Six Things You Need to Know to Make You a Better Investor

HRE PR Pic 2013

Harold Evensky CFP® , AIF® Chairman

Click the following links to view Harold R. Evenskys, CFP®, AIF® Six Things You Need to Know to Make You a Better Investor presentation that was held at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Tuesday, June 12th, 2018.

To view the entire seminar: Click Here

To view in segments click the following:

Part 1: Squaring the Curve

Part 2: Returns (No Control)

Part 3: Volatility Risk & Luck

Part 4: Real People

Part 5: Market Timing

Part 6: Knowing Where the Buck Stops

 

Feel free to contact Harold Evensky with any questions by phone 1.800.448.5435 or email: Harold@Evensky.com

For more information on financial planning visit our website at www.EK-FF.com

The Value of a Financial Planner

John_Salter2012

John R. Salter, CFP®, AIFA®, PhD Wealth Manager, Principal

Financial planning is the process of determining how you can meet your financial goals by managing your financial resources. Probably you have already thought about your own financial planning. Maybe you have thought about working, or already work, with a professional financial planner. Whatever your situation, we wanted to discuss the value of working with a financial planner.

Financial planners provide advice on how to achieve financial goals. The quality of the advice should be measured by whether you attain those goals. The value of financial planning lies in the development of a plan specific to your goals, but just as important is the guidance you get along the way.

Below are just a few ways financial planners provide value to clients.

Creating a Financial Plan

One well-documented fact about our lives is we are likely to spend more time planning a vacation than planning for our retirement. And why not? The vacation seems much more fun! However, the vacation is a one-time event, whereas issues related to your financial life have a lasting impact on your future (and your ability to take vacations, for that matter!) A financial plan maps out the steps you need to take in the areas of spending, saving, investing, managing risks, and handling bequests in order to attain your financial goals.

A financial planner provides the analysis and can outline the steps needed to meet your current and future financial goals.

Being a Sounding Board

Should you pay off your mortgage? Should you buy or lease your car? What about buying a rental property? Were you pitched an annuity at a free dinner? A financial planner can help you answer all these questions and more, either through an analysis and/or by providing the details you need to make an informed decision yourself. You can probably think back to times you have contemplated a decision, seemingly to no avail, when an objective opinion could have saved you time.

A financial planner is there to help.

Optimal Investing

Investing should be boring. We should focus not only on achieving returns, but also evaluate the risk we are willing to accept to reach those returns. This “risk” refers to how much your portfolio might drop in a short-term bear market, but also the risk that you might not be able to meet your future financial goals. Our investments should be diversified; we should not have all our eggs in one basket. The best portfolio should arise out of the overlap between your risk tolerance, your financial capacity to take risk, and the risk and return needed to meet your future goals.

A financial planner helps determine your optimal portfolio.

Staying Disciplined

Long term, we are likely to be our own worst enemy in terms of keeping our financial plan on track, both in terms of performing the financial planning tasks we need to undertake and sticking with the investment plan. One notable example is estate planning, which seems to be the last item on everyone’s to-do list. Sometimes we need simple “nudges” to make sure these tasks are completed. Financial planners also help stay on track with our investments. When the market’s down, you want to adjust and make it more conservative, and then get back in when it is up. This is the easiest way to lose money long term. Ongoing management includes rebalancing or bringing the investment mix back to target. In general, this is selling the winners and buying more of what hasn’t done as well recently, and of course assumes long-term investment values will rise. Does short-term market volatility get you worried? Why not have your financial planner help you stay disciplined through the ups and downs of the market cycle, which are inevitable, simply by reaching out to you during rough markets?

A financial planner helps you stay disciplined through the financial planning process.

Managing Behavior

We are human, and therefore we are hard-wired to make terrible financial decisions. We want to be in the market when things are going well, and out when things look bad. We should do the opposite. We focus too much on the short term; we want to make decisions based on short-term noise rather than long-term analysis. We want to be in the winners and out of the losers, whereas being spread across winners and losers (being diversified) is the best long-term strategy. We want our investments to be exciting and sexy, but they should be dull and boring. We want to chase the investments that did well in the too-recent past, but they are likely those that will falter in the short-term future. We make decisions based on simple rules of thumb because we cannot perform complex math in our head. Our behavior, based on the emotions tied to our money, prevents us from reaching our future financial goals.

A financial planner helps manage your behavior and separate emotion from your money.

Tax and Cost Efficiency

In a world of lower return expectations, and given that we cannot control the markets, the ability to control and take into consideration tax and cost efficiency becomes even more important. Many financial planners have access to the universe of financial products. This means they also have access to the range of costs of products and may be able to implement a plan more cost effectively compared to a retail solution. If a financial planner can access a mutual fund for 0.5% less, that is 0.5% more staying in your portfolio. Tax savings produce similar benefits. A financial planner can not only make long-term tax-efficient recommendations but can also strategically position your individual investments in certain accounts to minimize current taxable income. A solution which decreases the tax you pay also results in more money accumulated or available.

Keep on Track

A financial plan is important to meeting goals, and maintaining and monitoring the plan are the check-ups required for progress. Annual meetings with your financial planner provide the opportunity to review your goals and see progress toward meeting them. Of course, we all know life can change at any moment, so updating and monitoring financial plans takes account of the ebbs and flows of life.

So, what is the quantifiable value of a financial planner? Many studies have addressed this question. These examples include many of the topics above, such as the financial planning process, portfolio construction and investment selection, rebalancing, and tax efficiency. The answer? Studies have concluded the value of a financial planner and the financial planning process can add an upwards of 3% in returns per year.

Below are links to a few of these studies.

https://www.fidelity.com/viewpoints/investing-ideas/financial-advisor-cost

http://www.envestnet.com/sites/default/files/documents/ENV-WP-CS-0516-FullVersion.pdf

https://www.vanguard.com/pdf/ISGQVAA.pdf

https://corporate1.morningstar.com/uploadedFiles/US/AlphaBetaandNowGamma.pdf

No matter how you might value a financial planner, the true value comes from the benefits listed above and from following and keeping on track with the financial planning process. Value goes beyond simple products or investment choices and returns. A financial planner is your partner in meeting your future financial goals.

Feel free to contact John Salter with any questions by phone 1.806.747.7995 or email: JSalter@EK-FF.com

For more information on financial planning visit our website at www.EK-FF.com.

Buyer Beware: What Do You Get From Your Advisor?

Brett Horowitz

Brett Horowitz, CFP®, AIF® Principal, Wealth Manager

Although I have never been to Thailand, I have read that you cannot go more than a few feet in a typical town market without someone yelling “same same.” It is the vendor’s way of telling you that what they offer is the same as everyone else, thus encouraging you to end yourcomparison shopping and buy from them.

Recently I spoke with a gentleman considering whether to become a client of our wealth management firm, and he asked matter-of-factly how we are different than all the other hundreds of investment firms in the area. It seems that most of the public thinks of all financial firms as “same same,” yet they differ widely. Here are a few of the things that may distinguish one financial advisory firm from the next.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

I cannot tell you the number of prospective clients who sit down to meet with us and have no idea how to answer the following three major questions.

  1. What return do you need in order to meet your personal goals?

If your portfolio is making 20% per year but it is loaded with risky assets that are keeping you up at night and you only need to earn 5% per year to live your current lifestyle, what is the point of taking the extra risk? Is your plan to make as much money as possible or to have the ideal lifestyle with the least amount of risk? If your goals change, shouldn’t the asset allocation (and desired return) be altered as well?

  1. Is your portfolio performing suitably to help you meet your goals?

If you are not receiving performance reports every so often, how do you know if the current advisor is doing a good job in helping you meet your goals? What does this performance tell you about the likelihood that you will meet your goals? Do you have a plan in place for tracking your goals?

  1. How does your current advisor get paid, and what is the total cost of your relationship?

If you cannot determine how much your advisor is being paid, isn’t it vital that you ask, to make sure the fees are reasonable? The US Department of Labor 401(k) fee website (http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/publications/401k_employee.html) compared two investors who started at age 35 with a 401(k) balance of $25,000 and never contributed again. Both investors earned 7% per year before fees, but one paid a 0.5% annual fee and one paid a 1.5% annual fee for the investments. The ending value after 35 years would have been $227,000 for the investor who paid a 0.5% annual fee versus $163,000 for the investor who paid a 1.50% annual fee. The 1 percentage point difference in fees reduced the account balance at retirement by 28%! An advisor cannot control the market, but they do have some control over taxes and expenses.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

We recognize that you have a lot going on and you do not always get around to completing your tasks. Perhaps you bought a life insurance policy years ago and have never revisited that decision to determine whether it still makes sense. Perhaps you never made a change to your estate documents or IRA beneficiaries after a marriage or divorce. Or perhaps you have not revisited your 401(k) allocation since the first time you made the initial selection.

Is this something that your advisor addresses? Does your advisor even know or want to know about your social security benefits, life insurance, or estate documents? Or have you simply been reduced, in your advisor’s eyes, to “a number?”

There are also certain age milestones that should prompt you to confer with your financial expert to ensure that decisions are made responsibly, such as:

  1. A few months before age 62, we suggest you sit down and go through a social security analysis to determine the optimal age for beginning to collect benefits.
  2. A few months before age 65, we recommend you research and apply for Medicare (as delaying will likely lead to penalties, based on the current Medicare rules).
  3. At age 70½ (or earlier for inherited IRAs) and each year thereafter, you need to decide the best approach in taking Required Minimum Distributions from your IRA.

Tax Brackets

Knowing your tax bracket and working with your accountant can help you achieve the highest after-tax return on your bonds.

Tax Sheltering

Placing certain assets to take advantage of IRAs, where you do not pay taxes on income and gains, can help boost your overall return.

Capital Gain Distributions and Tax Losses

If you are not watching out for mutual fund capital gain distributions at the end of the year, you are likely to get hit with a large tax bill. In addition, one of the ways to lower your tax bill is to take advantage of losses in your account once they take place.

Rebalancing

It is important to keep your asset allocation consistent with your goals by rebalancing between stocks and bonds. This may also lead to higher risk-adjusted portfolio returns over time.

The Devil Is in the Details

At the end of the day, it will benefit you to find a firm that puts a lot of time, effort, and thought into these details. The plan that is put in place on Day 1 should not be “buy and hold” (often described as “set it and forget it”), but rather “buy and manage,” with changes based on research, long-term projections, and unique circumstances. I can assure you that all financial firms are not “same same.” It is incumbent upon you as the buyer to ask the right questions before choosing the firm that’s best for you.

 

Feel free to contact Brett Horowitz with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 216 or email: BHorowitz@EK-FF.com

For more information on financial planning visit our website at www.EK-FF.com.

My loved one passed away. What now? A financial advisor may be a valuable resource.

 

Roxanne Alexander

Roxanne Alexander, CAIA, CFP®, AIF®, ADPA® Senior Financial Advisor

My dad recently passed away, and a month prior, a very dear client passed away. Both left their spouses to handle the finances, and although they left their affairs organized, extensive detective work was still necessary. Once the initial shock of losing someone subsides and the ceremonial procedures are over—what do you do now financially? After losing a best friend and loved one, thinking about money and handling the red tape required by financial institutions may be the last thing someone wants to face. In the best cases, it can take months to navigate through insurance policies, trusts, wills, bill payments and account transfers to beneficiaries. Tremendous pressure is lifted off the family when they have someone they can trust to reach out to—which could be a financial advisor.

Knowing the total picture

A family working with a financial advisor when a loved one passes away has several advantages. Financial planners and advisors usually know the total financial picture and may have clues to accounts of which you may be unaware. For example, another client who recently passed away had several annuities bought 30 years ago that were held at various insurance companies. The trustees of the trust had no prior details on these policies, so working with those annuity companies was very time consuming and difficult, as each company had their own requirements. One company wanted original documents and another accepted faxed copies, one wanted a long-form death certificate and another accepted photo copies, while some companies required a letter of acceptance for qualified account rollovers. Since the trustees worked long hours, it was hard for them to find the time to spend on the phone with the insurance companies navigating all the paperwork. A financial advisor knows the right questions to ask, which can speed up the process considerably.

The advisor may also be familiar with family dynamics—in some cases the client may have discussed personal matters about the family, such as one child not being financially responsible or wanting gifting to continue to a certain charity, which may help the surviving family members make decisions.

Knowing the technology

My mom inherited a bank account abroad—not only did she not speak the language, but that bank’s technology was very complex and required several passwords and barcodes. This was confusing for her, and having someone to walk her through the process was very helpful.

A cellphone or computer can be a valuable resource—it contains a plethora of information such as emails, passwords and other financial information. Having the deceased’s cellphone or computer can be crucial for logging in to accounts, resetting passwords, etc. Information in emails can also give clues to other accounts and bills that need to be cancelled. While working with one client, we realized there were several apps on the spouse’s phone that needed to be cancelled to avoid a monthly fee. It is important to keep in mind that although the intentions may be good, accessing these devices without permission could cause potential liability. It makes sense to talk to an estate attorney about what should be in place in advance before taking this approach. Having a legal document in place allowing you to access the phone, email, social media and other financial accounts of a deceased love one may prevent any potential legal disputes. Another option could be to discuss passwords beforehand, but accessing someone’s account after that person has passed away may also have legal ramifications.

Knowing the process

An advisor can help you through the process of dealing with retirement accounts, pension companies and insurance companies, as this can be confusing when it comes to rolling accounts over to the beneficiary due to the complex tax and transfer rules. Advisors have experience in what to look for and can facilitate the process more quickly, avoiding issues the client would not have expected.

Advisors can act as a liaison between family members. They can explain the process and expectations with respect to time and requirements by account custodians. The advisor can be a neutral third party that can discuss the best course of action between beneficiaries. Consulting a professional can ensure that accounts are set up correctly, avoiding potential tax penalties or premature tax payments. Discussions with beneficiaries regarding the best course of action could save them time and money in the long term—for example, issues like taking a lump sum versus leaving the account invested or knowing the tax consequences if they liquidate the account.

Many advisors will gladly work with heirs to open new accounts as a courtesy to the client. In many cases, retirement accounts must be split at the current custodian before they can be moved. IRAs and inherited IRAs have complicated account rules for tax purposes, so correct accounts should be opened to avoid any type of tax penalty.

 

Knowing the professionals

The financial advisor may have relationships with the client’s CPA, estate attorney and insurance agents. A client may change estate attorneys and not inform the beneficiaries, but the advisor may still have several revisions of the estate documents and beneficiary update forms on file. Financial advisors can also work as a team with the other professionals to brainstorm the most efficient plan for taxes and future estate planning. The advisor can coordinate obtaining trust tax IDs, facilitate the update of estate documents with the attorney or make sure any trust accounting is in place after consulting with the CPA.

Planning for the future

A financial advisor can reevaluate your risk tolerance, goals and expenses going forward, especially if your financial plan was created when you were married. Usually the portfolio is anchored to the spouse with the lower risk tolerance. Have the goals changed? Have the expenses changed? Should the portfolio still be invested in the same allocation?

Links to other related blogs:

Navigating the Death of a Loved One

Estate Planning for Online Accounts & Digital Media

Estate Planning Proceed with Caution

 

Feel free to contact Roxanne Alexander with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 236 or email: RAlexander@EK-FF.com

For more information on financial planning visit our website at www.EK-FF.com.

Intergenerational Planning: Time to Start Planting Seeds

Brett Horowitz

Brett Horowitz, CFP®, AIF® Principal, Wealth Manager

It takes the average recipient of an inheritance 19 days until they buy a new car.1

                Over the past several years, some of our clients have participated in client advisory boards in which they tell us what they want and what keeps them awake at night. One of the biggest challenges is bringing up finances and financial planning with their children. They are not alone. Intergenerational planning, in which families look at long-term financial needs together, is sorely missing. But to the surprise of many, it’s not just the parents who want this connection—it’s the kids as well. A study from MFS Investment Management reports that more than one-third of those in the “sandwich generation” (people ages 40 to 64) worry about aging parents’ financial issues in addition to their adult children’s financial issues.2 It’s about time to get everyone involved.

                According to the same study, less than half of the sandwich generation has prepared a list of assets, created a durable power of attorney or living will, purchased long-term care insurance, or established a trust. Further, even if they have checked off the boxes for these basic estate-planning tools, many have not communicated this information to their children.

Given that the older generation has been reluctant to have needed discussions, should we be surprised that the sandwich generation is concerned about their parents’ finances, yet hasn’t done anything to prepare their own children for what’s to come? All too often, the burden of managing a parent’s deteriorating health or financial situation falls to an adult child, who must step into a parent’s shoes at the last minute and try to cobble together information to form a basic plan. If a parent doesn’t discuss their specific assets with their adult children, and if no one knows they exist, those assets may not be used for their care. Assets may wind up being claimed by the state or federal government, adding to the more than $58 billion in abandoned property. Recent statistics suggest that 70% of families lose control of their assets when an estate is transferred to the next generation and 90% of the wealth is spent by the third generation. Why? About two-thirds of high-net-worth individuals have disclosed little about their wealth to their children, with the most common reason being that they do not feel that the next generation is financially responsible enough to handle an inheritance. Parents can head off this asset transfer problem, while at the same time avoiding divisive and costly family feuds, by taking the lead in these transformative conversations.

                The good news is that many of our clients have become more organized while working with us, and a lot of this information is in one place. But unless this information is disseminated to adult children, it remains stressful for everyone involved. Parents should suggest a family meeting with all their children at the same time to help ensure that their message is received uniformly. Having these conversations one-on-one may cause family members to fight, harbor grudges, or get confused, with the result that the discussion has the opposite of the intended effect.

For instance, parents may choose to leave money to their children in a trust, much to the dismay of the children, who may believe that this is being done to prevent them from having unfettered access. But perhaps the parent is trying to protect the children from creditors, due to having litigious jobs. Another reason could be a desire to protect money from a child’s former spouse. There could be estate or income tax reasons to form the trust in a certain way. Or it could be as simple as wanting to make sure that their frivolous-spending children do not run out of money within the first few years of receiving the inheritance. Parents may think that they are encouraging hard work by not disclosing their financial situation to their children, but they may in fact be fostering ignorance and anger.

These joint meetings may help a parent spell out their reasoning for how they are dividing their assets (including the house and personal belongings) and how they have decided who will be the estate’s executor, have durable power of attorney, or be the primary caregiver for minors. It’s much easier to understand what a parent wants to accomplish with their estate plan if they’re still around to explain it to their family. This doesn’t mean that specific numbers have to be included and that full disclosure be given, but it’s up to the parents to start the conversation and share what they are comfortable sharing.

In other cases, the parent is more interested in handing down values than money. Perhaps all that’s needed is a simple conversation about the importance of having a financial team—consisting of a financial planner, estate attorney, and accountant—establishing a financial plan, saving and investing money, and giving back to charity. So often we hear from clients that a discussion early in their childhood about money formed the foundation for their lifelong financial habits. If the situation is more complex, a family facilitator might need to be hired, someone who can broach difficult, personal, and possibly painful subjects, with the end result being a unified family that is more aware of each other’s feelings and goals. These conversations can be done at the 30,000-foot level if not everyone is comfortable sharing information, or they can be very specific. No one wants a child to feel entitled to expect a large inheritance, but as a parent, do you want your children completely left out of the loop?

                Our firm can help parents review their long-term financial plan with their children, discuss where accounts and important documents are located, and provide contact information for the parents’ financial team. The family should review the will/trust and communicate their wishes about health care preferences to avoid squabbles (who will ever forget the Terry Schiavo situation?). Getting everyone in the same place keeps the message consistent and unequivocally removes any doubts that may have been building. It’s not going to be the easiest of conversations, and all parties may start off anxious, but reticence about the subject will surely backfire. If parents are concerned about their children and children are concerned about their parents, doesn’t it make sense to get everyone together in a room to talk?

1 The source for cited statistics is a Time article, available at: http://time.com/money/3925308/rich-families-lose-wealth/

 

2 The source for cited statistics is an MFS study available at: http://www.mfs.com/about/news/press_080296.html

 

Feel free to contact Brett Horowitz with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 216 or email: BHorowitz@EK-FF.com

For more information on financial planning visit our website at www.EK-FF.com.

What Constitutes the Art of Practicing Financial Planning?

The below chapter is from “The Art of Practicing and the Art of Communication in Financial Planning” (Click here to purchase the book.)

Matt McGrath

Matthew McGrath, CFP® Managing Partner Wealth Manager

Why would one use the word “art” when describing the practice of financial planning?  The most highly qualified planners have gone through rigorous education and testing in order to acquire licenses and certifications.  They use a methodical process to establish the client-planner relationship.  This process includes gathering data, analyzing and evaluating the client’s status, developing and presenting recommendations; as well as implementing and monitoring those recommendations.  They use sophisticated software to run complicated analyses and they stay abreast of laws and regulations affecting a wide array of financial issues.  Where is the art?

The art of practicing financial planning can be found when professionals deploy a fundamentally sound process while injecting experience and judgment to develop advice in the best interest of the client.  Financial planning involves altering human behavior which presents unique challenges each and every single time.  It includes navigating an ever-changing body of knowledge and applying it to individual circumstances in order to arrive at a recommendation appropriate at that point in time.

Let’s start with the people.  At its core, financial planning is a “people” business.  Clients are looking to planners to guide them on some of the most important decisions of their lives.  Establishing trust and maintaining effective communication are crucial to the successful execution of the financial planning process.  Being technically proficient (i.e. “book smart”) does not necessarily translate to successful advice.  The ability to communicate the relevant details to clients in a way they understand and embrace is the key to effective planning.  Successful financial planners channel their inner teacher to convey facts, figures and details in a way that is easy to comprehend.  Many clients are intimidated by financial matters, and it takes skill to break through those emotional barriers and establish a level of comfort.

Of course, before attempting to communicate any advice, a good planner needs to start by listening to their client.  Understanding what is truly important to a client is crucial to establishing trust and rapport.  The last thing a client wants to hear is generic advice regurgitated from a book; they can find the information in countless places using any internet connected device.  What they want is someone who understands their personal concerns and goals and develops recommendations specific to them.  If a planner is doing all the talking in client meetings, then I would argue that they are not engaging in true financial planning.  Listening must always come first.  Meetings should involve meaningful two-way conversations, not a one-way presentation.

Keep in mind, when working with people, every situation is unique and emotions play a big part in the process.  People do not always behave in a rational manner.  It is not unusual for a client to come to tears during a meeting.  Money, finances and the future can be very emotional topics.  Therefore, the right advice on an issue may not necessarily be the one with the maximum financial outcome.  Client biases, fears and preconceptions can all have an influence on the ultimate advice.  A good planner will try to guide the client to a rational decision, but also has to acknowledge that a client needs to be able to live with the outcome.  Empathy is critical, as is the ability to interpret and understand the motivations of each client in order to develop advice appropriate for them.  The “people” side of financial planning can be very complicated and the ability to interact with others is a necessary ingredient in the art of practicing financial planning.

It is also essential to understand that financial planning is a journey, not a destination.  Changes occur every day.  Planners deal with a wide array of issues such as marriage, divorce, recessions, market crashes, retirement and, sadly, death.  Successful planning keeps up with these changes by adapting to the new circumstances in a way that keeps the client on the path to accomplish their goals.  Success is not measured by dollars or annual rates of return; nor is it defined by the creation of a beautiful comprehensive financial plan that goes in a drawer never to be seen again.  Rather, it is defined by the ongoing achievement of goals throughout one’s life.  It is an organic process that, for each client, takes on a life of its own.

The planning process often involves evaluating questions that have more than one potential answer.  Part of the art of financial planning involves evaluating those answers and helping someone choose the best one for their personal situation.  At the end of the day, the planner’s objective is to enable clients to make informed decisions.  I once had a client ask me if he should take his kids out of private school and I told him that’s not my call.  I can walk through his financial plan with him and help him understand the consequences of different decisions.  But in the end, the clients need to take ownership of their decisions and their lives.  Planners who cross this line are doing a disservice to their clients and robbing them of their true financial freedom.  A planner’s role is not to tell someone what they should do; it is to empower them to make appropriate decisions within the context of their unique lives.

The art of practicing financial planning exists in the less tangible aspects of the process.  This involves listening, assessing, analyzing, communicating and ultimately recommending a course of action.  Experience, judgment, trust and communication are crucial to the successful implementation of a financial plan.  Information is everywhere, but knowing what to do with it to help an individual achieve their specific goals is absolutely a form of art.  Like other forms of art, it is predicated on an underlying body of knowledge that must be successfully interpreted and executed under specific circumstances.  And like good artists, good planners will be greatly appreciated by their clients.

Feel free to contact Matt McGrath with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 206 or email: MMcGrath@EK-FF.com

Important Questions For Advisors

Steve Foldes

Steven Foldes, CFP®, JD, CMFC Vice Chairman

After a lengthy first meeting with a prospective client, whom we will call Beverly, she said to me, “Thanks for all of that information, Steve, but as I mentioned at the outset I want to meet other advisors in the area so I can compare and contrast and make the best possible choice.” I told Beverly that I applauded her decision to interview a number of financial advisors so she could understand what they do, how they do it, whose interests are being served, and how (as well as how much) they are compensated. Beverly then asked me to make a list of questions that I thought would be the most important when selecting the best possible advisor or advisory firm. I thought it would be a helpful exercise for all investors seeking a trusted advisor to ask the questions which would help them make the best possible decision. Below is the list I gave Beverly to help her feel confident in her search to select the very best advisor and advisory firm for her needs. I believe that any investor should ask these questions before entering into an advisory relationship.

Important Questions to ask of any Financial Advisor

1. Are you a fiduciary? In other words, are you legally obligated to put your client’s best interests first, ahead of all other interests? Our industry is rather unique, in that there is more than one standard of care used by the financial services industry. Registered Investment Advisors (RIAs) are required to operate under a fiduciary standard, putting their client’s interests ahead of their own. However, the brokerage world has another standard known as “suitability.” This lower standard holds that as long as the investment is “suitable” for the client’s needs, then that is sufficient. That is to say, the investment may not be the best or the most cost effective, but as long as the advisor deems it to be “suitable,” then the standard is met. In other words, it enables the advisor to be a financial salesperson, as opposed to one who can be trusted to put the client’s best interests first.

2. How do you charge for your services and how much do you charge? In the financial services industry, there are two main methods of compensation. One is a fee for service, typically based upon the assets under management. The other is commission. Since different products carry different commission rates, and human nature being what it is, there is the possibility of a conflict of interest. In this case, it must be asked whether the interests of the client and advisor are aligned, or is there a conflict of interest from the outset of the relationship?

3. What licenses, credentials, or other certifications do you have? How long have you been a financial advisor, and how long have you been with this firm? Personally, how many clients do you work with, and what is the total assets that you manage? Are you an owner of the firm? These questions are critical in assessing the education and experience of the advisor, not to mention how much time the advisor has to work with his or her clients. Finally, being an owner of the firm is important because owners typically stay with a firm longer while employees often leave, and the last thing a client wants is to follow an advisor who is jumping from one firm to another because of better compensation opportunities.

4. Do you provide comprehensive financial planning and retirement planning services, or are you simply an investment advisor that provides advice exclusively on my investments? Will you be looking at my financial situation “holistically” to provide the best kind of financial advice? If you do financial planning, could I see a sample financial plan?

5. What types of clients do you specialize in, such as retirees, professionals, small business owners, corporate executives, younger people who have recently sold their businesses, athletes, those with inherited wealth, et cetera? It is important to know if the advisor has a special expertise serving a specific niche.

6. What is your investment approach? In other words, please outline your methodology for constructing a portfolio consistent with my goals and objectives, risk and return parameters, and cash flow requirements from the portfolio. If you use mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, what would be the expected “expense ratio” of the funds used in my portfolio? Expense ratios relate to the cost of the mutual funds and exchange-traded funds used in the portfolio. If you use individual stocks, what is the methodology of stock selection? Is it something the advisor does, or do selections come from the home office? As to performance, what is the expected return of my portfolio over the longer term, and has the portfolio been stress-tested to show what I would lose during periods of substantial market volatility, such as 2000–2003 and 2007–2009?

7. How much contact do you have with your clients? How often will we be speaking/meeting to get updates on what is happening with my plan and portfolio specifically, as well as with the markets in general?

8. Will I be working only with you, or have you established a team to work with me? What happens to my account if you move to another firm or retire/die?

9. Who holds or maintains custody of my investments? Is there an independent third party to hold the investments, or are checks written to the advisor or advisory firm? No one thought Bernie Madoff was a thief, so having a firewall between the client and the advisory firm is a very good idea.

10. What about reporting? Is there online access to a secure web portal that puts together all the accounts that can be viewed daily? How often is performance reported to the client? Is there a formal structure set up to report the performance and meet with the advisor?

11. Can I get referrals from existing clients? Having these referrals and understanding the client experience from others in the community says a lot about meeting expectations

12. What makes your client experience unique? Are you really the trusted advisor I seek? Do you provide guidance and advice on things other than investments, such as buying vs. renting a home and home financing options, or buying vs. leasing a car and auto financing options? Is insurance part of the offering? If so, is it sold with a commission to the advisor, or is insurance something that the advisor consults on and avoids the product sale? What about guidance in estate planning, taxes, and setting up different kinds of retirement plans (e.g., defined benefit plans, 401(k) plans) and other ways of setting aside more money for retirement? If this is not done in-house, does the advisor assist with these topics? In essence, does the advisor serve as the quarterback of a comprehensive financial team?  

I told Beverly to take notes during her meetings, and have the prospective advisor answer each and every one of these questions in detail. In that way, she could truly make an informed comparison with all the others she would be interviewing. Happily, after Beverly interviewed several other CFP® practitioners and representatives from several brokerage houses, she selected our firm!

I hope that the list of questions above can help investors like Beverly make better and more informed decisions when looking for the right financial advisor based on their particular circumstances.

Feel free to contact Steve Foldes with any questions by phone 305.448.8882 ext. 240 or email: SFoldes@EK-FF.com