As children, most of us have only the slightest idea of what career track we will ultimately follow. Heck, even some adults are still looking for that elusive path. Not me. I have always been an unabashed numbers person -- and one of the few finance majors to take not one, but three calculus classes in college. At the same time, I have been hooked on the investment world ever since I won a stock-picking contest in junior high school. A career as a financial advisor seemed like an obvious progression and an ideal occupation given my background and interests.
Not long after graduation, I signed on with a well-known financial planning firm, completed all the necessary licensing exams to prove I knew a call option from a fixed annuity, and within a few weeks was handing out my first business cards. Seven years later, I had a nicer office, a decent pile of assets under management, and a respectable base of clients. Unfortunately, I also had a much keener sense of what it is financial advisors actually do each day, and I had become more than a little disillusioned.
A system failure
First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me say that most of that time was spent with Morgan Keegan, a full-service regional brokerage and investment banking firm that is now a division of Regions Financial
Morgan Keegan provided a friendly work environment, two dedicated and supportive managers, every investment product, service, or account platform imaginable, and access to an indispensable sales assistant, award-winning equity analysts, and state-of-the-art software and technology.
And contrary to what you might expect at a full-service brokerage, we had no cold-calling quotas, or "stock of the day" sales calls, or any pressure whatsoever to push proprietary products. While I did entertain a steady stream of annuity and mutual fund wholesalers making their case for why my customers needed their products, I can say that each of my clients received objective advice -- which is fortunate, because they were paying heavily for it.
So what was the problem? There was one critical element missing from the equation: time. Brokers are usually forced to choose between two activities: conducting the research necessary to present sound investment ideas to their existing clients or hunting for new clients. Guess which one usually takes top priority?
Not enough hours in the day
This was not a company-specific problem. Whether it's a financial advisor at Citigroup's Smith Barney, a financial consultant at A.G. Edwards, or the investment representative at your local bank branch, all are forced to make difficult choices. It's a shortfall of the system -- and a key reason why many brokers are ill-equipped to guide their clients to market-beating returns.
To my mind, success or failure in the brokerage business hinges entirely on two traits: being able to locate prospective clients and being able to make them money. I tried to spend half of my work day keeping up with the market, and the rest of the time prospecting, setting up appointments, meeting with clients, and handling other day-to-day tasks.
Unfortunately, a 50/50 mix usually won't cut it for a new broker -- not unless he/she is particularly well connected or has an extraordinary gift for obtaining referrals. To keep a healthy number of prospects in the business development pipeline, the ratio of prospecting/research needs to be closer to about 95/5. That leaves about 20 minutes a day to hone the critical skills needed to steer your clients to better returns. As an advisor with a strong desire to actually earn the commissions my clients were paying me, this presented a major conflict of interest.
Somehow, it felt disingenuous to promise client A my undivided attention, convince him to part with the bulk of his life savings, and then, once entrusted with those assets, spend the rest of the week playing golf with prospect B. Because of this -- and the fact that I'm an avid stock-market enthusiast -- I spent too little time on the phone and too much time staring at a computer monitor, perusing 10-Ks, or skimming through a mutual fund's annual report. My pool of potential new clients was constantly in danger of drying up.
You find the money; we'll do the rest
Of course, major brokerages and financial planning firms are well aware that every minute spent on research is a minute not spent on generating new business. Not surprisingly, all of the emphasis is placed on the latter. After all, it is the all-important assets under management figure -- not relative performance -- that pays the bills for both the broker and the company.
Invest your clients' money in a carefully structured portfolio of quality investment, or sink it all into overvalued companies with falling revenues, deteriorating margins, and negative cash flows like JDS Uniphase
Most of us would like to believe that our broker has undergone rigorous training in stock analysis and has an edge over the common investor. However, from what I can tell -- and I can only assume it's common practice -- most new brokers spend days in orientation and training sessions learning little more than the latest sales techniques. There is plenty of discussion regarding ways to probe a client to uncover hidden assets but no mention of what to do with said assets once the transfer paperwork has been signed.
Because the system is geared toward teaching brokers how to acquire new clients, rather than how to prudently manage their money, most companies are only too happy to have brokers delegate the actual nuts and bolts of managing their accounts to specialized personnel so they can concentrate on drumming up new business. Here's how a typical conversation goes:
Broker: My client is looking for a solid high-yield stock to supplement the interest from his laddered bond portfolio. He likes the reasonable valuations, generous payout ratios, and steady dividend increases of Bank of America
Manager: Call the equity research department and have them fax you the latest research reports. By the way, did you read that memo on how to pick up new prospects from an investment seminar?
Broker: My client is thinking of liquidating a portion of his Vanguard 500 Index
Manager: I would check with the mutual fund department -- they can prepare an asset allocation recommendation, an overlap analysis, and all kinds of snazzy presentations. Incidentally, has that networking book I lent you increased your referral activity?
Funny, before I became a financial advisor, I assumed the actual task of recommending investments and providing hands-on portfolio advice would be my No. 1 job priority -- which is why I entered the profession in the first place. Who would have thought that my actual job was to function as a lowly middleman?
Why not go with Plan B?
While many out there in Fooldom might be skeptical -- understandable, given the tarnished reputation the industry has today -- I did not personally witness any ethically challenged behavior such as churning an account to pad commissions. While it certainly happens, I think this reputation is largely undeserved. If for no other reason, brokers have two very powerful incentives in place to help their clients -- referrals and repeat business.
However, even well-intentioned brokers with a vested interest in seeing their clients succeed will never have as much at stake as you do when it comes to your own money and financial independence. Plus, given the immense pressure heaped on brokers to acquire new assets and meet certain production levels, many fail to last more than a year or two. If you are working with a seasoned professional, he likely got that way by acquiring hundreds upon hundreds of clients -- don't expect much hand-holding or personal one-on-one time, particularly if your account holds anything less than $50,000 in investable assets.
Ask yourself these two questions:
- Does my advisor honestly care more about my financial goals than the revenues they generate for him?
- Does he have the expertise to keep me on track toward meeting them?
If you answered yes to both and have neither the time nor the ability to manage your own assets, then I would advise you to stick with your advisor. Otherwise, why not save those commissions and fees and rely on the one person you know can be trusted -- you. And you don't have to go it alone; the experts at Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement will be with you every step of the way.
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