I find that there is a seasonality to the financial advisory business -- as we head into the end of the year, investors start thinking about whether or not their money is in the best possible hands. This frequently leads to conversations with new financial advisors. Getting a second opinion on financial planning, wealth management, portfolio allocation and similar topics will often lead to an investor making an advisor change come January.
If you're one of these investors who is currently in the process of rethinking your advisor relationship, you should be aware that there are four questions you absolutely have the right to have answered by whomever is going to be investing your money and planning your financial future.
The first of these questions is the simplest one: How do you get paid?
Warren Buffett's right hand man, Charlie Munger, said the following on the topic: "Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives." The way in which your financial advisor is compensated is going to have a major impact on both the standard of care you receive as well as the quality of the portfolio recommendations they make.
Are you the only one paying your advisor or is there an asset management company also paying them in order to promote their funds? If you're not the only payer, there is a guaranteed conflict, and how this conflict is disclosed, resolved or mitigated matters. More from Charlie: "Well, I think I've been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I've underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther." That's 96 years of experience talking, you should take his word for it.
The next essential question is: When do you get paid?
In the olden days (circa 1990's), financial advisors were often compensated like stockbrokers, earning a commission every time their clients bought or sold a stock or a bond. They'd earn selling concessions for placing new issues like IPOs and closed-end funds in their clients' accounts. They'd get trailing commissions from certain types of mutual funds, but usually their commissions were extracted from your fund purchase up front, right off the top.
Things have changed. Commissions are practically zero now across the industry, which has reduced the advisor's incentive to encourage you to do transactions. Nearly all financial professionals serving wealthy individuals have since migrated to a fee-based business model, charging a quarterly fee based on the value of their clients' investment accounts. They typically provide advice and financial planning alongside the investment activity itself. Investors who have not yet accumulated large sums of money will typically begin working with a younger, less experienced advisor who charges either an hourly rate or a flat monthly retainer until the balance in their account grows into an amount worth billing on. You should know when you're being charged, whether quarterly or upon the completion of a meeting, as well as how much you're actually paying.
Third question: What am I getting for the money?
There are financial advisors who are mainly focused on asset management, picking stocks, bonds and funds under the auspices of being able to beat the market and offer their clients a superior return. Unfortunately, there has been a tectonic shift under their feet in recent years as the general public has become better informed about how difficult it is for even the best money managers to reliably beat a given index. They've also become more educated about the detrimental effects of excess trading costs and taxes.
Low-cost indexing has become the most popular investing strategy and the new industry default. Financial advisors have been one of the driving forces behind this movement, as it's liberated them to focus more on the financial planning and behavioral aspect of what they do for clients. They are now freed from a thousand ridiculous conversations a year about whether Coke is a better buy than Pepsi or why their holdings are ahead of or behind a given benchmark that most likely has no real relevance to their clients' lives.
Engaging a financial advisor in the 2020's is more likely to involve having a professionally designed financial plan and investment policy statement to guide the portfolio construction process. This is great news, because a portfolio that is not based on a plan to eventually use and enjoy the money is just a random pile of stocks and ETFs with no meaning. You can't build a future for yourself and establish meaningful investing goals without a blueprint. No matter what you're paying your financial advisor, they should, at a minimum, have some idea about why you're investing, when you plan to use the money and what other risk factors in your life and career are relevant.
Fourth question: What else will you be doing for me?
Many financial advisors in the modern era have been bolting additional services onto their practices. These services, which are often incidental or adjacent to investing, include tax planning and tax preparation, trusts and estate planning, insurance, 401(k) and corporate retirement plans, financial education for younger family members, charitable funding and administration, lending and lines of credit and even wellness and emotional counseling. You should not only ask your financial advisor if they offer these services, but, if not, then why?
Many advisors opt to refer clients to outside experts for things like insurance, legal work and taxes while some of the larger investment advisory firms have begun to offer these services in-house. What is the benefit versus the potential conflict of doing this work in-house, from the advisor's point of view? Are these services charged for à la carte or are they bundled into the investment fee?
Peter Mallouk, founder of Creative Planning, recently scoffed at the unbridled expansion of services throughout the investment advisory space: "We're not clients' priest or rabbi, and we're not their psychologist." There is a limit to how many things a financial advisor can do well. You probably don't want them cooking your meals or training your dog.
There are many differences between any two investment advisory firms, so comparing them is essential. It's not enough to "like the guy" you spoke to when you called or to "feel comfortable" with an advisor because she lives in the same town as you. By asking these four questions you'll have a very good starting point in your search for the advisor who will be right for you, your family and your situation. And if they're unable to answer any of these questions in a straightforward manner, you'll have eliminated a firm right off the bat and saved yourself a lot of time.
Check out ″How I Invest My Money: Financial Experts Reveal How They Save, Spend, and Invest″ Joshua Brown and Brian Portnoy, editors. Harriman House, 2020
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.