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I had a long conversation with a friend and business associate about how I think individual investors approach obtaining financial advice.  We went back and forth for almost 30 minutes.  However, I found myself stumbling upon the analogy of purchasing a new vehicle.  This analogy encapsulates how individual investors might want to think about building their investment portfolios, setting financial goals and how to obtain them, establishing their risk tolerance, and addressing any special situations that might pertain to their specific situation (e.g. caring for an elderly parent in their house).  I should state at the outset that, if you have more than $1 million in investable assets (i.e. an accredited investor), the size of your portfolio demands special attention.  If you have not amassed $1 million, please read on to the rest of this article.

First, I would like to lay out the typical new vehicle purchase scenario and then turn to its applicability in the case of financial advice.  Most people start off the process by doing a good deal of research on the available options.  After considering his/her situation, the individual will go to the vehicle dealership.  For the purposes of this particular example, let’s suppose that the vehicle dealership offers a number of different car manufacturers as options and then the various models associated with them.  Luckily today, there is a lot less haggling (well at least upfront in the process) and the vehicles’ prices are normally right around the MSRP.  However, you as a consumer need to select the car make and also the specific model.

Usually a salesperson will assist you with the process.  Even though you can do a lot of homework prior to picking out a new vehicle, it still does not fully capture actually looking at the vehicle.  Of course, you also need to sit in it and take a test drive.  The salesperson is able to translate what your needs are to try to select the best option.  For example, do you need to transport the kids to basketball practice?  What if you take turns carpooling and pick up an extra 3-6 kids?  How big should your SUV be?  What if you drive a lot of highway miles and a lease option may not work for you?  Do you like to have a decent amount of horsepower to be able to merge onto highway traffic?  What about the manufacturer’s warranty?  Does the dealership service the vehicles onsite?  What about financing options (i.e. buy or lease)?  The list of questions could go on and on.

Given the entire list of questions you might ask, the salesperson is an integral part of the vehicle buying, or leasing, process.  After the salesperson has finally answered all of your questions, let’s say you decide on a price, the financing options, and the color/options/model.  If you make the purchase, the salesperson will earn a commission.  Once you leave the dealership’s parking lot, you are then responsible for the maintenance of the vehicle.  Fingers crossed, you should only need to take car of oil changes and normal maintenance (e.g. changing the air filter, flushing the transmission fluid, etc.).  What would you do if the salesperson came over to your house and wanted to check if you were still pleased with the vehicle you selected in the second year?  Does it fit your needs and perform as expected?  Wow, that experience would be one of pretty good customer services.  But now, the salesperson’s next utterance is that you own him/her $500.  What?  Well, he/she responds that he/she helped you out and things are going according to plan.  My guess is that you would be dumbfounded and refuse to pay another commission to the salesperson in year two of ownership.

What in the world does this have to do with financial advice?  I would argue that the analogy fits quite well with the normal way financial advice is given to individual investors.  When you first sit down with a Financial Planner, Financial Advisor, or Registered Investment Advisor, he or she really walks through your entire life situation.  Additionally, that person will assess your tolerance for risk which is not always as easy as it sounds.  Usually most financial professionals will include questions that relate to your behavior under certain instances of financial market conditions.  So, you cannot simply ask only objective yes/no questions.  Other big thing that may come up are any insurance, tax planning, or estate planning needs that you have.  Another significant area is trying to find out if you might have any special circumstances.  The caring of an elderly parent was provided above.  But there are myriad other situations that might require special planning considerations unique to your family.

The vast majority of financial professionals no longer charge commissions.  Rather, they will charge a fee based upon the total asset in your portfolio of stocks, bonds, other assets, and cash.  The financial services industry calls this an AUM (assets under management) fee in the jargon, and a very typical fee that one will see is 1%.  What does that mean?  Well, to use round numbers, let’s say you have $1 million dollars in your account of financial assets.  You would then pay a fee of $10,000 ($1 million * 1%).  To be technical though, the fee is normally prorated over four quarters throughout the year and not in one lump sum.  Given all the assistance that I listed in the previous paragraph, there is no doubt that the financial professional earns his or his AUM fee.  But what happens when year two of your financial relationship begins?

For illustrative purposes, I am going to assume that your life situation does not change at all.  In the first year of your relationship with the financial professional, he or she is likely to have prepared an asset allocation for at least the next five years.  One would expect a long-term investing plan.  Of course, he or she may recommend that based, upon the price movement in the financial markets, you should reallocate your investments to either the same target allocation in year one or slightly different percentages.  He or she may even recommend that you sell a particular investment and replace it with what he or she deems to be a better performing investment vehicle for the future.  Well, to keep using round numbers, if your investment portfolio stays constant, you would pay another $10,000 (again $1 million * 1%).

The year two situation is akin to car maintenance in year two of your ownership of that vehicle from my car vehicle purchase analogy.  Now, if you blew a head gasket in your car’s engine, you would want to take the vehicle back to the dealership or go to a trusted mechanic.  The latter represents a major change in your life situation, financial goals, income tax ramifications, and other major events.  Otherwise, we have a situation where you are paying the car salesperson another commission in year two.  Now my analogy may not be entirely “apples to apples” (as my business associate said during our discussion).  However, it is close enough to get to the point that I am trying to make in terms of financial advice.  You need to be very cautious with how much money you pay in expenses for financial advice.  Why?  It really eats into the investment performance returns you will realize.  I am all for paying for financial advice when there is a complicated situation, but, if nothing of import changes, it can be hard to justify.

So, what can you do if my analogy resonates with you?  Well, there are two options that I will provide.  However, there are other avenues to proceed down.  I will discuss each in turn.

First, you can select a financial professional that charges a fee-only amount or one that charges by the hour.  The fee-only financial professional will charge you a set amount per year for financial advice, and, in almost all cases, it is significantly lower than the $10,000 in our example.  The hourly financial professional is just as it sounds.  In the second year, you might require 10 hours of financial advice throughout the year, some of which might include just coaching you through the inevitable volatility in financial markets.  Depending on the area that you reside in, you can expect to pay anywhere between $250 to $500 per hour.  Using the 10-hour amount, you would be paying anywhere from $2,500 ($250 * 10 hours) and $5,000 ($500 * 10 hours).  Using either type of financial professional with a different fee structure will lower your overall investment fees.  Note that the quality of financial advice usually does not decrease in most cases.  And yes, there are certain cases where the quality will increase markedly.

Second, you can use an external investment account at the beginning of your relationship with a financial professional that charges a percentage of assets under management (AUM).  What does this mean?  The vast majority of asset managers are large and sophisticated enough to handle this arrangement at the outset.  For example, you would establish an investment account where your financial professional is located.  Next, you would establish an investment account with another brokerage firm and allow your financial professional to have access to the investment portfolio you maintain.  Note that the access is only for purposes of preparing reports for you and not to execute actual trades of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or any other financial asset.  For instance, you might keep 50% with the financial professional’s firm and another 50% in the external account.  You would just maintain the portfolio allocation that your financial professional would like you to have in the external account.  In order to ensure that you do not deviate from his or her investment recommendations, your monthly or quarterly investment performance reports would lump together the assets at the financial professional’s firm and your external account.

In regard to the second option, just because asset managers can easily do this reporting for you, does not mean that they will not push back.  Some asset managers and financial professionals get even confrontational.  It is understandable since the more assets you maintain at their firm the larger the investment advice fee.  But this response can be very informative for you.  If your financial professional does not handle your request of this potential option diplomatically, this may be a cue to seek financial advice elsewhere.

So, have I successfully convinced you that buying investment advice is just like buying or leasing a new vehicle?  My guess would be that you think the analogy is not a perfect one.  I will readily admit that it is not and really is not meant to be.  Rather, I wanted to get you thinking about the financial advice you receive and investment fees from another viewpoint.  Investment fees have an outsized effect on the returns that you will experience over time.

Their impact is even greater if you take into account the “opportunity cost” of investment fees.  However, that is another topic entirely that I will not delve into.  If you would like more information on the idea of “opportunity cost” and investment fees, you can refer to a previous article that I wrote.  Here is the link: