Research from Cerulli Associates shows that fewer than half of investors who work with one know how their independent financial advisor is paid. At the same time, 81% said their advisor acts as a "fiduciary" who puts their financial interests above commission payouts, fees, or other kickers.
Unfortunately, in many cases, investors are dead wrong in thinking their advisor has to follow a fiduciary standard and represent their best interests, which leaves investors vulnerable to the sorts of financial grifters described below. Avoid any advisor who fits one or more of these three profiles.
Charlatans are advisors who'll do just about anything to get you to sign over your assets, only to systematically ignore you once you're locked into the relationship.
"[Advisors] know that once they've got you, you're pretty much never going to leave unless you die or move away," says Gigi Guthrie, a Tampa, Fla.-based financial writer who at one time helped produce seminars that taught advisors how to sell to clients. She and her husband spent years on the front lines witnessing financial chicanery.
They're hardly alone. A cursory Web search finds the industry abounds with self-proclaimed gurus such as Larry Klein. No longer in the public eye, Klein ran "boot camps" suggesting that advisors could earn a half-million or more in annual income by filling up their appointment books with prospective clients each week. Klein has also been censured and fined thousands of dollars for selling unsuitable investments and misrepresenting products, with regulators having sought to curtail or even ban his interactions with clients. (All the details are available at FINRA's BrokerCheck website.)
Guthrie says she frequently witnessed shenanigans while consulting for big-money financial advisors and regrets not warning would-be clients sooner. At one seminar in particular, Guthrie says the speaker bragged of never "wasting time" talking with clients, instead hiring three secretaries who'd pass client calls among each other in round-robin fashion rather than letting them talk to him.
For the more cash-strapped and creative, this leader suggested getting a voice synthesizer machine built to deliver canned answers. "They'll just be so frustrated [with it] that they'll give up," Guthrie reports the seminar leader as saying. It'd be the stuff of a Saturday Night Live skit were it not so spectacularly sad.
Worse, the tricks work -- Guthrie said clients often willingly endure bad relationships in order to avoid conflict. Again, consider the Cerulli research. Only a small percentage of those surveyed said they planned to leave their advisor. Even among clients of the most at risk (i.e., those whose advisors hadn't fully disclosed how they're paid), just 16% said they planned to move assets while 58% were "satisfied" with the relationship despite knowing so little.
What if you suspect an advisor of being a charlatan? Propose a check-in schedule and specific menu of follow-up services. Set deadlines. If he balks, makes excuses, or tries to set you up with an "assistant," chances are you've found someone who's only interested in your assets. You can do better.
The control freak
Whereas charlatans usually intend deceit, control freaks go out of their way to pretend to be cooperative, but in the end depend upon weak-willed clients to let them trade stocks, bonds, funds, and more in order to generate huge commissions.
One Florida-area woman, who says she had to hand-deliver a cease-and-desist notice to her family's broker in order to prevent him from trading away her parents' retirement savings, knows the pain of working with a control freak.
In an interview, she described how the broker systematically generated $9,000 or more in commissions monthly even as the retirement assets dwindled under $1 million following the dot-com bubble. Nor did he slow down trading nor shift strategy when her father, now deceased, began suffering signs of dementia.
How did he get away it? He took advantage of trust built on history. As she says, this was the "family broker" who had served her grandmother and aunt. Her father felt uncomfortable questioning his decisions, despite stated misgivings about the fees he was paying.
At one family event, he let slip to an in-law -- a retired equities broker -- that he had been paying close to six figures' worth of commissions annually.
"Dad made the comment that this broker had made more money that year than he and mom had made," the woman explained. Yet no one other than the retired broker spoke up because of her father's sense of loyalty to the relationship. Trading continued as usual.
As her father's condition worsened, the woman says her elderly, high-school-educated mother took over monthly conversations with the broker. Yet her mom also proved easy to manipulate. For evidence, she cites 2008 trading records that show her mom paid almost $64,000 in commissions on an account of less than $500,000. And her dad's account didn't do much better, paying almost $27,000 (about 8%) in equity commissions during 2008.
In the wake of her father's passing, the woman says her mother asked that a third of the dwindling equities portfolios be put in cash. The broker complied but kept trading aggressively with the capital that remained. Only after two more months did she take control. "I went in with a letter and said, 'Look, I'm a trustee on a trust and I have power of attorney. You have been instructed that I am the person you deal with from now on.'"
Shortly thereafter, everything changed. Trades were subsequently vetted and authorized, and commissions for the remaining equity accounts dropped from $9,203 in January 2009 to just $532 as of that September.
What if you suspect an advisor of being a control freak? Demand an explanation for every move made on your behalf. If the advisor can't describe, succinctly, how his actions are helping you achieve your financial goals, he's probably using you to pad his paycheck.
Control freaks and salesmen are eerily similar. In each case, the advisor is depending on you, the client, to engage in a transaction. But the salesman is much worse in at least one way: He'll say anything to get you to buy a product that guarantees him years' worth of regular income.
One broker told me that most advisors are nothing more than "wealth accumulators" -- accumulating wealth for themselves, that is, not their clients.
"We would have meetings, and when the other advisors would get introduced, they would get introduced not only by name but by how many assets they had under management," this broker says, explaining that selling favored products and keeping a big balance of client money could result in thousands in recurring income. "Basically, they were making pretty nice amounts of money just by showing up for work."
The broker requested anonymity because he still has relationships with current employees of that national firm he referred to as "the McDonald's of the industry."
In industry parlance, such sales produce "trails" -- as in "trailing income" that some products pay to sellers year after year. Annuities are a good example since the balance is invested over a long period during which customers can't cash in without incurring steep penalties.
Mutual funds that have load (i.e., sales) charges and 12b-1 fees may also pay firms to put their products on a preferred list. The ensuing pot is then distributed to those who sell the funds. Chances are that salesperson has a business card that says "advisor."
"Trails" too often lead to conflicts of interest. In one instance, the licensed broker said a member of the stewardship team at his former church would write articles about financial topics for the congregational magazine as a means to sell products and services to the flock. Separately, he'd talk up the huge payouts from selling annuities, hoping the lure of a fatter income would entice the broker's nephew, also an advisor, to leave the firm he'd been with for years.
Pressure to sell can be so great that some salesmen will rely on deception. At one point, the broker says he overheard his nephew -- a deacon in the same church where he was being recruited -- pitching a profitable fund to an older couple by claiming his parents owned shares. It was a lie.
Guthrie, the Tampa-based financial writer, says she preached a similar tactic when training advisors. Instead of teaching them to lie outright, she counseled advisors to buy a few thousand dollars' worth of a profitable fund -- just enough to be able to say, "I've got my mother in this," Guthrie says, admitting it's another part of her past she's not proud of.
What if you suspect you're working with a salesman? Ask how much money the advisor can expect to make from the product he's pitching. If he balks or makes excuses, it's probably because the product will do more for him than you.
It's never too late to improve your situation
Don't despair if you're stuck with a charlatan, control freak, or salesman. Find a new path, as the Florida-area daughter profiled above did. Thanks to her willingness to intervene, more than enough capital remains to keep her mom comfortable for the remainder of her golden years.
Guthrie, meanwhile, says she also wants to help investors get more informed. "I know what to look for when going to talk with a financial advisor. What the cues to be wary of are, and that's what I want to warn people away from." But it's up to you to go out and get that information.
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