Can investors trust their money managers?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Taking Control,” by Jennifer Levitz highlights how investors feel they can no longer trust money managers. Multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes by the likes of Bernie Madoff, prominent financial companies being accused of cheating clients, and terrible recent performance have all conspired to make investors feel shell-shocked.

This is quiet understandable. After being re-assured that regulators were looking out for their interests and by money managers who have conflicts of interest, no wonder people feel scared.

The article goes on to spell out some of the things investors can do to take back control, so they don’t feel as scared.

1) Do your homework when picking a financial advisor. Every investment advisor must provide a Form ADV Part II to prospective clients. This form spells out an adviser’s structure, methodology, criminal record, compensation, etc. If you advisor won’t disclose this basic information, then don’t consider them. I gladly provide this form to all my prospective clients.

2) Ask tough questions to identify potential conflicts of interest. Some advisers are salespeople in disguise. They are compensated by commissions and they only have to judge a potential investment as “suitable” for clients. A tougher standard, which all registered investment advisers must meet, is a “fiduciary” standard. A fiduciary must put the client’s interests first. A commission-based broker only has to ensure an investment is “suitable,” which has a lot of wiggle room. Make sure your advisor holds themselves out to the fiduciary standard. I do.

3) Find out how an advisor is compensated. If they are compensated by commission, then your interests and theirs are not aligned. Their commissioned-based structure may not be obvious to you, so ask a lot of questions. If an advisor gives you a financial plan for $500, and they recommend you put $100,000 with a mutual fund they get a 5% commission ($5,000) for recommending, they have 10 times the reason to get you to buy their fund than to provide you with an objective financial plan. If they work for a flat fee and don’t receive kick-backs for recommending investments, then their interests and yours are aligned. If they work for a fee based on assets under management, then their interests are aligned with yours except when you ask them how much of your money they should manage. Find out how your advisor is compensated and you’ll find out if their interests are aligned with yours. I’m compensated by a fee based on assets under management, so my interests are aligned with clients, and I disclose my conflict of interest when they ask me how much money they should stick with me.

4) Ask tough questions about risk factors. Most advisers try to paper over risk factors. They stick clients with a hundred page prospectus (feeling certain no one except accountants and engineers will read it), or they try to understate risk considerations. Make sure your advisor can clearly articulate the risk factors of their particular approach. I have a brutally honest web page that explains the risk factors of equity investing (which is what I do), and I tend to over-emphasize risk to my clients. My first client letter, in the summer of 2005, said the market was over-valued and that clients should lower their return expectations. Fortune favors the prepared mind.

5) Don’t expect a free lunch. When someone gives you a free steak dinner, you have to question their motivation and objectivity. When someone says something is “cash-like,” doubt their statement. Cash is cash-like; structured products, bonds, even CDs all carry risks that are distinctly not cash-like. I invest in equities, and they are not cash-like. Don’t be fooled by someone trying to pitch a product that anything other than cash is truly cash-like.

6) Does a manger invest his own money the same way he’s recommending you invest your money? Does he or she eat their own cooking? If your advisor doesn’t or won’t invest where he is recommending you invest, be very worried. If they earn $100,000 a year selling variable annuities and have $20,000 of their own money in a variable annuities, be very worried (they make so much more from selling annuities that they’ll never care about the mere $20,000 they might lose). If an advisor believes in what they do, then they’ll have all, or almost all, of their money invested there. I have over 90% of my money invested in the same securities I recommend for clients. My other 10% is in a bank account in case an emergency happens.

7) Does your adviser’s firm have interests aligned with yours? Firms make more money when they advise more people. But, the more people they advise, the less time they have for you. Such is the conflict of interest of money management. Added to this, large firms cannot move as quickly as small firms to exploit market opportunities, nor can they deploy their money in smaller situations like small firms can. The benefit of large firms is the possibility of lower costs. With Vanguard, that’s the case. Most firms that are 100x my size still charge more than I do, when all costs are considered. Many large firms charge their clients to help them market to new clients, that’s what 12b-1 fees are at mutual funds. What a rip-off. My firm is small and nimble, allowing me to provide excellent, personalized customer service to a limited number of unique clients.

Yes, Virginia, some money managers can be trusted, but you have to do your homework to find that out. Get full disclosure, ask about advisor conflicts of interest, find out how they’re compensated, get clear information about risk, don’t expect a free lunch, ask lots of questions and expect understandable answers. It’s hard work, but very much worth the effort.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.