Ten Questions to Ask a Financial Advisor

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The Securities and Exchange Commission recently changed the disclosure requirements for investment advisors from a checkbox format to an essay style. I wasn’t convinced, however, that the new disclosure format would separate the sheep from the wolves or help consumers better understand the difference between fee-based and fee-only financial planning.

Someone asked me what disclosures I would require for financial advisors. Two years ago I wrote a long series on how to safeguard your money. You can use those principles as a checklist to evaluate investment advisors and the philosophy underlying their advice.

I’ve written these principles in a yes-or-no format and reworded the questions. “Yes” is the best answer and “no” means you should seek more information or not consider that advisor at all. Although answering affirmatively to all 10 questions would be my first screen in selecting a financial advisor, it still does not guarantee the person has the competence necessary to offer comprehensive wealth management.

1. Do you use a recognized third-party custodian to hold your clients’ assets?

A third-party custodian such as Schwab or TD Ameritrade offers an extra layer of accountability and oversight. The safeguards and monitoring of advisor and custodian work mutually. The custodian sends you their own set of statements, a way for you to double-check what your financial advisor is telling you. Being defrauded is much less likely when you are receiving independent statements.

2. Is there a good chance my investments will lose money?

Remind yourself here that the correct answer is still “Yes.” There is no sure thing. If something sounds too good to be true, it is. I used to analyze offers to find the proverbial catch. I would scrutinize the small print to discover where they were going to make their money. In the process I learned a great deal about the dishonest methods companies use to separate fools from their money: bait and switch, allure of exclusivity, guarantee of your money back, limited time horizon and automatic charges.

Investment guarantees are an oxymoron. Certainly we hope an investment will generate income or appreciate in the future. But every attempt to ensure that hope costs some of the potential return. That’s why insurance products don’t produce as much growth as market returns. My favorite Paul Volker quote: “You can’t hedge the world.”

3. Is the daily price of everything you invest in listed in the Wall Street Journal?

Only put your money in publicly priced and traded investments. These are liquid assets. Investors undervalue liquidity 99.9% of the time. You need to be in the other 0.1%.

Liquidity refers to the ability of an asset to be easily sold without losing value in the process. Imagine starting with a pile of money, buying the asset, holding it a week and then trying to sell it again. If you get back a much smaller amount of money, the asset is illiquid.

Because illiquid investments are hard to price, it’s also difficult to compute what return you’ve received. Real estate, hedge funds and private equity deals belong in this category. Some purposefully lock up your money and prohibit sales for several years. Or a market may exist for them but with very little volume. Finally, they may have capital calls so not only can’t you sell, but you are required to invest more money in them. They all may have the allure of exclusivity, but they lack liquidity. Here is the critical question: “When you need to spend your money, will it be easily available?”

4. Do you avoid hedging or buying options? Does everything you invest in trend upward?

Any investment that, on average, doesn’t go up shouldn’t be an asset class in your portfolio. A lot of so-called investments fit this description. They are best described as “speculations,” not “investments.” There is a place in specific portfolios to invest in something that doesn’t go up on average. But this situation is the exception, not the rule. These decisions are warranted most commonly because a large investment needs protection. In this case, what you are really buying is “insurance,” not an “investment.”

5. Could you teach me to implement your investment strategy and let me do it on my own?

Don’t trust any investment strategy you don’t understand. Don’t trust any advisor who won’t or can’t take the time to explain exactly why and how he or she operates. An advisor’s investment philosophy is the most important and valuable resource you are purchasing. If you don’t trust your advisor’s knowledge and techniques, you shouldn’t entrust your financial future with that person.

“Distressed emerging market risk arbitrage” may be a surefire way to make loads of money, but if you don’t understand the process and feel at ease being part of the team that executes that move on the field, you would be better off sitting on the bench and investing in Treasury bills.

6. After selecting your investment approach, could I change my mind at any time, immediately recoup everything left of my investment and have no financial hooks to keep me from dropping your approach?

To safeguard your money, you must be able to extricate yourself quickly from any bad investment. Of course, the companies that sell mistakes don’t want you to be able to do that, so they use financial hooks to hold your money captive.

Any financial product with a surrender value significantly different from the net asset value has financial hooks in products such as annuities, insurance products, loaded mutual funds, hedge funds and private equity.

7. Do you report a client-specific time-weighted return each quarter?

Excellent advisors work hard to cultivate certain traits. Honesty is paramount and includes communicating clearly and straightforwardly exactly how bad the markets have been and can be.

Advisors naturally want to look good, and you must overcome your own desire to have a good-looking advisor. You need the truth. Without it, you certainly can’t make realistic financial plans.

8. Do you live a frugal lifestyle?

The differences between the manager of a Ponzi scheme and a model citizen are almost imperceptible, which is not surprising. Those who would perpetrate a Ponzi scheme are usually not the demons everyone makes them out to be. And they are obsessed with appearing successful.

This fixation on appearances, however, is the red flag. If you are the millionaire next door, you know that frugality is one of the marks of an effective financial advisor.

9. Is the fee I pay you the only compensation you receive?

A greater conflict of interest exists when your financial advisor gets paid by someone other than the fee you pay them. There is also a conflict when your advisor gets paid differently on one type of investment versus another or based on the performance of specific investments.

10. Do you sign a fiduciary oath?

Fiduciaries take oaths and are bound by a code of ethics. Their conduct is based on applying ethical principles. In contrast, the nonfiduciary world is based on rules rather than on principles and ethics. If an agent has followed the correct procedures, has the paperwork in order and has client signatures on the correct disclaimer forms, no rules have been broken. The behavior can be called unethical, but it is not illegal. Thus additional rules do not necessarily translate into exemplary conduct. There are, of course, many commission-based agents with sound ethics who act with integrity, even if it is not technically required by law.

The differences between these two worlds are seen most clearly in the decision-making process. Fiduciaries can’t simply put your money into good investments. First they must understand as much as they can about you and your goals. They must demonstrate undivided loyalty to help you meet those goals. Taking the time to understand your goals is simply part of their ethos.

You can download or print a PDF copy of these 10 questions here: Ten Questions to Ask a Financial Advisor Checklist

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.

One Response

  1. David John Marotta

    This article was selected as one of three 2012 fi360 article competition finalists and being featured by AdvisorOne.

    The fi360 article competition is a chance for AIF® and AIFA® designees to have their writing published and showcase their position as thought leaders on fiduciary issues in the investment industry. The purpose of the competition is to encourage Designees to share their knowledge and experiences in a way that helps fiduciaries better understand or perform their roles or advocate for high standards of care.