Reading a brokerage statement may not qualify as one of life's more exciting experiences, but it's critical to smart money management. If you don't read and understand your brokerage statement, you might not spot mistakes -- or even outright fraud -- that can be hidden in plain sight.
"When people take out a mortgage or buy a gas grill, they take time to figure it out. But when it comes to investing, it can be a big pain in the neck. And people are busy with their lives, and their kids, and watching the ball game," said Steve Sass, the program director of the Financial Security Project at Boston College's Center for Retirement Research. "You have to treat your investments like any other transaction. You need to take the time to see if you are getting what you are paying for, and if what you are paying for is even of value to you."
So while it might not be particularly exciting, it's important that you give each brokerage statement a thorough read. If anything looks awry, don't be shy about calling your broker to request an explanation or, if necessary, reaching out to regulators that oversee the brokerage industry, such as FINRA.
Here's a top-to-bottom look at the information a brokerage statement may include and what investors should be mindful of when checking for errors or signs of fraud.
One of the biggest red flags, particularly when it comes to scammers issuing fraudulent statements, is a statement that looks unprofessional or altered in any way. For instance, logos might have an oddly low resolution, or fonts may be inconsistent. In some cases, scammers have been known to include legitimate firm logos on their own trumped-up statements. If a statement from your firm looks different from prior statements, it may be a red flag.
When to worry: Does the statement look altered in any way? Has the logo or font changed since your last statement? Does the statement include all the appropriate information spelled out below?
Statement period or statement end date
This portion of the statement shows the value of your investments at the end of the statement period. Knowing that end date can help you gauge your investment's performance over a certain time period.
When to worry: Is there no end date specified? Do the end dates fail to follow a consistent pattern (such as the last Friday of every month)?
This information on your statement identifies ownership of the account (individual, joint, etc.), as well as what type of account it is (personal, business, etc.) and account number(s). It also identifies the current mailing address the firm has on its records.
When to worry: Does the account number fail to match previous statements? Is there a wrong or outdated address? Is any of the account ownership information incorrect or outdated?
The name and contact information for your financial professional are generally located at the top of your statement. Statements from online brokerages or other investment firms that do not provide investment advice may not include the name of a specific finance professional. But they are required to provide a phone number that you can call for information on your account.
When to worry: Is the financial professional's name unfamiliar? Are phone numbers out of service or always busy?
The clearing firm identified on your statement is the brokerage firm that maintains custody of the securities and cash in your account. FINRA requires that account statements provide clearing firm contact information. The clearing firm may be a subsidiary of your brokerage firm, and thus have a name similar to your brokerage firm, or your firm may have an arrangement with another broker-dealer to act as its clearing firm. If you notice any inaccuracies or discrepancies on your account statement, then you should report -- in writing -- the issue to both your primary brokerage firm and the clearing firm listed on your statement.
When to worry: Is there no clearing firm information? Is the phone number out of service or not being answered? Or is there no clearing firm information at all?
This information on your statement shows the big picture of your account's performance, including the total value of your account and the performance since the last statement period. It can give you important insight into how successful your investment strategy is and whether you should change course.
When to worry: Is there any activity that you did not authorize? Are you receiving consistent, positive returns that seem unrealistic?
This section helps you stay in tune with the income earned and its source, and may be consolidated with your account summary, deposits, withdrawals, dividend interest, and the maturity dates of your bonds.
It's important not to confuse actual yields or total investment returns with a depiction of estimated annual income (EAI) or estimated yield (EY), which, as the names suggest, is only an estimate and may change.
When to worry: Are there unfamiliar sources of dividend and interest income? Do you see income that appears on your statement that has not been deposited to your account?
This is, of course, where fees associated with your account are disclosed, and it should not be ignored. It isn't possible to get an accurate picture of your investment results without an accurate understanding of your fees, so you'll want to review this section carefully to keep an eye out for any unexpected charges.
When to worry: Do the fees, including commissions, seem excessive or unusual? Are there handling charges or other unanticipated costs?
This is where there should be detailed information about account activity during the period, including any trades that have been made in your account and any money going out or in.
When to worry: Is there any inaccurate information? Does the activity fail to match the trade confirmations you've received in the past? Are there any deposits or withdrawals that you don't recognize?
A margin is a loan from your brokerage firm that is secured by the securities you purchased. Your statement will tell you which securities, if any, you have purchased this way. Margin interest charges show how much interest you have paid on this loan in a given account period.
When to worry: Do margin costs exceed the disclosed rate of interest? Were securities purchased on margin without your permission?
This information may show the individual assets in your account, and they include a breakdown of investments by asset class. From here, you can assess whether the list of holdings is accurate and get a sense of how diversified your portfolio is, which can help you assess whether your investments are in line with your goals. Other information -- like bond insurance ratings, unrealized gains and losses, and income from investments -- may also be included in the portfolio detail section.
When to worry: Are assets missing that you believe you've held? Does the asset mix fit your risk tolerance level?
Disclosures and definitions
Don't understand what "short" or "margin" mean when reading your statement? From explanations about fees to key definitions, this section is designed to help you understand your statement. It's also where you will find details about key legal information.
When to worry: Are the fees disclosed here different from the fees being charged in the account? Or is the disclosure portion missing altogether?
If you find inaccuracies or discrepancies in any of your statements, contact your broker or brokerage firm as soon as possible. If they can't resolve the problem, consider filing a complaint using FINRA's online Complaint Center. The FINRA Securities Helpline for Seniors is also a good resource at 844-57-HELPS (844-574-3577).
You may not like reading financial documents, but when it comes to your brokerage statements, ignorance is not bliss.
This article originally appeared at The Alert Investor.