I must confess at the outset to a bone-deep weariness of this pervasive myth. It is dangerous. It is ignorant. It is inaccurate. And, more importantly, it is self-destructive to the average investor.
This myth compares quite aptly to racism and sexism, which are uneducated snap judgements of others based on sheer irrelevancies such as skin color and gender. In the deep South a woman about to give birth may refuse the services of a black OB/GYN even though he is the best in town and even though his skin color is less relevant than the color of his shoes (it’s easier to tell if white shoes are clean or dirty). A brilliant marketing director may be passed over for a promotion simply because she is a woman in a good ole boy corporate network, to the detriment of the company.
I frequently am asked, “Do you sell [financial] products?” as if this is some magic passphrase to, in one fell swoop, assess my skill & virtue. My answer is, “Of course I do. All of them. It is the only way to keep up on current innovations and features. A great deal in the financial universe is not shared with the public nor is it shared in a timely manner. I am beholden to no specific company or product or even type of product.” But somewhere the questioner read or heard that anyone who sells financial products is biased. And it is true. However, we are biased in favor of holistic plan construction and implementation. What would you think if you invited a plumber to your house to put in a water heater and he brought no tools? Or water heater?
So I’m going to look at the various “adviser” types and show you that none are free of bias and conflict of interest. None. Keep in mind that most are genuinely honest, hardworking, highly educated and primarily concerned about improving your situation.
Fee-Only Advisers– Well, “fee-only” can include % fees for assets under management (AUM) which, in my opinion, are really commissions. The theory has been that as you do better your adviser does better. But the converse is not true: If you lose money, your adviser still does well. Plus, the evidence is in that very few “managers” beat their unmanaged benchmarks. None do it year after year.
Flat/Hourly Fee-Only Advisers- The conflicts here should be obvious. If you are paying a flat fee for a comprehensive plan and it turns out to be more work than the adviser expected then he may rush to finish. Or not finish at all. Conversely, there is great incentive for an hourly adviser to drag his feet and stretch out the engagement far longer than necessary. I’m not saying this is common practice. Not at all. But it is a conflict of interest where the adviser’s self-interest could subvert your best interests.
Commission Only Advisers- These could be life insurance agents, annuity agents, stock & mutual fund commissioned brokers and AUM brokers. First the positive: These folks are action oriented. They will not allow you to take their plan and let it accumulate dust on a shelf somewhere. Conflicts come in if they only work for one firm, specialize in only one product and/or don’t have access to all financial products. There may also be bias toward the highest commission products. These conflicts and biases can be be minimized by the adviser providing evidence that the recommendations are the best he can find, thru side-by-side comparison. You should also insist on evidence they are licensed fiduciaries.
“Free”, Celebrity Advisers- In their books, videos, radio & TV shows these “advisers” use a shotgun approach, scattering titillating financial tidbits that may or may not improve your situation. Oddly, these are also the people who propagate irrelevant tests and evidence-free secret passcodes to sabotage their competition, the true professionals like myself. They prey on our human tendency to wish hard choices were easy, as is the case when using skin color or gender to assess someone’s virtue. And, as entertainers, authors and “journalists” they are neither licensed nor regulated. You can’t look up their compliance history.
Having been in this business since 1978, I’ve experienced every type of compensation, all the way from being a salaried employee, through 100% commission to 100% hourly fee-only, to my current hybrid model described below Here’s the ideal structure I’ve settled on as being fair to me and, at the same time, in the best interest of my clients:
Fee Minus Only- Never heard of it? As far as I know, I’m the only one in Oregon with such a contract. In a nutshell it says that I charge $250/hr. for a comprehensive planning process. But if, as a result of implementing that plan, I receive 3rd party compensation then I reduce or refund the hourly fee, dollar-for-dollar. What is the effect on you?
- You get the unbiased services of a holistic, fiduciary adviser who puts a great deal of work into learning about you and your situation, and, collaborating with you to improve it.
- I normally eliminate your risk of accumulating an unknown total fee by capping the number of hours for which I will charge. This cap can’t be changed without your written consent.
- If the best products and services for implementing your plan (and you’re the one who chooses) pay compensation to me, then in effect a 3rd party ends up paying some or even all of your fee. If the best products and/or services pay no 3rd party compensation, then I’m happy because I get paid well either way. You’re happy because your current and future costs are lower than with any other arrangement.
- Any and all conflicts are fully disclosed.
So yes, there are some key tests of whether an adviser will work for your best interests. But they’re not secret, they’re not magic and they’re not simple. Here are the key questions to ask any adviser:
- Are you a legal fiduciary in this state? How can I confirm that?
- What are your conflicts of interest? “I don’t have any” is the wrong answer. Could you spell them out in writing?”
- Are you holistic? If they are,they will use tools such as personalwealthindex.com to learn about you as a whole person rather than an account balance. Simply using a Risk Tolerance Questionnaire is woefully inadequate.
Hence, if you’re not racist or sexist then work toward the same enlightenment when it comes to your finances.
Best Wishes Always,
Your Constructive Comments are Welcome!