Financial Predators

To the public, they call themselves "financial advisors" or "financial consultants." But that's not what they call themselves when they're talking to each other. Instead, they use terms such as "asset gatherers" and "producers."

And they may call you a "client" to your face, but you're really a "buyer" or a "prospect."

How do I know the lingo of full-service brokers -- those who work for the likes of Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MWD  ) , Merrill Lynch (NYSE: ML  ) , and Citigroup's (NYSE: C  ) Smith Barney, as well as thousands of independent brokers? First of all, I was a broker for a brief period. But even though I left Wall Street years ago, I still receive broker-targeted email -- spam that is pushing the latest five-CD set with the "ultimate sales secrets" or the newest system "guaranteed to increase your commissions 100%!" Here are a few examples:

  • "Discover the Secrets to Attract & Profit from the 'Lucrative Senior Market.' "

  • "Learn how to ask great questions so you can quickly identify who is, and isn't a prospect. Now you can spend more time with buyers and less time with those who aren't."

  • "As a full-time producer, I did one seminar a month and raised $1 million per seminar. Some producers have raised as much as $6 million per seminar using my formula. Any producer wanting to raise funds for fee-based accounts, mutual funds, annuities, investment management or any general 'asset gatherer' can use this three-part formula to end seminar problems and create unparalleled success. Learn how to motivate attendees (because if you educate them, you'll never earn more than a schoolteacher)."

  • "We will market you to affluent retirees and you'll have the essential knowledge to do three times more business."

  • "Real professionals select the clients they want, leaving the 'less affluent' or 'difficult' clients to junior financial advisors."

  • "Learn the best way to invite rich people."

Now, I don't want to demean all full-service brokers. Many of them do outstanding work and are fine human beings. If I meet with an untimely death, my wife will hand over the life-insurance proceeds to a good friend who is just such a broker. If something should happen to my wife and me, this fellow and his wife may end up raising our children. I trust him that much.

But the problem with most full-service brokers is that they make their money through commissions earned by selling investments. These products have different commission structures -- e.g., selling one mutual fund may earn 2% for the advisor, whereas selling the other would earn 5%. This sets up a conflict of interest that can tempt a broker to sell an investment that may not be the best choice for the investor.

For example, consider this quote from an email I received: "Existing annuity owners ARE the most profitable market. They not only buy more annuities but they do exchanges and when you hear Dick's presentation, you'll see how to triple your business with these people."

First of all, understand that the annuity business is very profitable, for both the issuers and the brokers. The commissions can be huge -- one email I received, which was encouraging brokers to steer their clients to a particular annuity, had "10% Commission!" in big, bright, bold lettering.

Now, consider the selling point that current annuity owners "do exchanges." An "exchange" is when one annuity is switched for another. This can be a good deal if the new annuity has lower costs or better features. However, every exchange generates a new commission for the broker. In June, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Association of Securities Dealers released a joint report on annuity sales practices that found "instances of brokers making unsuitable recommendations to senior citizens and to individuals who could not afford the products without mortgaging their homes. Other weaknesses included failures to disclose fully the various fees, risks, and tax consequences associated with these products." In particular, the SEC and the NASD found evidence that many exchanges ended up not being in the best interest of the annuity owner.

Advisors or predators?
Only once have I received an email selling a system that aims to help advisors better serve their clients. Yet even that one claimed to teach also the important skill of "how to read retirees' tax returns and uncover all the assets." You can't help but feel that these emails are meant for people who want to take your money, not help you grow it.

Everyone has to get paid, whether you're a financial advisor or a Motley Fool. And as I wrote in a recent article (Nike Brainwashed My Child!), I don't condemn all marketing. Heck, I've been known to plug my own newsletter in my columns. (Try Rule Your Retirement for 30 days -- free! -- and get the "8 Ways to Supercharge Your Retirement" special report -- free! -- and if you come to my office I'll show you pictures of my kids -- free!)

But when it comes to financial services, you have to spend extra effort in discovering the true motives. Before you open your wallet, ask yourself: What incentive does that person have to tell the whole story -- the pros and cons, the realistic payoffs and the long-term costs? When you use the services of a fee-only advisor -- someone who charges just for his time and advice -- his dominant incentive is to provide a good plan. A commission-based broker has an incentive to provide good advice, too, but he probably won't get paid the same if he recommends Mutual Fund X over Annuity Y -- and he won't get paid at all if he tells you that you should first get your employer match in your 401(k), even though that's what you should do. The good brokers can work through these temptations, but many do not.

If you work with a broker whom you trust, one who has beat a relevant benchmark after fees and taxes over a three-year period, then congrats. It can be worth a lot of money to have an honest, knowledgeable person to call when you have a question. Just make sure this person is a true advisor -- and not, deep down, a producer or asset gatherer.

Robert Brokamp is the editor of theMotley Fool Rule Your Retirementnewsletter service. Order it today and receive the "8 Ways to Supercharge Your Retirement" special report free. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.


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