Finding the right financial adviser is a lot like dating. You want someone smart, trustworthy and dependable. But you also want some sparks -- the excitement of seeing your portfolio grow.
There are nearly 176,000 people out there calling themselves financial advisers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with almost a quarter-million expected by 2016. Weeding through the bad apples isn't easy. With the economy in turmoil, the fallout after Bernie Madoff's $60 billion Ponzi-scheme scandal, and the latest complaints about Ameriprise Financial (which is accused of investing employees' 401k's in underperforming mutual funds), it feels as if you should hire a private eye before going on a blind date with a financial adviser.
Finding your financial soul mate could be worth the headache if you're lost in a pile of bills or have a hefty nest egg to manage. A June 2011 survey from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, the regulatory organization for advisers, found that while most Americans claim they have a financial plan, few have it in writing, "opting instead to carry their goals in their head or sketch it out on the back of the cocktail napkin."
If you're in the market for a financial adviser, proceed with caution and consider the following:
1. They're checking you out first
You're not the only one doing due diligence; financial advisers are screening you as a prospective client. They'll look at everything, including your bank statements, pay stubs, outstanding debts and investments, to see if they're going to be able to help. It's important to ask the right questions and not have unrealistic expectations.
General questions like "what's your rate of return?" usually are not applicable, says Wayne Copelin, the founder and president of Copelin Financial Advisors in Sugar Land, Texas. For some retirees, the return is low. Younger clients with good income will have both high and low returns. In March 2009, if you asked him his rate of return, it would be zero or less, he explains.
As with a date or a job interview, you can usually tell in the first five minutes whether it's going to work, explains Roseanne Rogé, the managing director, client relations, at R.W. Rogé and Co. in Bohemia, N.Y. "We have a huge screening process -- not just a brief call," says Rogé.
2. Good news isn't really always good
This is the most obvious red flag. If it's too good to be true, it probably is. This was the common refrain among the experts we talked to. A promise of above-the-market returns may be something to look into, as any former Madoff client will tell you.
3. They're largely unregulated
Get a computer, a business card and a website and voilà, you're a financial planner. Also, some life insurance agents or reps from other industries will imply that they provide financial expertise -- advising seniors on retirement, for example -- as part of their marketing strategy.
"You want to look for those letters after their names," says Craig Lemoine, an assistant professor for financial planning at the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and a former certified financial planner. Stick to well-known designations such as CFP, CPA, CHFC and CFA. "These say, 'I'm competent to work with the public,'" he says. Taking an ethics pledge, among other requirements, distinguishes these advisers from the others.
To put it in perspective, there were 63,601 certified CFPs as of September 2011. In July 2011, 58% of the applicants passed the CFP exam the first time. (To find out about common credentials, go to DesignationCheck.com.)
4. The hard sell pays off . . . for them
The hard sell and doomsday talk are signals that something is off. "The financial planning process takes time and is ongoing," Lemoine says. "If you're pressed to do something right now, that's a red flag," Copelin says. One example is when a planner is pushing a product or service before you have even talked about your goals, Lemoine notes. If you're told it's "now or never" to buy into a stock or bond offering, it's probably a sign to walk away.
5. Financial planning requires more than a degree
The practice encompasses a broad range of topics, from tax laws to life insurance. Ideally, a financial adviser has 10 years' experience in the business and has a little gray hair, Copelin says. "I have hired four or five new graduates from Texas Tech University. They come in thinking they can make $200,000. Six months into it, they always tell me, 'I thought I was ready to be a financial planner,''' says Copelin, who has been in the business for 26 years. "But there is a learning curve if you're doing comprehensive planning."
6. Heavy activity means they make money
Multiple transactions that incur fees and commissions should send off warning bells. "Some months (our client accounts) will have 20 to 25 transactions, but they don't create fees or commissions," Copelin notes.
7. They don't want to talk about their money
It's important to ask how a planner is compensated. Transparency is essential. "If they say, 'Let's talk about it later,' you may need to look somewhere else," Lemoine says. Hiring a fee-only adviser reduces the potential for conflicts of interest, Rogé points out.
8. Emotional events = profit
Unscrupulous financial advisers will take advantage of personal information and emotional events such as a divorce or the death of a spouse. Copelin recalls one widow who was contacted by someone through her husband's company after he died. She was told it was urgent that she roll over her husband's 401k and put it in an annuity, with 8% commission for the adviser. "It was as dishonest as could be," Copelin says.
It's better to find a financial adviser by word of mouth -- through family, friends or colleagues. If not, ask to call a few of the financial planner's current clients for a review. Work with an adviser who understands your profession or your life situation, such as whether you're a widow or a retiree, Lemoine says. Get names of advisers who specialize in these categories.
"Make sure your adviser lives like you do. If you're a teacher, work with someone who understands the stresses. You'll probably have more success," Lemoine says.
9. They want to cash in . . . on your cash
Most experts recommend having at least three months' living expenses saved up to carry you over a rough spot such as a job layoff. "You can't have enough cash in this environment," Copelin says. If an adviser wants to play around with your cash nest egg, it's probably another red flag.
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