in some instances, it would require advisors to act as fiduciaries (a.k.a. “best interests contract”) when handling client’s retirement accounts.
So how does this affect your search for the right financial advisor? Here are 6 questions to ask to help you in your search.
1. Are You a Fiduciary? (Are You Always a Fiduciary?)
As we mentioned earlier, this new rule will only require financial advisors to act as a fiduciary for client’s retirement accounts. A fiduciary is regulated by federal law and must adhere to strict standards. They must act in the client’s best interest, in good faith, and they must provide full disclosure regarding fees, compensation, and any current or potential conflicts of interest.
Until now, broker-dealers, insurance salesman, bank and financial company representatives, and others were only required to follow a Suitability Standard. That means they only had to provide recommendations that are “suitable” for a client – based on age or aversion to risk for example – but this may or may not be in that client’s best interest.
The brokerage industry, as you can probably imagine, and all those who earn their compensation from commissions are strongly against these new rules.
Even with this new law passed, we feel it is important to make sure your advisor is acting as a fiduciary when dealing with any of your finances, not just retirement accounts.
2. What is Your Fee Structure? (Difference Between Fee-Only, Fee-Based and Commission)
Advisors throw out terms like “fee-based” and consumers assume that is the same as “fee-only.” Being “fee-only,” as Sherman Wealth Management is, means that a firm is paid exclusively by its clients, meaning it is conflict-free. A “fee-only” firm does not get commissions from the investments or products it recommend. It does not get bonuses based on how many clients it gets to invest in company products. Many “fee-only” firms are paid an hourly or quarterly fee by their clients, as we are.
Think of it this way: would you want to work with an accountant who also gets commissions from the IRS? Of course not. You want your accountant to represent your best interests. Would you go to a doctor who makes money each time he prescribes penicillin? No, you want your doctor to prescribe what is right for you.
Do not assume that an advisor is following a fiduciary standard with their compensation now. The new rules will not be enforced until 2018. Ask your financial advisor to clearly specify their fees. With many layers of diversification that can be applied to your portfolio, you want to be aware of whether you are exposed to up-front charges, back-end fees, expense ratios, and/or whether a percentage of your returns will be deducted.
3. Why Are They Right for You?
A financial advisor should be able to tell you their strengths and what sets them apart. Some advisors will advise on investments while others specialize in comprehensive financial planning. While you may think all advisors are the same, and it certainly may seem like that on the surface, by now you should be seeing that is not the case.
Ask how involved they are with their client’s portfolios. Are they hands-on in their approach? How available are they for their clients’ needs?
Do they serve a wide-range of clients, from young first-timers who are just getting started with investing and financial planning, to experienced savers, to high-net-worth investors who are well on their way to financial independence?
In today’s world you don’t just want a trusted advisor, you want instant access to your accounts and the progress you are making. Does they advisor you’re considering utilize the latest in financial services technology tools?
The relationship with your financial advisor is an important one. You need to feel comfortable working with them.
4. What is Your Investment Philosophy?
Every financial advisor has a specific approach to planning and investing. Some advisors prefer trying to time the market and actively manage funds versus passive investments. Others may seek to gain high returns and make riskier investments. Your goals and risk tolerance need to align with the advisor’s philosophy.
When anyone invests money, they are doing so with the hopes of growing it faster than inflation. While some traditional investment managers not only want to generate a profitable return, they aim to beat the market by taking advantage of pricing discrepancies and attempting to time the market and predict the future. Some investment companies offer “one-size-fits-all” investment management solutions that only take into account your age and income.
Others, like us, believe an individual’s best chance at building wealth through the capital markets is to avoid common behavioral biases in the beginning and utilize a well thought out, disciplined, and long-term approach to investing. We believe that the best financial advisors create a well-diversified, customized portfolio that focuses on tax efficiency, cost effectiveness, and risk management.
Make it a top priority to understand the strategy your advisor uses and that you are comfortable with it.
5. How Personalized Are Your Recommendations for Your Clients?
It is important that your financial advisor tailors your financial plan to your specific goals. Your retirement plan and investment strategy should be customized to take into account your risk tolerance, age, income, net-worth, and other factors specific to your situation. There should not be a one-size-fits-all approach to managing your money.
Some traditional brokers and insurance companies are so big that it becomes impossible for them to give you a truly individualized experience. They have a corporate agenda that they must follow and it can restrict the service they provide to you.
Look for a firm that will help you build a strong foundation and grow with them, not by profiting off good or bad trades. This kind of partnership affords your advisor the opportunity to create individual strategies and plans that are uniquely suited to each client, not just a cookie-cutter plan based on age, income, or broadly assessed risk tolerance.
6. Do You Have Any Asset or Revenue Minimums?
Some have argued that the proposed DOL rule will end up hurting the small investor because larger institutions will not be willing to serve small accounts. This logic is fundamentally backward and flawed, as those clients were never on their radar to begin with. In fact, the ability for these large institutions to generate commissions and thus charge more to these small investor clients have driven that business, without regard to the best interests of the individual investor.
For example, in a company statement quoted by Janet Levaux in Think Advisor, Wells Fargo, the most valuable financial institution in the world according to the Wall Street Journal, said that in 2016, “bonuses will be awarded to FAs with 75% of their client households at $250,000.”
Wells Fargo isn’t the only large institution effectively ignoring Millennials and other smaller and entry-level clients. Most of the corporate institutions prefer high-net-worth clients because it creates “efficiencies of scale” and a higher profit margin on larger trades.
The complaints against the new DOL rule have nothing to do with protecting the little guy. Rather, the complaints are driven by the desire of commission-based large institutions, insurance companies and broker-dealers who are trying to protect their ability to generate commissions and charge clients unnecessary fees.