Not Knowing This About Your Financial Advisor Will Cost You

As an In-House Tax Strategist for a “Wealth Management” office, I had the unique perspective of watching and observing the gyrations a wealth advisory team will go through in order to “land a client”. My job, of course, was to bring value added services to the existing and potential clientele. Well, not exactly. I had the mindset of that purpose but in truth, it was just one more way for the “financial advisor” to get in front of another new prospect. In fact, that one purpose “get in front of another prospect” was the driving force in every decision. Think about it this way. A Financial Advisory Firm will make tens of thousands of dollars for each new client “they land” versus a few hundred dollars more for doing a better job with their existing clientele. You see, depending on how a financial advisory firm is built, will dictate what is most important to them and how it will greatly affect you as the client. This is one of the many reasons why Congress passed the new DOL fiduciary law this past spring, but more about that in a latter article.

When a financial advisory firm concentrates all of their resources in prospecting, I can assure you that the advice you are receiving is not entirely to your benefit. Running a successful wealth management office takes a lot of money, especially one that has to prospect. Seminars, workshops, mailers, advertising along with support staff, rent and the latest sales training can cost any size firm hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, as you are sitting across the glossy conference table from your advisor, just know that they are thinking of the dollar amount they need from the procurement of your assets and they will be allocating that into their own budget. Maybe that’s why they get a little ‘huffy’ when you let them know “you have to think about it”?

Focusing on closing the sale instead of allowing for a natural progression would be like running a doctor’s office where they spend all of their resources how to bring in prospective patients; how to show potential patients just how wonderful they are; and the best way for the doctor’s office staff to close the deal. Can you imagine it? I bet there would be less of wait! Oh, I can just smell the freshly baked muffins, hear the sound of the Keurig in the corner and grabbing a cold beverage out of the refrigerator. Fortunately or unfortunately, we don’t experience that when we walk into a doctor’s office. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The wait is long, the room is just above uncomfortable and a friendly staff is not the norm. That is because Health Care Providers spend all of their time and resources into knowing how to take care of you as you are walking out the door instead of in it.

As you are searching for financial advice, there are a hundred things to think about when growing and protecting your wealth, especially risk. There are risks in getting the wrong advice, there are risks in getting the right advice but not asking enough of the right questions, but most importantly, there are risks of not knowing the true measure of wealth management. The most common overlooked risk is not understanding the net return on the cost of receiving good financial advice. Some financial advisors believe that if they have a nice office with a pleasant staff and a working coffee maker they are providing great value to their clients. Those same financial advisors also spend their resources of time and money to put their prospective clients through the ‘pain funnel’ to create the sense of urgency that they must act now while preaching building wealth takes time. In order to minimize the risk of bad advice is to quantify in real terms. One of the ways to know if you are receiving value for your financial advice is to measure your return backwards.

Normally, when you come to an agreement with a financial advisor there is a ‘management fee’ usually somewhere between 1% and 2%. In fact, this management fee can be found in every mutual fund and insurance product that has investments or links to indexes. The trouble I observed over and over again as I sat through this carnival act, was that management fees, although mentioned, were merely an after-thought. When presenting their thorough portfolio audit and sound recommendations, the sentence used to the unsuspecting client was that the market has historically provided an average of 8% (but we’re going to use 6% because we want to be ‘conservative’) and we’re only going to charge you 1.5% as a management fee. No big deal, right?

Let’s discover why understanding this management fee ‘math’ is so important, and how it could actually save your retirement. This could actually keep you from going broke using a financial advisor simply by measuring your financial advice in reverse. Let’s look at an example to best demonstrate a better way to look at how good your financial advisor is doing.

Now, before we begin, I have always understood that whoever gets paid first wins. We only have to look at our paycheck to see who gets paid before we do to understand that perspective. It is equally important to know that management fees are taken out first, unless you are lucky enough to have the income, the assets and a willing financial advisor to only get paid when they make you money. Funny though, this is exactly how you should review your own historical performance with your financial advisor and if they should be fired. Let’s say you have investable assets of $250,000 as you sit down with a wealth management team. They have just provided you with PowerPoint presentations, marketing materials and a slideshow on their 50″ HD Computer Screen in their freshly redecorated conference room showing that you can make 8% and they’re only going to charge you 1.5% annually (quick math $3,750 every year). You see in their presentation your investable assets appreciating over the next 10 years all the way up to $540,000. Sweet!

Now, this is not the article on why using the “Average Rate of Return” is absolutely the wrong measurement to use because it uses linear math when it is more appropriate to use geometric math in Compound Annual Growth Rate which incorporates time… But let’s look at how fees have a depreciating element to your investments.

After consideration, you agree to a 1.5% annual management fee to be paid quarterly. The financial advisor needs to get paid first so your portfolio’s management fees come out first. Consequently, your $250,000 becomes $249,000 and at 8% average annual rate of return, your assets after the first quarter are now $254,000. After the first year? Your assets are now worth $266,572 after fees of $3,852.

Financial Advisor Portfolio or Self-Managing ETF Portfolio

Self-Management Portfolio

I’d like to take this time to explore the differences in doing your own portfolio built on buying two ETFs (SPY and AGG). For the purposes of this illustration we will be allocating 80% to the S&P 500 (SPY) and 20% Barclay’s US Bond Aggregate (AGG). This is the time to say, I am not recommending any specific investments: this is for illustrative purposes only. The actual average rate of return for this allocation for the past 10 years is 4.24%, so without considering fees, an initial investment balance accumulates to $381,292. These ETFs have an embedded annual management fee of.15% (SPY) and.08% (AGG) with an aggregate of.14% for this allocation producing $4,178 in total ‘out of pocket’ fees over the 10 years. If we understand that our portfolio appreciated $130,319 and it cost you $4,178 for a Net Gain in your portfolio, then your NET COST of FEES is 3.21%. But it doesn’t end there, to truly quantify how fees eat away at your portfolio we must take this process a step further. The TRUE COST of FEES is calculating the difference of your portfolio with and without fees, in this case is $5,151 and comparing that to the Net Gain in your portfolio or 4.1%. In other words, over a ten year period, the cost of having these investments was 4.1%, $381,292 (without fees) versus $376,141 (Ending Balance with fees).

Financial Advisor Portfolio

For the sake of this illustration we are going to assume the financial advisor does better over the same 10 year period, about 6% annual average rate of return. You agree to let them take a 1.5% annual management, paid quarterly. Your $250,000 portfolio accumulates to $392,308 over 10 years with ‘out of pocket’ fees of $47,108, or $4711 per year. Your portfolio’s NET COST, or the fees of $47,108 to gain $189,416 in your portfolio, is almost 25%. More than that, your TRUE COST of Financial Advice is 44.7%. Plainly, your Financial Advisor’s portfolio is $63,617 less than if you had no fees and it accumulated to $455,926. As expected, your portfolio realized an average rate of return of 5.69%. In this illustration, the financial advisor portfolio did ‘out-perform’ the DIY portfolio of ETFs by $16,167 by outpacing the average rate of return by.61% annually.

Utilizing our proprietary software and a hundred test cases, we wanted to see how much better does a financial advisor need to realize to bring value to the client advisor relationship? This number is dependent on a number of factors: amount of investable assets, length of time, management fees charged and of course, the rate of return. What we did experience, is that the range went from its lowest to 1.25% to as high as 4%. In other words, in order to ‘break-even’ on bringing value to the client-advisor relationship, the financial advisor must realize at least a 1.25% higher net gain in average rate of return.

Please know, that we are not trying to dissuade anyone from utilizing the services of a financial advisor. We would be making our own clientele pretty unhappy. Instead, we want to present more transparency on how to measure the competency level of your financial advice. Heaven knows an experienced, knowledgeable advisor brings much more to the relationship than can be quantified by a number, but we do want the ability to truly measure the cost of this financial legacy. Just like most things in life, the line between success and failure is razor thin. In the above illustration, if the financial advisor portfolio’s ending balance was lowered by just $25,000 that would mean the annual average rate of return lowers.5% resulting in a lower ending balance than the self-managed account by $6,527. What if we changed the allocation to 70/30 allocation split? The Financial Advisor’s portfolio underperforms by $12,144 while still costing the client almost $60,000 in fees over the 10 years.

One final thought as we wrap things up here. You may be interviewing for a new advisor now or possibly in the near future. One of the most important questions you would want to ask and most of them do not want to answer or know how to answer is, “How good is your historical performance?” Now, this is usually where you get the song and dance from the wealth management team. They will extol the virtues of “every portfolio is different” or “all circumstances and risk tolerances inhibit us from ‘projecting’ rates of return” or, my favorite, “It’s about the plan! Your dreams and goals will be much different than anyone else, even if they have the same amount assets, income and risk assessment.” These of course are all true statements, but it does not preclude a wealth management team from the ability to show past performance of how they manage money. Going out on a limb, isn’t that why you are interviewing advisors? To see if they can do better than what you are currently doing either on your own or with your soon-to-be-ex financial advisor?

A Look Behind the Curtain

What most financial advisors won’t tell you is just how similar the construction of each client portfolio really is. I can’t tell you how many multi-million dollar firms have every client’s portfolio look pretty identical from one another. It’s usually made up of “3 Buckets”. Now these have different meanings for different advisors such as “Soon – Not so Soon – Long Term Money” or the “Safe – Moderately Safe – Risky” purposes for your investable assets. Believe me when I say this, most advisors pay a lot of money and spend a lot of their time on how to tell this story, to get the client to change their mindset of what they have been taught all along since childhood from their parents. It is not necessary for financial planning to be this complicated, unless of course, there is salesmanship going on. We learned from an early age and then proactively budgeted our entire adult lives to make more than we spend, save as much as we can so we can live off of what we have accumulated. But somehow, wealth advisors have created this sales system to get people to worry (“The Pain Funnel”) that they will outlive their money or worse, not be able to keep the lifestyle clients so richly deserve. You see, in sales, you create pain, step on it and then provide a solution. I believe we can be a lot more honest here and focus our advice transparently without resorting to ‘scare tactics’. Building an investment portfolio, retirement income strategy or legacy plan should be as comfortable as they are obvious.

Most wealth management teams will start with the same basic “financial plan” for your assets: short-term money that has no volatility (this is where you have your emergency/vacation/play money); then you will have near-short term money (usually about 3 – 7 years of very little volatility; and then the last division of your assets is long term money (10 years or more) with a lot of volatility (managed money). Please be aware that this is the exact moment where financial advisors practice in order to “land the prospect”. They will have you write in the percentage of how much your assets you want in the first, second and third ‘buckets’ according to your “Risk Tolerance”. I’ll explain in a later article why this entire methodology is mathematically inhibitive to long term financial success. In lieu of writing in percentages, you’ll better served to focus on two facets: the fees for the first two ‘buckets’ (your rate of interest is generally very low so any fees will have a higher detrimental effect) and the entrance and exit strategy for your managed money held in the last bucket. They will tell you that “long term growth is omnipotent to the success throughout your retirement years. So, if that’s the case they had better ‘show you the money’!

Bottom line: There is a historical performance of your wealth management team that can be shown… so ask for it. Oh, another hint, make sure it is actual performance and not ‘back tested” performance. The financial industry now has software programs that allow us to take a computer-based allocation model and utilize financial data of domestic stocks and bonds for the past 20 years to show a simulated historical performance within a 3% margin of error. I don’t know about you, but I would want my money manager to have more than a couple of years of experience no matter how pretty their brochures are or wonderful their office smells.

So, how are We Really Doing?

Earlier, we compared what an average financial advisor (giving them the benefit of the doubt that they indeed performed better over a 10 year period) did compared to a Do-It-Yourself portfolio made up of S&P 500 and Barclays US Bond Aggregate ETFs. But how did the same portfolio do against the Nasdaq (QQQ) over the same time period? Given the same 80/20 allocation, the QQQ Portfolio gained an average of 12.73% annually versus the 6.05% for the Financial Advisor. The Nasdaq (QQQ) plus Bonds (AGG) gained over $471,000 more in assets over that same time period, or roughly $47,000 per year. Now, I need to point out that if we looked at QQQ returns of 2000-2009 then the portfolio would have lost an accumulated 9.12% of value in assets. The QQQ ETF Net Average Annual Rate of Return since 2000 is 2.38%. Our focus in putting together client portfolios is to minimize inhibitors like fees, taxes and risk since those are in our control (can’t control the market). When viewing portfolios and net worth statements of our clients through this prism and then bringing it through our proprietary software, we can grade ourselves as well as our portfolio managers with real, audited data. For example, one of our money managers has a computer-based, moderate growth portfolio (70/30 allocation split) that has a 12.68% average rate of return over the same time period as all 3 portfolios. Loosely translated, this Moderate Growth Portfolio outperformed the S&P 500 ETF Portfolio by $342,000. When it comes to the accumulation portion of our client’s financial plan, we can ascertain what is working and what isn’t by quantifying the NET performance.

With so many choices, it is difficult to ascertain subjectively who you should trust as a financial advisor, if you should trust one at all! As a consumer, when we purchase just about anything, we constantly compare the price versus the benefit of ownership with an understanding the sliding scale of risk associated with owning whatever we are buying whether it’s buying a gallon of milk, a haircut or a piece of furniture. The higher the price, usually higher the risk, the more we want to weigh the attributes of doing something or doing nothing; measure the value of hiring it done or doing it yourself. The legacy of ownership greatly effects the amount of risk involved in getting the right information in order to act on the right advice for results that are satisfactory to your needs and expectations. Our purpose for creating this proprietary software was to come up with a simple ‘report card’ to measure between advisors and to affirm the decision to have someone else manage your investable assets and your financial future. We believe that as financial advisors, we should be held to a measurable account definitive to always doing what is best for the client’s interest. The largest service we provide is inherently, producing a higher net rate of return on the overall net worth of our clients than if they simply could manage their own financial assets. In today’s financial environment, we cannot afford to make any mistakes no matter how minuscule. This is why having the ability to simply, clearly quantify the value of your advice is truly omnipotent to your financial success.

If you would like a confidential report card on your financial advisor, simply send us an email at with your beginning and ending balances (please include a net accumulation of withdrawals and deposits); month and year for your start date, and then the general percentage split in your investment allocation between stocks (equities) and bonds (fixed income). You will get back a one page report that will show you definitely if you are getting your money’s worth out of your financial advisor.

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