There is a simple but undeniable truth in the financial consulting and wealth planning industry that Wall Street has kept as a “dirty little secret” for years. That dirty little, and nearly always overlooked secret is THE WAY YOUR FINANCIAL ADVISOR IS PAID DIRECTLY AFFECTS THEIR FINANCIAL ADVICE TO YOU!
You want, and deserve (and consequently SHOULD EXPECT) unbiased financial advice in your best interests. But the fact is 99% of the general investing public has no idea how their financial advisor is compensated for the advice they provide. This is a tragic oversight, yet an all too common one. There are three basic compensation models for financial advisors – commissions based, fee-based, and fee-only.
Commission Based Financial Advisor – These advisors sell “loaded” or commission paying products like insurance, annuities, and loaded mutual funds. The commission your financial advisor is earning on your transaction may or may not be disclosed to you. I say “transaction” because that’s what commission based financial advisors do – they facilitate TRANSACTIONS. Once the transaction is over, you may be lucky to hear from them again because they’ve already earned the bulk of whatever commission they were going to earn.
Since these advisors are paid commissions which may or may not be disclosed, and the amounts may vary based on the insurance and investment products they sell, there is an inherent conflict of interest in the financial advice given to you and the commission these financial advisors earn. If their income is dependent on transactions and selling insurance and investment products, THEY HAVE A FINANCIAL INCENTIVE TO SELL YOU WHATEVER PAYS THEM THE HIGHEST COMMISSION! That’s not to say there aren’t some honest and ethical commission based advisors, but clearly this identifies a conflict of interest.
Fee Based Financial Advisor – Here’s the real “dirty little secret” Wall Street doesn’t want you to know about. Wall Street (meaning the firms and organizations involved in buying, selling, or managing assets, insurance and investments) has sufficiently blurred the lines between the three ways your financial advisor may be compensated that 99% of the investing public believes that hiring a Fee-Based Financial Advisor is directly correlated with “honest, ethical and unbiased” financial advice.
The truth is FEE-BASED MEANS NOTHING! Think about it (you’ll understand more when you learn the third type of compensation), all fee-BASED means is that your financial advisor can take fees AND commissions from selling insurance and investment products! So a “base” of their compensation may be tied to a percentage of the assets they manage on your behalf, then the “icing on the cake” is the commission income they can potentially earn by selling you commission driven investment and insurance products.
Neat little marketing trick right? Lead off with the word “Fee” so the general public thinks the compensation model is akin to the likes of attorney’s or accountants, then add the word “based” after it to cover their tails when these advisors sell you products for commissions!
FEE ONLY Financial Advisor – By far, the most appropriate and unbiased way to get financial advice is through a FEE-ONLY financial advisor. I stress the word “ONLY”, because a truly fee ONLY financial advisor CAN NOT, and WILL NOT accept commissions in any form. A Fee-ONLY financial advisor earns FEES in the form of hourly compensation, project financial planning, or a percentage of assets managed on your behalf.
All fees are in black and white, there are no hidden forms of compensation! Fee-Only financial advisors believe in FULL DISCLOSURE of any potential conflicts of interest in their compensation and the financial advice and guidance provided to you.
Understanding the conflict of interest in the financial advice given by commission based brokers enables you to clearly identify the conflict of interest for fee-based financial advisors also – they earn fees AND commissions! Hence – FEE-BASED MEANS NOTHING! There is only one true way to get the most unbiased, honest and ethical advice possible and that is through a financial advisor who believes in, and practices, full disclosure.
Commission and Fee-Based financial advisors typically don’t believe in or practice full-disclosure, because the sheer magnitude of the the fees the average investor/consumer pays would surely make them think twice.
Consider for a moment you need to buy a truck specifically for towing and hauling heavy loads. You go to the local Ford dealership and talk to a salesperson – that salesperson asks what type of vehicle you’re interested in and shows you their line of trucks. Of course, to that salesperson who earns a commission when you buy a truck – ONLY FORD has the right truck for you. It’s the best, it’s the only way to go, and if you don’t buy that truck from that salesperson you’re crazy!
The fact is Toyota makes great trucks, GM makes great trucks, Dodge makes great trucks. The Ford may or may not be the best truck for your needs, but the salesperson ONLY shows you the Ford, because that’s ALL the salesperson can sell you and make a commission from.
This is similar to a commission based financial advisor. If they sell annuities, they’ll show you annuities. If they sell mutual funds, all they’ll show you is commission paying mutual funds. If they sell life insurance, they’ll tell you life insurance is the solution to all of your financial problems. The fact is, when all you have is a hammer… everything looks like a nail!
Now consider for a moment you hired a car buying advisor and paid them a flat fee. That advisor is an expert and stays current on all of the new vehicles. That advisor’s only incentive is to find you the most appropriate truck for you, the one that hauls the most, tows the best, and is clearly the best option available. They earn a fee for their service, so they want you to be happy and refer your friends and family to them. They even have special arrangements worked out with all of the local car dealerships to get you the best price on the truck that’s right for you because they want to add value to your relationship with them.
The analogy of a “car buying advisor” is similar to a Fee-Only financial planner. Fee-Only financial advisor’s use the best available investments with the lowest possible cost. A Fee-Only financial advisor’s only incentive is to keep you happy, to earn your trust, to provide the best possible financial advice and guidance using the most appropriate investment tools and planning practices.
So on one hand you have a car salesperson who’s going to earn a commission (coincidentally the more you pay for the truck the more they earn!) to sell you one of the trucks off their lot. On the other hand, you have a trusted car buying advisor who shops all of the vehicles to find the most appropriate one for your specific needs, and then because of his relationships with all of the car dealers can also get you the best possible price on that vehicle. Which would you prefer?
Truly unbiased financial advice and guidance comes in the form of Fee-Only financial planning. You know exactly what you’re paying and what you’re getting in return for the compensation your Fee-Only financial advisor earns. Everything is in black and white, and there are no hidden agenda’s or conflicts of interest in the advice given to you by a true Fee-Only financial advisor!
The fact is unfortunately less than 1% of all financial advisor professionals are truly FEE-ONLY. The reason for this? There’s a clear and substantial disparity in a financial advisor’s income generated through commissions (or commissions and fees), and the income a financial advisor earns through the Fee-Only model:
Example #1 – You just changed employment and you’re rolling over a $250,000 401k into an IRA. The commission based advisor may sell you a variable annuity in your IRA (which is a very poor planning tactic in most cases and for many reasons) and earn a 5% (or many times more) commission ($12,500) and get an ongoing, or “trailer” commission of 1% (plus or minus) equal to $2,500 per year. The Fee-Only financial advisor may charge you a fee for retirement plan, an hourly fee, or a percentage of your portfolio to manage it. Let’s say in this case you pay a $500 retirement plan fee and 1.25% of assets managed (very common for a Fee-Only financial advisor in this situation). That advisor earns $500 plus $3,125 ($250,000 * 1.25%) or TOTAL COMPENSATION of $3,625 – FAR LESS THAN THE $15,000 THE COMMISSION (or Fee-Based) financial advisor earned! In fact it takes the Fee-Only financial advisor over four years to earn what the commission (or fee-based) advisor earned in one year!
Example #2 – You’re retired and managing a $750,000 nest egg which needs to provide you income for the rest of your life. A fee-based financial advisor may recommend putting $400,000 into an single premium immediate annuity to get you income and the other $350,000 into a fee-based managed mutual fund platform. The annuity may pay a commission of 4% or $16,000 and the fee-based managed mutual fund portfolio may cost 1.25% for total compensation of $20,375 first year (not including the “trailer” commissions). The Fee-Only advisor would possibly shop low load annuities for you, possibly put the entire portfolio into a managed account, possibly look at municipal bonds, or any other variety of options available. It’s hard to say how much the Fee-Only advisor would earn as their largest incentive is to keep you the client happy, and provide the best planning advice and guidance possible for your situation. BUT, in this case let’s just assume that a managed mutual fund portfolio was implemented with an averaged cost of 1% (very common for that level of assets), so the Fee-Only financial advisor earns roughly $7,500 per year and it takes that financial advisor THREE YEARS to earn what the fee-based financial advisor earned in ONE YEAR!
The prior examples are very common in today’s financial advisory industry. It’s unfortunate that such a disparity in income exists between the compensation models, or there would likely be many more truly independent and unbiased Fee-Only financial advisors today!
Now consider for a moment which financial advisor will work harder for you AFTER the initial consultations an planning? Which financial advisor must consistently earn your trust and add value to your financial and investment planning? It’s obvious the financial advisor with the most to lose is the Fee-Only advisor. A Fee-Only financial advisor has a direct loss of income on a regular basis from losing a client.
The commission or fee-based financial advisor however has little to lose. You can fire them after they’ve put you in their high commission products, and as you can see from the examples they’ve already made the majority of the commissions they’re going to make on you as a client. They have little to gain by continuing to add value to your financial and investment planning, and little to lose by losing you as a client.
Wouldn’t you prefer a financial advisory model where your financial advisor must continually earn your trust and add consistent value to your planning?
It’s clearly more difficult to earn a living and run a profitable financial advisory firm through the Fee-Only financial planning and guidance model. For this reason, most financial advisors take the easy way and sell products for commissions and charge fees on assets managed – that way they can make a nice living on your investment portfolio and still have an ongoing stream of revenue every year. For this reason also, less than 1% of financial advisors are truly Fee-Only, yet it’s that 1% that is truly objective and unbiased, and that 1% whose only incentive is to manage your financial plan, investments, and overall wealth to accomplish the goals you wish to achieve!
The real “dirty little secret” Wall St. has is the undeniable truth that the commission and fee-based financial advisory model has inherent conflicts of interest, and your advisor may be “selling you investment products” rather than “solving your financial problems”!
Greg Phelps is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (TM) and Retirement Financial Advisor in Las Vegas and Henderson, Nevada focused on delivering clients exceptional financial advice and guidance on a Fee-Only basis. Greg has 14 years of financial advisory experience and is an accomplished advisor, author, and speaker. Greg has worked for two of the largest investment banking firms on Wall Street – Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, as well as serving as the Regional Manager of Wealth Management at the 5th largest accounting firm in the country – RSM McGladrey.
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