Having multiple advisors could increase your risk of poor returns

  • Instances of clients having multiple advisors rose after 2008, when Madoff's epic Ponzi scheme was unveiled and the financial crisis leading to the Great Recession came to a head.
  • Multiple advisors may put a client into the same investment multiple times, and tax-related decisions also can suffer.
  • Some advisors may support an investor keeping some funds with a legacy advisor who is a longtime family advisor or friend.

Investors who spread funds among two or more financial advisors to gain diversification or protect against another Bernie Madoff may actually increase their risk of poor returns. That's according to financial advisors who declare that being faithful to one of their number is part of investing best practices.

Convincing clients not to stray is a recurring theme of advisor workdays.

In the absence of a coherent strategy, multiple advisors may put a client into the same investment multiple times. Tax-related decisions may also suffer.  In addition, this strategy may cause advisors to compete for all the assets and take undue risk to outperform the competition
James Lauritz | Getty Images
In the absence of a coherent strategy, multiple advisors may put a client into the same investment multiple times. Tax-related decisions may also suffer. In addition, this strategy may cause advisors to compete for all the assets and take undue risk to outperform the competition

"People have money spread all over the place," said Ben Greenfeld, a certified financial planner with Waldron Private Wealth. "Often, when we meet a new client, they have assets managed by two, three or four different groups.

"We work to consolidate them to have them be managed in a more coordinated approach."

Instances of clients having multiple advisors rose after 2008, when Madoff's epic Ponzi scheme was unveiled and the financial crisis leading to the Great Recession came to a head, advisors say. In good times and bad, however, they advise against multiple advisors.

"An investor generally will get much more out of the advisor when he or she also shows commitment to that advisor," said Monica Sipes, a CFP with Exencial Wealth Advisors. When a client won't commit, Sipes suspects she is not well suited to serving that client. "Therefore, I will not take on a new client looking to retain multiple advisors, because they will not experience the best outcome of what I provide," she said.

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Lack of coordination by different advisors is a frequently cited reason for this attitude. "Oftentimes when a prospect comes to me with multiple advisors, I see a completely disjointed investment strategy," Sipes said.

In the absence of a coherent strategy, multiple advisors may put a client into the same investment multiple times. "You may wind up overweight or underweight in certain sectors, not intentionally but because advisors don't know what the others are doing," said Greenfeld at Waldron Private Wealth. "You may run undue risks which can ultimately affect your long-term returns."

Tax-related decisions also can suffer when multiple advisors are involved, he noted. "If advisor A has $100,000 taxable gains for the year, but manager B has $100,000 of unrealized losses, if they coordinate those, you'll have a much lower tax bill."

Similarly, clients can benefit from a single source of advice when choosing investments to sell to generate income. For instance, Greenfeld said clients raising cash to buy a home or to pay for a vacation tend to keep aggressive investments that have performed well recently, while selling conservative investments that have lagged behind the riskier assets.

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"That's the exact opposite of what you want to do," he said. "You've just made your portfolio inherently more aggressive." Without a single advisor who can see the whole picture, Greenfeld maintains, such decisions are more likely.

It may also have bad effects on the advisors, warned Robert Westley, a member of the Personal Financial Specialist Credential Committee for the New York-based American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. "It may cause advisors to compete for all the assets and take undue risk to outperform the competition," Westley said. "Additional emphasis is then placed on the short-term performance, which undermines an investor's long-term financial plan."

When more than one advisor is okay

It's worth noting that financial advisors who are paid, as many are, with a percentage of the assets under management have a motivation to control all of a client's assets. However, it's also true that clients with larger portfolios at a single advisor may be able to negotiate lower percentages and discounts on other fees.

And even advisors concede that sometimes having more than one financial planner is acceptable. For instance, advisors may support an investor keeping some funds with a legacy advisor who is a long-time family advisor or friend.

And it's important to understand the difference between an advisor, who crafts and implements overall strategy including long-term asset allocation, and an investment manager who deals in specific investments. An investor with a single advisor may still have multiple managers employing different strategies, such as equities and fixed income.

Single-advisor solutions

Instead of having multiple advisors, investors can better address worries about overreliance on a single advisor by using one that, unlike Madoff, employs a third-party custodian to hold investments in the investor's name and issue account statements, according to Waldron's Greenfeld. "If something would, God forbid, happen to your advisor's firm, you can take your assets to another firm," he said. "Those are held in your name, not in a commingled bucket."

Transferring all funds to a single advisor's care may still involve complications and risk. For instance, if consolidated assets include investments that a particular advisor doesn't normally deal with, it's important to consider tax and other concerns before simply selling those and replacing them with something the advisor is more comfortable with.

"At the end of the day, even if you have more than one advisor, you have to have somebody who's the alpha advisor. You have to have somebody who understands the whole picture." -Ben Greenfeld, certified financial planner with Waldron Private Wealth

For that reason, it may be best to take time to gradually transfer assets to a single advisor. Investors may also want to avoid burning bridges by suddenly leaving an advisor. However, Sipes at Exencial said most advisors will understand the desire to consolidate. "I am a huge fan of it," she said. "In fact, it might even give some relief to both the client and the advisors when a client decides to consolidate."

And it may be fine to have multiple advisors if these risks and limitations are kept in mind and addressed by having someone to oversee it all. "At the end of the day, even if you have more than one advisor, you have to have somebody who's the alpha advisor," said Greenfeld at Waldron Private Wealth. "You have to have somebody who understands the whole picture."

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