To be a successful investor, you should have a great investing plan. Given how risky today's markets are, you might want a second opinion from a professional. But with all the other threats to your wealth in today's markets, you don't have time to worry about whether your own financial advisor has an agenda that's different from yours.
Impartial advice -- or greed?
Unfortunately, it's not too hard to find stories about how financial advisors and their clients end up in huge disagreements. Here are just a few:
- The securities division of Fifth Third
(NASDAQ:FITB)had to pay a $1.75 million fine to regulators to settle charges that the firm made unsuitable sales and exchanges of variable annuities to nearly 200 customers.
(NYSE:MS)paid over $7 million to resolve charges that brokers misled 90 employees into taking early retirement packages, based on unrealistically high estimates of investment returns.
- Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo
(NYSE:WFC), paid $4.5 million in fines plus over $5 million in remediation to customers after allegations that the firm failed to provide bulk discounts and imposed fees on fund exchanges that should have been fee-free. Nearly 6,000 households were involved in the dispute.
It’s important to note that in settling, these companies did not admit any liability. But these and dozens of other alarming problems that have come up between investors and their financial advisors should convince you that it's not enough to assume that the advice you're getting is in your best interest.
Going beyond the obvious
Looking at some of the allegations above, you might think that you'd never get tricked by tactics that, in hindsight, look blatant and obvious. Yet the real danger in choosing the wrong advisor can be much more subtle. Sometimes, it's really hard to figure out how the companies that sell financial products compensate advisors for steering you toward particular investments.
But there are safer ways to go. In this month's issue of Motley Fool Champion Funds -- which is available this afternoon at 4 p.m. ET -- Fool fund expert Amanda Kish interviews a fee-only financial planner who manages about $70 million for over 200 clients. He uses no-load mutual funds, helping clients with their investing and also providing financial planning services. Typically, fee-only financial planners either charge a flat rate for their services or a percentage of the assets they manage, depending on exactly what their clients want them to do -- but they get paid by their clients, not by commissions or other payments from the investments they choose.
What's that advice worth?
At first, the idea of a fee-only planner might seem silly. After all, many brokers give that kind of advice at no additional cost. Why pay extra money for what you could get for free?
The answer is that it's not free. For instance, if your advisor suggested putting your money in a stock index fund, you might figure that was a smart move. Yet an unscrupulous advisor might have put you into a fund like Nationwide Financial's
But unlike many index funds and ETFs that charge as little as 0.09% in fees annually, the Nationwide fund hit investors with a front-end load of up to 5.75%, as well as an annual 12b-1 fee of 0.25%. That isn't in your best interest, but it does give an advisor an incentive to sell that fund to unsuspecting customers.
Before you start chasing shadows, understand that the vast majority of financial advisors do make a strong effort to put their clients' interests first. They understand that they'll reap far more benefits over the long run by helping customers make their money grow.
Nevertheless, you need to have at least a basic understanding of a proposed set of investments before you let your advisor make decisions for you. It might seem like the most natural thing in the world to hand off full responsibility for your money to a paid professional -- but to avoid problems down the road, it's much better to keep tabs on what your advisor is doing on your behalf.
For more on finding the right investments, read about:
Learn more about fee-only financial planning -- and the investments one planner is recommending -- in this month's issue of Motley Fool Champion Funds. Getting full access to the new issue and a host of other resources -- for free with a 30-day trial -- is as easy as clicking here.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has worked on both sides of the fee-only fence and much preferred the fee-only model. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is a great helper.