The Investment Scientist

Posts Tagged ‘financial advisor

My Financial AdvisorWhen I am approached by a prospective client, the question they always ask without fail is “Are you properly licensed?”

This is actually the wrong question. The right question should be, “Which license do you have?”

Generally, there are two types of licenses for people who call themselves a “financial advisor.” People who passed the series 65 test and people who passed the series 7 test. The nature of these two licenses are as far apart as heaven and earth.

Series 7 is a securities license. People who have passed this test can legally be a broker. They are actually prohibited by law to give financial advice, except incidental to the financial products they are selling.

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ImageRecently a business owner asked me to review his investment portfolio. He is currently with an Ameriprise financial advisor and his gut feeling tells him something is amiss.

He is paying the advisor 1.6% in fees. First of all, this fee is quite exorbitant. For the size of his portfolio, he shouldn’t be paying more than 1% in advisor fees.

Adding insult to injury, for the fee that he is charging, this advisor puts his money into a collection of very expensive mutual funds like ODMAX.

It is very easy to check the expenses of a mutual fund. I just googled ODMAX and I found out it has a load of 5.75% and an expense ratio of 1.36%. (For those who don’t know, load is a one time charge to pay commision to the Ameriprise advisor who doubles as a broker. Expense ratio is an ongoing annual charge.)

ODMAX is a mutual fund that invests in emerging market stocks. If you use the low cost alternative, aka a Vanguard fund, you will pay no load and the expense ratio is only 0.33%, a saving of 1.06%.

Don’t ever underestimate these tiny savings. Because in ten years, the savings will be more than 10%, in twenty years, more than 20%. This businessman is in his 50s; he can easily live another 30 years. I asked him: “How would you like to be more than 30% poorer in retirement?” That is exactly what this financial advisor will make him.

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ImageSeven years ago when I started my advisory practice, I used to call myself ‘The Investment Scientist’ to differentiate from those run of the mill financial advisors.

My blog was called ‘The Investment Scientist’, and in marketing materials, I highlighted my academic training and scientific approaches toward investing.

Then, for whatever reason, I stopped doing that. Even the title of my blog has been changed to ‘The Investment Fiduciary.’ (The word ‘fiduciary’ signals my intention to put my clients’ interest first, but few understand its true meaning.)

Over the past year, I’ve rarely heard people call me an investment fiduciary, but sometimes would come across a long lost contact who’d say, “Aren’t you the Investment Scientist?”

There is a lesson here for me. Don’t use obscure words people don’t understand in marketing.

So why am I reverting back to ‘The Investment Scientist’ again?

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I read with disgust this news about a “financial advisor” stealing $1.3m from his client who also happened to be his father!

I want all of you to know that not all financial advisors are the same. In fact “financial advisor” is a free term. There is no educational requirement nor legal requisite. Justin Bieber and his grandmother could call themselves financial advisors and begin dispensing advice – and they would not get into trouble for it!

In reality though, there are generally four types of people who like to call themselves “financial advisors”:

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ImageI go to great lengths to meet with my clients regularly. For instance, many of my clients live across the country. I fly to them.

Some might ask: what value is there in meeting regularly? There can be about $100k of value in it, let me tell ya!

Meeting regularly allows me to uncover hidden issues and potential opportunities, thereby helping my clients make smart financial decisions.

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teenreader1. ThinkAdvisor highlighted a Maryland study which showed that states which pay the highest fees to Wall Street (for managing pensions) have the lowest returns. That says it all about Wall Street. No wonder Rick Ferri wants you to steer clear of actively managed funds.

2. Reuters Money reported how Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) can be used as retirement savings accounts. This information is especially useful for small business owners and self-employed individuals who tend to neglect their retirement savings and face high deductibility in their health insurance. Here is the garden variety of ways they can save for retirement.

3. DIY Investor Robert Wasilewski encountered a bear while hiking. He survived to write about it, but he mused that the same reactions that kept him in the gene pool will surely “eliminate you from the investment pool.”

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Rebalancing your portfolio

Rebalancing your portfolio

Recently, I visited a prospective client in New Jersey. He is currently a client with Fisher Investments, and his advisor told him never to rebalance since that involves market timing.

I have to hand it to this financial advisor for recognizing that market timing is an unproductive endeavor, but he is so wrong about rebalancing that I am compelled to write this article.

Rebalancing is not a market timing activity, it is calendar-driven or condition-driven. For instance, you may decide that you will rebalance your portfolio on January 1st of each year or whenever an asset class allocation is off by 20%.

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Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

Morgan Stanley Smith Barney

I went to a Morgan Stanley financial advisor associate recruitment meeting recently to spy on how they train their new financial advisors.

They have an extremely rigorous 36 month program. New associates are expected to pass series 7 and series 66 license testing in the first 12 months. These licenses enable them to charge both fees and (hidden) commissions. (Comparatively, my series 65 license prohibits me from charging commissions.)

As soon as they get the licenses, they are expected to go into “production.” The firm sets very tough production targets. If they fail the targets, they will be kicked out of the program.

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New Year's investment resolutions

New Year’s investment resolutions

After working as a financial advisor for six years and after reading tons of research, I have developed a good sense about how the average investor loses money. As the New Year approaches, I think it’s good to share my insight so that readers can determine if they are making these mistakes.

Conflict of interest

I cannot emphasize this enough: Wall Street firms don’t work for you. If you have a Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley advisor, expect to give away 2.5% of your money every year – about half of it will be in explicit fees, the other half will be in hidden fees. If you invest through insurance products, expect to give up 3.5 percent of your money.

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Is this your retirement fund?

A client of mine is about to retire, and she asked me when she should start to receive social security payments.

Complicating her decision is that her husband passed away 10 year ago, and she is currently working for the federal government.

It quickly dawned on me that this is actually a very complicated question, one that this advisor, most of whose clients are doctors and business people in their 40s and 50s, is not well-equipped to answer.

You can imagine my delight when I found out on a flight that the foremost social security expert of the country, Mary Beth Franklin, was sitting right next to me.

She is a former senior editor of Kiplinger. After she retired from the job, she became a contributing editor of InvestmentNews, a magazine for financial advisors.

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financial blogging

I was in Denver attending the Financial Blogger Conference (FinCon12), and I was thrilled to meet Allan Roth there.

If you don’t know Allan Roth, for the sake of your financial wellbeing, you should.

Allan is an hourly fee-only financial advisor practicing in Colorado Spring. He also writes an investment column for CBS MoneyWatch. Recently, Jason Zweig invited him to write a column in the Wall Street Journal as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Last month, I was approached by a plastic surgeon whose money was with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. He was looking for someone who could beat the market: not just promise to beat the market, like his financial advisor, but actually deliver.

I told him that I can’t beat the market, I can only help him capture the market. I could see a wisp of disappointment flash across his face.

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Financial Salesman

In an online forum, a doctor’s wife shared with me her story that should serve as a cautionary tale for all doctors.

Her husband had a solo medical practice. They had a “financial advisor” who advised them to put their saving into a $5mm cash value life insurance policy. They believed the product not only provided protection in the event of the doctor’s death but also was a great savings vehicle.

Last July, her husband was struck by an uninsured drunk driver. He suffered brain damage. Though he recovered from the coma, he was unable to practice medicine any more.

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I have a client (Let’s call him John) who retired 12 years ago from the government. He had a pension, and he had the option of taking out a lump sum of about $800k or drawing a monthly check of more than $4,400 per month until death.

Lost Retirement Money?

John took his options to his financial advisor from Smith Barney (now absorbed into Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.) Guess what the advisor recommended? He recommended that John take out the lump sum and let him manage it instead.

By the time John came to me for a second opinion financial review four years ago, his retirement account had only $265k left. John decided to become my client, and I have been able to restore some of his money, but not all.

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My friend is a savvy businessman. However, like most Americans, he has a misconception: he thinks financial advisors are legally bound to put clients’ interests first. This can not be further from the truth. Everybody and his grandma can be a “financial advisor.” Unlike being a “physician”, there are neither legal requirements no educational qualifications. Whether a certain financial advisor is bounded legally to act in his client’s best interests all depends on his true profession. Here is an ad hoc summary:

Professional Title Fiduciary?
Attorney Yes
Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Yes
Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) Yes
Financial Planner Maybe
Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Maybe
Wealth Manager Maybe
Insurance Agent No
Registered Representative No
Stock Broker No

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You may not believe it: the term “financial advisor” is a free title. Anybody can use it; there is no legal requirement, nor educational qualification. In practice, though, generally there are three types of people who use this title: insurance agents, stockbrokers, and registered investment advisors (RIAs). Whether they are required to disclose fees all depends on what type they are.

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Author

Michael Zhuang is principal of MZ Capital, a fee-only independent advisory firm based in Washington, DC.

Twitter: @mzhuang

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