Fee-Only Financial Advisers Who Aren’t

Today’s (Saturday September 21, 2013) Wall Street Journal contains an article entitled ” ‘Fee-Only’ Financial Advisers Who Don’t Charge Fees Alone” written by award-winning writer Jason Zweig, better known as “The Intelligent Investor.” Jason acts as beacon to guide investors towards the better practices of saving and investing and warns them of the tricks and traps.

In this article, Jason points out that “You might think a “fee-only” financial adviser will never charge you commissions or other sales charges that could induce him to favor selling you something that is better for him than for you. Think again.”

Through his research, he found that many advisors who hold themselves out as “fee-only” indeed earn commissions, kickbacks, trails or other hidden compensation even though they might not sell you a product that generates one. He found that numerous advisors (661) that were Certified Financial Planners (TM) and worked for large Wall Street brokerage firms such as Morgan Stanley, UBS, RBC, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Raymond James and Ameriprise Financial also listed themselves as fee-only advisors on the CFP (r) website. By definition, based on the nature of the firms that they work for, they cannot designate themselves as fee-only advisors or planners.

Many people also confuse fee-only with fee-based. They are definitely not the same. Fee-based means that the advisor can earn both fees for services as well as other commissions or kickbacks for selling investment, insurance or other financial products.

NAPFA, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (the de facto fee-only organization of planners and advisors found at napfa.org), the Financial Planning Association and the Certified Financial Planner board of standards are currently working on more clearly defining the “fee-only” standard and urging members to update their profiles and re-assert that they meet the more clearly-defined standard. I applaud this effort.

I wish to reassure our clients, prospects and friends that our firm, YDream Financial Services, takes a very serious and crystal clear stance on meeting the fee-only definition. Fee-only planners, like us, are compensated solely by fees paid by our clients and we do not accept commissions or compensation of any kind from any source. We also don’t earn any money or consideration from trails, referrals or markups. We have zero incentive to recommend any financial products and don’t accept anything (except perhaps trinkets from wholesalers or fund companies worth $5 or less handed out at conferences) that influences our recommendations. Our custodian, Charles Schwab does not reimburse or compensate us for any trade commissions or for the use of any particular financial products that they offer.

As a fiduciary, we take our responsibility to put your interests first and we endeavor do that in every recommendation or transaction that we initiate on your behalf. Finally, any conflicts of interest that our compensation approach might present are clearly discussed and disclosed with our clients and prospects prior to implementing the recommendation or moving forward with the engagement.

You can find the Wall Street Journal Article here http://goo.gl/23Oy3B. It’s worth the short read. If the link requires a log in or subscription to the Wall Street Journal Online, I suggest typing the title of the article above into your favorite search engine then click on the search hit that it finds.

Your Returns Versus the Market

One of the most misleading statistics in the financial world is the return data we are routinely given by the financial media, telling us how much investors made in the markets and in individual stocks or mutual funds over some time period.  In fact, your returns are almost guaranteed to be different from whatever the markets and the funds you’ve invested in have gotten.

How is this possible?  Start with cash flows.  We are told that the S&P 500 has delivered a compounded return of about 7.8% from 1992 through 2011, which sounds pretty positive until you realize that this return would only be available to somebody who invested all his or her money at the beginning of 1992 and didn’t move that money around at all for the next twenty years.  If you invested systematically, the same amount every month, as most of us do, then you would have earned a 3.2% compounded return.  Why?  A lot of your money would have been exposed to the 2008 downturn, and not much of it would have enjoyed the dramatic run-up in stocks from 1992 to 2000.

In addition, there is the difference–only now getting attention from analysts–between investor returns and investment returns.  Human nature drives investors to sell their stocks and move to the sidelines after their portfolios have been hammered–which is often the worst possible time to sell.  And it drives people to start increasing their equity allocations toward the peak of bull markets when they perceive that everybody else is getting rich.  That means less of their money tends to be exposed to stocks when the market turns from bearish to bullish, and more is exposed when markets switch from bullish to bearish.

Understand also that owning a diversified portfolio means that only a portion of your investments are exposed to stocks. Assets such as cash, bonds, real estate, commodities and other non-stock investments all have returns that are inherently different than stocks, making overall portfolio return comparisons an “apples to oranges” one.

This would be bad enough, but people also switch their mutual fund and stock holdings.  When a great fund hits a rough patch, there’s a tendency to sell that dog and buy a fund that whose recent returns have been scorching hot.  Many times the underperforming fund will reverse course, while the hot fund will cool off.  The Morningstar organization now calculates, for every fund it follows, the difference between the returns of the mutual fund and the average returns of the investors in fund, and the differences can be astonishing.  Overall, according to Morningstar statistics and an annual report compiled by the Dalbar organization, investor returns have historically been about half of what the markets and funds are reporting.

And then there’s the tax bite.  Some mutual funds invest more tax-efficiently than others, and generate less ordinary income.  Beyond that, if a fund is sitting on significant losses when you invest, you get to ride out its gains without having the tax impact distributed to your 1040.  If the fund is sitting on large gains when you buy in, you could find yourself paying taxes on gains even if the fund loses money.





My thanks to Inside Information publisher Bob Veres for his contribution to this post.