Understanding the Differences Between Financial Advisors and Brokers

Advice Channel
Advisors Channel

As a fee-only financial advisor, I am surely biased to this type of advisor. I do think everyday investors are much better off if they have someone in their corner who is recommending a particular investment product because it actually is the best product for them, given their circumstances and life stage. Not because there’s a commission on the sale at the end of the day.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you shouldn’t be mindful of possible issues – and that’s for any financial advisor, whether fee-based or full-service brokers. For that matter, you also should be mindful of potential drawbacks to other options that may seem (superficially, at least) appealing.

Let’s look at the options.

Fee-only financial advisors are considered advantageous because there’s no inherent conflict of interest as there can be with full-service or commission-based brokers. Brokers often recommend investments owned by their company, which is an inherent conflict.  You simply have to consider whether the products recommended are going to be best for your personal financial goals.

What you pay for is financial guidance, planning and assistance. This may be a flat fee. Some advisors charge a percentage of your account’s assets. You may be able to negotiate the amount. But, the fees you pay do not fluctuate according to the type of investments that are being recommended. What you get with this approach is objectivity and investment advice that’s unbiased. Your interests and your advisor’s are aligned.

The commission-based approach to financial advisory services is less the norm today than in the past. You open an account or buy a stock or bond and your advisor gets a percentage. Recurrent trading may also be encouraged – which may not be good for investors with a longer-term perspective. This all can pose a conflict with your best interests and goals.

And on the do-it-yourself front? Well, as attractive as this might sound on the surface, consider the relevance of the saying about the attorney who represents himself. For investment purposes, you might find good information online, but it’s just as likely you’ll find speculative information, if not real fake news. Investing is a risky business; if you don’t have the time or the expertise to do an adequate job of qualifying research, get a professional to help. Your future – financial and otherwise – depends on it.

Speaking of your financial future, it’s never too early to start planning for it. That means Millennials – and even the oldest Generation Zs who are just entering the workforce – should be putting money aside as they think about their long-term financial goals. It’s a challenge, of course, especially for those who are still trying to pay off college. Retirement is maybe too much to think about, right?

With that said, I’ve developed a service package to make it less painless. My new Robo-Advisor Professional service package is specifically targeted to the needs of Millennials and utilizes an in-depth financial data collection sheet, as well as a plan discussion with myself, to collect essential information about your financial background and goals.  This provides a strong base of understanding for clients to invest in ETFs through WealthSimple with a superior portfolio manager with a track record of beating the index.

ETFs are ideal for those with more limited resources, as a “wrapper” around a group of securities. They have a cost advantage over individual stocks and can be traded commission free. They’re similar to mutual funds, but with more flexibility as they can be traded throughout the day, not just once.

Every company needs a money manager and so might every wealthy investor

The Canadian Dollar and MONEY.CA
Money in Canada

Managing an investment portfolio was relatively easy in the 1980s and 1990s, but there has been a significant increase in complexity over the past decade. The investment climate and markets is more volatile and demanding, and today’s low interest rate and returns don’t look like they are going to change anytime soon. To get better returns, the wealthy are adding non-traditional investments such as private equity, real estate and hedge funds to their portfolios, as well as diversifying globally, which just increases the potential complications.

It’s tempting then to turn the whole thing over to someone else to manage if you can get through the sheer volume of asset managers, products and strategies to pick someone. But even among wealthy investors, there is still a lot of confusion about whether they should have discretionary or non-discretionary investment portfolios. In other words, should you and your family manage the investments, or outsource the decisions to an individual or a firm of experienced professionals? For those who lack the investment experience, time or discipline to be involved with dayto-day decision making, discretionary investment management services are a popular option. Firms that provide this are called outsourced chief investment officers and should be licensed as portfolio managers with a provincial securities regulator such as the Ontario Securities Commission.

But not all discretionary services offered by the country’s myriad banks, brokers and portfolio managers are the same and there are at least eight important factors to consider when choosing one. Does the firm: Have the skill, experience and resources to evaluate and manage assets across public and private markets? Have an “open architecture” approach, or the ability to allocate capital without conflict-of-interest to any independent asset manager from around the world in areas such as direct lending, real estate, private equity and hedge funds? Have the ability to access “best-in-class” institutional quality traditional and alternative asset managers? Provide a culture centred on client relationship management and strong communication? Offer robust performance reporting along with relevant custom benchmarks? Allow for clients to meet or speak with underlying asset managers? Take tax considerations into account to optimize returns on an after-tax basis? Offer more than a one-size-fits-all approach that utilizes just one or a few asset classes, such as stocks and bonds?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you should probably look elsewhere, or, at the very least, realize you’ll have to compensate for that lack of ability in some other way at your own expense and time. But if your family hires an outsourced CIO, you and the advising representative (a registered individual who can provide investment advice at a portfolio management firm) will start your relationship by discussing and documenting your unique investment objectives and constraints. Topics covered should include how much investment risk you are willing to take, the desired level of return for taking on that risk, liquidity needs, tax considerations, performance reporting and benchmarks, and the asset classes and markets you will allow your portfolio to be invested in. A written investment policy statement is then provided as a best practice that documents all of the above.

Your advising representative is then authorized to make all the necessary investment decisions (within the agreedupon guidelines) and will not require consent for individual transactions. This service, which also consists of regular communication through methods that best suit your family — whether it’s in-person meetings, webcam meetings, telephone conversations, emails and newsletters — forms an important part of the ongoing relationship. The relationship is of prime importance, since your investment objectives and strategy may need to change to provide a tailored fit as conditions within your family change.

Original publication: http://business.financialpost.com/financial-post-magazine/every-company-needs-a-money-manager-and-so-might-every-wealthy-investor 

Income Investing: “Feed Your Head… Feed Your Head”

Jefferson Airplane has never, ever, been mistaken for a band of financial advisors, but the White Rabbit lyrics can be incredibly instructional to the generation of investors who experienced the classic first hand — as a description of their own college days’ lifestyle. If only they had heeded the dormouse’s call to “feed your head.” For the sake of your retirement sanity and security, you just have to make income investing an intellectual exercise — not an emotional one.

The Brainwashing of the American Investor has its own tale of an Alice whose “logic and proportion” had “fallen sloppy dead”. Many years ago, when interest rates soared into double digits, elderly Alice was well advised to invest her stash in a portfolio of Ginnie Maes. Broadly smiling, she bragged to her friends about the federally guaranteed 13% interest she was receiving in regular monthly intervals — much more than she needed to cover her living expenses.

But interest rates continued to move higher, and the decreasing market value of her Ginnie Maes was more than she could tolerate. “If rates continue to go up, I’ll have nothing left” she cried to her White Knight financial advisor who suggested patience and understanding. The very same pill that made her income grow larger was also making her market value become smaller.

Yet the income kept rolling in, higher yielding unit trusts were purchased with the excess, and major redemptions were nowhere to be seen. The income kept growing, the market value kept shrinking, and Alice was seeing red from seeing red on her account statements.

So Alice went to her local bank and traded in her absolutely government guaranteed 13 per centers for some laddered, non-negotiable, 8.5% CDs. “No more erosion of my nest egg”, she toasted proudly with the hookah smoking bank caterpillar who orchestrated her move to lower income levels. Within a few months, she was liquidating CDs to pay the bills that never seemed to be a problem with those terrible Ginnie Maes.

Don’t let such uniformed thinking sabotage your retirement program; don’t let the selfish advice of a product sharpshooter send you chasing rabbits when IRE (interest rate expectations) or other temporary market conditions shrink the market value of your income portfolio. Feed your head; feed—your—head.

Income pays the bills, and if the income level is both steady and adequate, there is no need to change investments. Market value should be used to determine when to buy more (at lower prices) and when to take profits (at higher ones). It is almost never necessary to take a loss on a high quality (government guaranteed in Alice’s case) income security.

More recent experimenters in much more sophisticated potions have addressed the issue with similar results, reaching mind-numbing conclusions such as these:

  • I know the income hasn’t changed throughout the debacle in the financial sector but I don’t want to buy anymore of these securities until the prices go back above what I paid for them originally. Translation: I’d rather stick with my 4.5% tax-free yield than increase it by adding to my positions at lower prices.
  • Sure, I understand the relationship between IRE and the prices of income CEFs but individual bonds and Treasuries haven’t suffered nearly as much. That’s where we should have been. Translation: I would be much happier with a 3% than with an 8% rate of realized income.
  • I’m tired of seeing all the negative positions in my portfolio. Let’s keep all the income we receive in money market until we’re back in positive territory. Translation: I’d rather accept 0.5% or so, than reduce my cost basis and increase my yield by adding to my positions at lower prices.

Modern brokerage firm monthly statement “pills” were developed during the dot-com era, when Wall Street was trying to emphasize the brilliance of its speculative prescriptions by making us all feel ten feet tall, month after month after month.

But the geniuses on the institutional chessboard produced too many mushroom product varietals and the Red Queen of corrections lopped off many of their sacred heads. The papers that were designed to make our chests burst with pride have turned on us as a haunting reminder of the reality of markets and the cycles that push them in either direction.

It should be easy to navigate a quality income portfolio through whatever circumstances, cycles, and scandals come at you, but a clear head and a clearer understanding of what to expect is required. Most brokerage firm statements make it difficult to monitor asset allocation using any methodology, including the Working Capital Model, and I don’t think that it’s by chance.

Confusion breeds unhappiness, and unhappiness brings about change, and the masters of the universe encourage you to fritter around from mushroom to mushroom in perpetual motion. To whose benefit?

It would be wonderful if an investor’s monthly statement would organize his securities based on their class and purpose, but Wall Street doesn’t want such distinctions to be made easily. It would be great if the institutions would help investors formulate reasonable expectations about various types of securities under varying conditions, but that’s not likely to happen either.

It would be spectacular if the media would produce information and explanation instead of news bites and sensationalism, but you guessed it — not much chance of that.

Income investing can be easy. Ask your hookah-smoking caterpillar to give you the how?

The Investment Gods Are Furious

Market Cycle Investment Management (MCIM) is an historically new methodology, but with roots deeply embedded in both the building blocks of capitalism, and financial psychology— if there is such a thing.

The earliest forms of capitalism sprung from ancient mercantilism, which involved the production of goods and their distribution to people or countries mostly around the Mediterranean.

The sole purpose of the exercise was profit and the most successful traders quickly produced more profits than they needed for their own consumption. The excess cash needed a home, and a wide variety of early entrepreneurial types were quick to propose ventures for the rudimentary rich to consider.

There were no income taxes, and governments actually supported commercial activities, recognizing how good it was for “Main Street” — as if there was such a thing.

The investment gods saw this developing enterprise and thought it good. They suggested to the early merchants, and governments that they could “spread the wealth around” by: selling ownership interests in their growing enterprises, and by borrowing money to finance expansion and new ventures.

A financial industry grew up around the early entrepreneurs, providing insurances, brokerage, and other banking services. Economic growth created the need for a trained workforce, and companies competed for the most skilled. Eventually, even the employees could afford (even demand) a piece of the action.

Was this the beginning of modern liberalism? Not! The investment gods had created the building blocks of capitalism: stocks and bonds, profits and income. Stock owners participated in the success of growing enterprises; bondholders received interest for the use of their money; more and better skilled workers were needed — the K.I.S.S. principle was born.

As capitalism took hold, entrepreneurs flourished, ingenuity and creativity were rewarded, jobs were created, civilizations blossomed, and living standards improved throughout the world. Global markets evolved that allowed investors anywhere to provide capital to industrial users everywhere, and to trade their ownership interests electronically.

But on the dark side, without even knowing it, Main Street self-directors participated in a thunderous explosion of new financial products and quasi-legal derivatives that so confused the investment gods that they had to holler “’nuff”! Where are our sacred stocks and bonds? Financial chaos ensued.

The Working Capital Model was developed in the 1970s, as the guts of an investment management approach that embraced the cyclical vagaries of markets. This at a time when there were no IRA or 401(k) plans, no index or sector funds, no CDOs or credit swaps, and very few risky products for investors to untangle.

Those who invested then: obtained investment ideas from people who knew stocks and bonds, had pensions protected by risk-averse trustees, and appreciated the power of compound interest. Insurance and annuities were fixed, financial institutions were separated to avoid conflicts of interest, and there were as many economics majors as lawyers in Washington.

MCIM was revolutionary then in its break from the ancient buy-and-hold, in its staunch insistence on Quality, Diversification, and Income selection principles, and in its cost based allocation and diversification disciplines. It is revolutionary still as it butts heads with a Wall Street that has gone MPT mad with product creation, value obfuscation, and short-term performance evaluation.

Investing is a long-term process that involves goal setting and portfolio building. It demands patience, and an understanding of the cycles that create and confuse its landscape. MCIM thrives upon the nature of markets while Wall Street ignores it. Working Capital numbers are used for short-term controls and directional guidance; peak-to-peak analysis keeps performance expectations in perspective.

In the early 70s, investment professionals compared their equity performance cyclically with the S & P 500 from one significant market peak to the next — from the 1,500 achieved in November 1999 to the 1,527 of November 2007, for example. Equity portfolio managers would be expected to do at least as well over the same time period, after all expenses.

Another popular hoop for investment managers of that era to jump through was Peak to Trough performance —managers would be expected to do less poorly than the averages during corrections.

Professional income portfolio managers were expected to produce secure and increasing streams of spendable income, regardless. Compounded earnings and/or secure cash flow were all that was required. Apples were not compared with oranges.

Today’s obsession with short-term blinks of the investment eye is Wall Street’s attempt to take the market cycle out of the performance picture. Similarly, total return hocus-pocus places artificial significance on bond market values while it obscures the importance of the income produced.

MCIM users and practitioners will have none of it; the investment gods are furious.

Market Cycle Investment Management embraces the fundamental building blocks of capitalism — individual stocks and bonds and managed income CEFs in which the actual holdings are clearly visible. Profits and income rule.

Think about it, in an MCIM world, there would be no CDOs or multi-level mortgage mystery meat; no hedge funds, naked short sellers, or managed options programs; no mark-to-market lunacy, Bernie Madoffs, or taxes on investment income.

In MCIM portfolios, lower stock prices are seen as a cyclical fact of life, an opportunity to add to positions at lower prices. There is no panic selling in high quality holdings, and no flight to 1% Treasuries from 6% tax free Munis. In an MCIM portfolio, dividends and income keep rolling, providing income for retirees, college kids, and golf trips — regardless of what the security market values are doing.

Capitalism is not broken; it’s just been overly tinkered with. The financial system is in serious trouble, however, and needs to get back to its roots and to those building blocks that the Wizards have cloaked in obscurity.

Let’s stick with stocks and bonds; lets focus on income where the purpose is income; let’s analyze performance relative to cycles as opposed to phases of the moon; let’s tax consumption instead of income; and let’s not disrespect the gods, the “Bing”, or the intelligence of the average investor…

So sayeth the gods. Amen!

Please Mr. Obama, Lend Us Your Crystal Ball

The President wants the DOL to fine professionals who make money allowing 401k participants to make “bad” investments.
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So what’s the difference between a “bad” and “good” investment? Right, well in the Will Rogersian world of politicians and regulators, “the good ones only go up in price; the bad ones go down”.

“Don’t gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stocks and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.” WR

Plan sponsors and other financial professionals are supposed to know which ones will go in what direction… and NEVER (as Will would admonish) buy a security that is going to go down.

“Where have all the crystal balls gone? Gone to hindsightful regulators, all of them.” PP&M, sort of.

POTUS wants investment advisors to only select the “good ones”, and they are expected to know in advance where the market may be going, in both the short run and the long. And getting paid for their efforts, well that can’t be “good”, especially when the market value goes down.

Remember, “advisors” are mostly salespeople; regulators are mostly cops.

Do any of these guys have a clue about the workings of the stock market? Which is worse: having the foxes (advisors) in charge of the hen house (401k investment (not pension) plans), or having the lunatics (politicians & regulators) running the asylum (stock market expectations)?

Both are bad, unrealistic, and counterproductive. Markets rise and fall in price… the advisory deal is to limit the amount of risk in a portfolio. Risk of loss is always involved, but it can be minimized… regulators just don’t really get it.

Participants need to be educated not coddled; costs are not the most important aspect of retirement investing, net spendable income at retirement is; stock market values will always go up and down… and that’s a good thing.

If 401k participants are expected to be retirement ready, they need to know the importance of growing income and to have investment options that can get the job done.

I’m not sure that can be accomplished in the current 401k space, but the education has been available for a long time… and it can be applied fairly easily in a “self directed” 401k environment.

And that, Mr. President, is all you should be lecturing the investment advisory community about. If a plan participant is too lazy, busy, greedy, or preoccupied to determine “what’s inside” an investment option, it is not the fault of his or her employer.

The education is out there: just read The Brainwashing of the American Investor

… and here are two Self Directed IRA or 401k income investment presentations for you to think about. 

Next Webinar April 8th

Does your advisor have a Succession Plan? Your right (and obligation) to know!

My previous blog touched on the subject of understanding that your advisor is legally required to take continuing education to maintain their licence or registration but in this instance, there is no obligation for an advisor to have a Succession Plan and you may be the one that suffers the consequence!

Any financial advisor will preach the importance to any business owner about having a proper plan that is properly funded to ensure that they, their family, their employees and their customers are protected in the event they can’t work anymore. For some reason, customers come last but should that be the case for financial advisors? Certainly each advisor has the right (and obligation) to ensure that they and their family are properly protected in the event something happens that leave the advisor unable to work – that is just common sense. However, don’t you as a client/consumer/customer have the right to ask your advisor that question – with the added caveat of “if you aren’t here, who is going to look after my accounts and ensure my plans are achieved?

After all, you have trusted your advisor with probably more information about yourself, your family, your business, your health – than anyone else with the possible exception of your spouse! You have allowed them to put in place for you a long-term plan so you and your family can achieve your goals – but if they aren’t in the business – then what? Don’t you want to know they have a plan in place to bring on a new advisor to take over and still ensure your goals are met – if they are sick, critically injured, retire or pass away? Are you prepared to start again from scratch with another advisor? You spent a lot of time and energy developing that trust – do you want to go through that again?

I urge you to ask your advisor about their plans. Ask to meet their planned successor. Satisfy YOURSELF that you are dealing with an advisor who truly has their “act together” and follows the same advice they may have given you.

No-one is immune to the risks of life and nothing will ever be 100% certain however you have an obligation to yourself to ensure that you have an advisor who believes in following their own advice to clients. You can’t abdicate that responsibility!

Can a single advisor handle it all?

So far in 2013, there has been a lot of discussion about the potential for “one-stop-shopping” either through advisors or through certain financial institutions. This begs a basic question in my mind – can any one advisor or any one FI properly handle all of the financial matters for a client?

From the perspective of the FIs, they would like the public to believe that they can, in fact, handle everything through in-house advisors or a team of advisors. Does this claim stand-up in the cold light of day? I suggest not. Financial planning, in all of it’s complexities and forms, is based on a close personal relationship between the client and the advisor(s) involved. FIs suffer from a few issues in this regard including lack of continuity, perceptions of conflicts of interest in products and services recommended – predominantly in-house or house-labelled generic products – lack of objectivity also springs to mind.

So what about the individual advisor? Currently we have two versions of this creature on the loose – the independent group (the largest in numbers) and the closely-tied (or career) advisors that represent one company (maybe with one or two strategic alliances to flesh-out their potential offering). I will offer some comments on the latter here. Everyone knows that no one company – regardless of size and breadth of offering – can be all things to all people at all times. Assuming that you accept this premise, the ability of the closely-tied advisor to hande all matters is obviously seriously impaired as is their ability to claim to offer independent and objective advice on all matters financial.

So what about the independent advisor? Can they fill these gaps? Again, I have to say no. While the vast majority of these advisors seem to stress their ability and talents in this area, at best they make broad-brush attempts – albeit very well meaning – but still fundamentally lack the knowledge and full product and service suite.

Is there a solution? I believe the answer here is YES. I believe the answer is what I call “strike teams”. Stay tuned for my next blog where is hare this concept in more detail! Cheers