WASHINGTON Just a couple of years ago, "financial planner" was showing up on lists as one of the best jobs in America. It paid well and was satisfying work. But that was pre-Madoff, and pre-meltdown.
Now those same advisers are under fire, and having a lot less fun. They are working harder than ever trying to prove their integrity -- and justify their fees -- to clients who have lost big in the stock market's two-year slide. The industry says it is changing in response, and the planner of the future may operate very differently than the easy-money adviser of the past.
The question for investors is more immediate: Is your guy (or gal) worth what you're paying? Should you dump your advisor?
Don't sever a helpful, good relationship simply because your accounts are worth less than they were two years ago -- that's the sad truth pretty much across the board. Here are other ways to tell if you should keep the connection going.
-- Do the numbers. The bottom line remains the bottom line. If you are paying an adviser to invest for you, that adviser should earn more money for you (or lose less) than you could do on your own. To determine that, calculate your average annual return for the last five years, 3 years, and year-to-date periods, or ask your adviser to calculate those returns for you. Be honest with yourself about the guidelines you gave your adviser -- were you going for maximum growth, or cautious income? Then compare your returns with the ones you could have gotten in an inexpensive balanced Vanguard Investments fund, such as the Vanguard Asset Allocation Fund or the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund (www.vanguard.com). According to Morningstar (www.morningstar.com), that fund has returned 4.69 percent this year and 1.51 percent over five years, and lost 1.87 over 3 years. If you're a moderately conservative investor who wanted some growth, and followed your planner's advice, you should have done better than that, after fees.
-- Analyze his behavior. Was your adviser accessible and calm during the worst of the meltdown? Recent market behavior has been a "black swan" according to pros like Tom Potts, director of the financial services program at Baylor University and president-elect of the Financial Planning Association. By that he means it has been highly, highly unusual -- an outlier in statistical terms. That affords clients a real opportunity to see how their adviser behaved. Did she return all of your calls promptly, admit that you were probably losing money but calmly reassure you to hold the course, and hold the course herself? Did he send extra correspondence explaining market events in a clear and calming way? That is why you pay them. If, instead, your adviser let his fear spill out into your conversations, or abandoned her investment plan to jerk all of your money in and out of the market in response to market turmoil, that's a bad sign. Consider the dump. If you couldn't get through to your adviser during the worst of the meltdown, that would be grounds for finding another one.
-- Check your priority status. Independent fee-only advisers must act as fiduciaries. That means they must put your needs above their own. Brokers don't have to meet the same standards, and while they are supposed to recommend "suitable" investments, they may have a conflict of interest and recommend particular "suitable" investments that perform better for them, in terms of commissions, than they do for you. If you are getting investment advice from someone who isn't an independent fiduciary, consider switching.
-- Make sure you have your own account. There are certainly talented and honest money managers who pool their clients' funds and invest them, so that their clients don't have individual brokerage accounts. But that arrangement makes it very hard to monitor the honesty of your adviser. It's easier and cleaner to use an adviser who trades through an unaffiliated third-party brokerage, such as Charles Schwab or Fidelity Investments, suggests Ross Levin, of financial planning firm Accredited Investors of Edina, Minnesota. Then you will get monthly statements of your account. Read them every month. If money seems to be disappearing (say, by being withdrawn to another account you don't recognize), switch advisers.
-- Think about what else you get. Levin's firm doesn't just move investments for their clients; during the credit meltdown it helped many find alternative sources of cash. It helped clients refinance when mortgage rates were down. Good financial advisers review the whole picture, including your tax and insurance situation. If you're getting good comprehensive advice, stick with the plan, despite 2008-2009 losses.
(Linda Stern is a freelance writer. Any opinions in the column are solely those of Ms. Stern. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.)
(Editing by Gunna Dickson)