Updated: 1/6/2010 10:03 PM ET|
Which broker is right for you?
A proliferation of online financial tools has made it easier to manage your money. But as your financial life gets more complicated, finding the right help can be prudent.
With the books, the Web sites, the personal-finance magazines and Suze Orman screaming money tips on "Oprah," you'd think no one would feel the need to pay for spendy financial advice.
But many people do because, hey, it's scary. This is complicated stuff, and it is your life we are talking about. How can you afford not to bring in a pro?
There's no one answer for everyone. Each approach to financial planning has some advantages.
Doing it yourself: Web sites such as this one and those of banks and brokers offer an increasingly wide range of sophisticated yet easy-to-use interactive tools to help you figure out how much to sock away for retirement and to meet other financial goals, and to help you pick investments. Many are free or available at a low cost. And you'll learn a lot by using them.
The increased availability of online resources does mean that those with basic financial needs can bypass the expense of one-on-one advice, says Barbara Roper, an investor-protection lobbyist with the Consumer Federation of America.
"People should see what is available online before they jump to the conclusion they need a living, breathing human being to assist them," Roper says. "But as your situation becomes more complicated, hiring an individual to help you becomes more compelling."
Hiring someone: Money issues can be overwhelming, so many people will feel better running their financial decisions past an expert. You know, someone who can understand why you're confused about whether to pay off the credit card or save for a house, or if it is better to save for retirement or your genius 10-year-old's Harvard tuition.
The benefits of hiring a financial professional can include turning complicated investing decisions over to someone who's devoted many years to studying the market, investment techniques and all things money.
But this kind of guidance does not come free. And you will be handing at least some of your financial decisions to someone else, someone who, even if he has your best interests in mind, can make money mistakes -- just like you.
The confusion doesn't stop once you've made the decision to hire a pro. There are hundreds of thousands of people offering financial advice for a fee. Who's right for you?
The first thing is to determine which type of adviser is your best fit. These are generally broken down into three categories: discount brokers, where you do most of the picking; traditional, or full-service, brokers, who charge fees to buy and sell; and independent advisers, who provide a range of personalized financial services, including stock and fund trading.
Traditionally, discount brokers only make trades on your behalf and do not offer guidance. This space is dominated today by online brokerages such as E-Trade and TD Ameritrade. For the most part, these guys are best for do-it-yourself investors who are confident in their trading abilities and not interested in paying steep fees for recommendations. You just need a way to execute trades.
Though the lines between full-service and discount brokerages are blurring -- with the big guys offering more streamlined trading services and discounters offering advice and lots of online tools and information -- in general, do not expect hands-on investment advice here. Instead, you open an online account and make your own trades based on your own research.
The big downside is that most people simply will not do research -- and if they do, it is rarely sufficient to make sophisticated investment decisions, Roper says.
"If we walked through what experts recommend is necessary to pick a mutual fund, it would take forever for most people to do that kind of analysis appropriately," she says. "It's just too hard, and people don't feel comfortable doing it themselves, so they don't."
A study by Terrance Odean, a professor of banking and finance at the University of California, Berkeley, found that many individual investors are overconfident in their abilities and trade far too often. Odean looked at the trades of 10,000 investors at a large discount trading firm and found that, on average, the stocks they bought underperformed the stocks they'd sold by 3.2% over the next year and by 3.6% over two years -- before paying commissions.
Pros: Inexpensive, full control for investors, low chance of conflict of interest.
Cons: Investors may not know enough to make strong picks.
Point of entry: Cost of a single share, plus commission.
Fee structure: Per-trade commission; most have a minimum monthly balance and a minimum trade requirement.
Full service brokerages include Raymond James, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and other brand-name big boys. These are often the old, big Wall Street companies whose wide-ranging services include advising and financing large corporations and operating powerful research teams. In theory, this means that individual investors -- via their advisers -- have access to vast amounts of top-level research and expertise.
But critics are quick to warn against these types of brokerages, owning to the inherent conflict of interest present when an adviser recommends stocks from a company that his bank advised or financed. There is further potential conflict because these brokers are paid, in part, based on how many trades they make, not how much money they make for you. Though there are many reputable and honest brokers at such firms, such abuses are well-documented.
Pros: One-on-one service, access to sophisticated research, one-stop shopping for multiple financial needs including insurance and, in some cases, banking. You usually pay only when you trade.
Cons: Potential conflict of interest, high cost.
Point of entry: Some have no minimum to invest; others require at least $1,000 to open an account.
Fee structure: Commissions as high as 5% on each trade or a flat fee between $100 and $200 per trade, or unlimited trades but a 1% to 2% annual commission on total invested funds. Look out for minimum balance requirements and annual maintenance fees.
Fee-based independent advisers
The third category of adviser is a fee-based independent professional who is not affiliated with a larger brokerage or bank. These professionals work on a fee-based structure only. That can include a percentage of assets managed or a flat yearly or hourly fee, or a combination of both. The point is that you know what you're paying before you sign over all your money.
So what should you expect from these people? Well, often whatever you want (within reason, people!). Typically, the arrangement includes getting to you know you and your spouse, and planning for long- and short-term goals that involve all aspects of your money. This can include retirement, of course, as well as real estate, college tuition for the kids, monthly budgeting and debt management.
The major caveat with independent financial advisers is that anyone can call himself or herself one. Make sure candidates are licensed with the Securities and Exchange Commission or your state's security regulators. Other credentials that lend legitimacy include "certified financial planner," which means they have passed a two-day exam, have three years' experience and are trained in investments, taxes, estate planning and insurance. CFPs are also bound to ethical standards requiring them to look out for clients' best interests. Also, many certified public accountants can earn a "personal-financial specialist" designation.
Marshall and Katie Lichty of Minneapolis hired an independent financial adviser after becoming disgruntled and suspicious of the high fees they were paying for advising services through their life insurance carrier. The lawyers were making good money but also had a lot of debt and numerous investments in many locations. For the new adviser's services, the couple paid a flat $1,000 fee for the first year of professional advice, and were expecting to pay about $2,000 this year, based on assets managed.
"It felt right to us to go to an independent adviser with no skin in the game who could offer advice and who we can count on to help us manage finances," Marshall Lichty says. "Now that we're using someone with individualized knowledge of our situation, I feel more like a sophisticated consumer."
Pros: Likely to be truly independent, so legally obligated to look out for your best financial interests and have no conflicts of interest. Fees are clearly defined, and personal one-to-one consulting is provided. There are advisers out there for every income level.
Cons: Can have high point of entry. Anyone can call himself or herself a financial professional, so the onus is on the client to check credentials.
Point of entry: Anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000 and up, though there is a movement to attract newer investors of lesser means.
Fee structure: Fee only, based on a flat monthly fee, 1% to 2% of assets managed or an hourly basis of up to $300 per hour, or a combination.
Despite the downfall of your friend and mine, Bernie Madoff, many wealthy individuals still seek the services of no-fee financial advisers. These folks take a chunk of your change and manage it on your behalf, informing you of what they've made for you and taking fees and cuts for their services. Most have very high entry points and steep fees in return for promises of high returns.
If you think this service is for you, make sure you know the name of the custodian -- the firm in possession of the investment accounts -- and make sure that organization is a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corp. Also, make sure you are able to check your accounts at any time; do not rely on monthly statements. Finally, if your returns seem too good to be true, withdraw your investment and keep an eye on the evening news for updates on your adviser.
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