Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Boomer Conundrum: To Hire a Financial Planner

On the surface, financial planning has remained the same. You are looking for a path to retirement that will provide you with a secure future, a worry-free post-work life. And financial planners offer you their service as a guide on that journey. But choosing the right one seems to have become more difficult as the industry has converted itself into what they think is more user friendly. How do you chose? 

There was time in the not-too-distant past when financial planners were catering to only the elite investor, one who is already versed in the concept of spending money to keep money. These richer clients understood that making money was the easy part; keeping it on the other hand was tougher. The sort of planners these folks hired were asset-based. This means that if you had wealth, for a percentage of those assets, they would invest to keep it.

They had an interest, albeit conflicted, in keeping your money in motion. Not only would they get a portion of your returns, they might also receive pay from the very products they were suggesting you use. Beyond these conflicts, which have obvious pluses and minuses, their interest was in the growth of your portfolio. They did attempt to cultivate a long-term relationship and the way they constructed their business with ease of access to conversations. And they knew that if they did a good job, they wouldn't hear from you until you stumbled across some idea on your own. They might at the point weigh the option against their own self-interest: less money to manage because, for instance you thought a life insurance policy was a good idea for your estate, would be less of a percentage of the total wealth under management.

Until, of course, things go awry. When the markets nose-dived in 2008, not only did economists and financial students miss the event, but so did financial planners. This exposed to some of these wealthy clients the fallibility of their skills. Paying as much as 2% of the net worth of their portfolios and at the same time, losing value the same as someone who didn't pay anyone for advice, brought the industry to rethink their approach.

Enter the flat-fee financial planner. This seemed like the logical choice for those with not a lot of money but the same needs as those who had much more: they wanted to keep it. The question is, without the incentive to make more based on the strength of the portfolio, it seemed as if this was simply window-dressing planning - they charged a flat fee for people who didn't need a lot of ongoing advice and they didn't offer more than was needed.

Storefront financial planners popped up everywhere. They would take your plan, reconstruct it and channel you into other products, some you might not need. They might suggest refinancing (and they could help). They might restructure your life insurance needs (and they could help). They might steer you towards an annuity (and they could help there as well).

And once that was done and you seemed set, they made money on the commissions these product brought in and did so under the guise that it was all in your best interest. Sometimes it was. The problem was that this yearly or twice yearly visit could cost upwards of $1,000. This might be a good investment for those who are in relatively stable shape. But for many who sought this sort of advice, the money might have been better spent elsewhere.

The next phase of advice giving came as a result of the downturn. While many people lost a great deal of investable net worth, some had un-investable assets. the may have had muh of their net worth tied up in their business for instance, an asset but not one that would be considered liquid. These assets, while seemingly under management would be considered when any advice was given. The concept of protection although came at a cost that sometimes is twice that of the fee-based planner.

The advent of the hourly based financial planner seemed to be a good solution. Much like the service provided by lawyers, the concept of the clock-running seemed to be a good idea for some people. They paid for what they received. The relationship was even more important here than in many of the other types of planning scenarios: planners were paid by the hour so they kept that meter running. Call with a question: and the meter clocked the time. Stop by with a concern: and the meter clocked the visit even as they chatted up your personal life.

Removing the asset-based incentive will keep your financial planner working longer on your plan with results that aren't often eventful. None of this suggests that this group isn't without merit. Far too many people equate the time they spend making money as more fruitful than time spent keeping it. They could, in almost every instance, find the same solutions on their own. Ironically, they could save money by investing some of their own time.

Evan Esar, American humorist who once quipped: "The mint makes it first; it's up to you to make it last." Keep in mind, credentials play a role. Start with the certified financial planner designation and move towards the references. Even if someone you know recommends a planner, do your own background check. Ironically, once you satisfied your inner skeptic, calculate the amount of hours you did and the amount of hours after-the-fact that you questioned your decision.

On today's Financial Impact Factor Radio with Paul PetilloDave Kittredge and Dave Ng we discuss the role financial planners can play in your retirement planning. Even as the industry surrounding advice has shifted to a more consumer friendly format, it has become more difficult to chose the right financial planner for the task.

1 comment:

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