There’s a theory that states it was once possible for one person to be well-versed in the entirety of human knowledge, largely because hundreds of years ago, humans didn’t know all that much! That one person was Athanasius Kircher, whose life spanned most of the 17th century. Even by modern standards, the man’s resume was, to say the least, impressive.
He understood, and often wrote scholarly works about, astronomy, botany, geology, paleontology, medicine, microbiology, Egyptology, volcanos, Chinese history, music theory, gravity, comparative religion and linguistics to name just a few. Not satisfied with those accomplishments, he invented the megaphone, a type of magnetic clock and then somehow managed to find time to learn twelve languages fluently. If you ever need an ego check, read up on Kircher’s accomplishments!
But human knowledge has expanded greatly since Kircher died in 1680. It’s no longer possible to understand everything there is to know about even a single subject. Not only would you avoid going to a barber if you needed heart surgery, you wouldn’t even go to most doctors; only cardiac specialists would make the cut.
This is all to say that modern society has evolved to the point where most of us rely on other peoples’ expertise for most aspects of our daily lives, which is where we run into a common conundrum: How do we know the experts we’re trusting are actually experts? After all, if we knew enough about their vocation to evaluate their expertise, we’d likely be experts ourselves and wouldn’t need them in the first place!
I can’t help much with evaluating most experts. If you need a plumber or a car mechanic, you’re on your own, but if you need a financial advisor, here are some things to look for to get an idea of whether or not they will serve you well.
Evaluate Their Motivations
Not all financial advice is the same. At Asset Preservation Wealth & Tax, our advisors are what’s known as fiduciaries. This means any advice we give our clients must be in their best interest. Some financial products offer commissions to the financial professional whose client invests in them. That creates an inherent conflict of interest; if an advisor stands to make a lot of money if they sell you a specific investment or insurance product, they might be tempted to sell it to you even if your portfolio would be better off with another option.
That’s not how we approach advice at Asset Preservation; our first priority is to seek the best results for our clients. We take that idea so seriously that the licenses we carry require us to approach our clients’ money as fiduciaries.
That’s not true of every business offering financial advice. I know one person who, after his father passed away, discovered a large national financial organization had been calling his elderly mother, trying to get her to invest his life insurance death benefit into high-risk stocks. That was clearly not advice given in the best interest of the prospective client: As I’ve said many times in my blog, you want to dial back risk as you approach and enter retirement, not increase it. You don’t want to have too many of your retirement assets tied up in volatile investments because you won’t have time for those investments to recover if they should experience losses.
Check Their Reputation
There are websites where you can check financial advisors you’re considering to make sure they have the credentials they claim to have and see what, if any, complaints have been lodged against them. FINRA’s BrokerCheck website is one of them. Simply typing in the advisor’s name will return their licensure status, including whether or not it’s current. Then, head over to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s site and check your advisor there as well; their BrokerCheck result will link you directly to it. Here’s mine. Looking through it, you can see which states I’m registered in, what licensure I have, which examinations I’ve passed and, perhaps most importantly, negative events in my history.
Financial advisors registered with the SEC are required to disclose anything in our past that could impact your evaluation of us as your financial partner. That includes client complaints, court proceedings related to our business, any regulatory actions taken against us, whether we’ve filed for bankruptcy and more.
The number of disclosures is listed right near the top of the page, just under my name. Zero disclosures is the ideal number. While some disclosures aren’t necessarily disqualifying, any number higher than 0 is a sign that you need to look into those disclosures and find out what happened before turning your financial life over to that advisor.
Consider Their Marketing
Just about every financial advisor advertises. We have to in order for clients to find us. But how we approach that advertising can say a lot about our firm. Asset Preservation’s marketing doesn’t make any promises we can’t keep. We won’t promise you a given return on your investments because we’re upfront with our clients that investing in anything involves a certain degree of risk. Even investment products that are frequently marketed as low or no risk, such as precious metals, can lose money. If you buy gold at its peak price, and then sell it after it drops, that “safe” investment didn’t perform very well for you at all.
I mentioned gold specifically because you see a lot of gold marketing along those lines. Ads on websites, the radio and even television will tell you gold is the only safe place to put your cash, and there’s “never been a better time to buy” than right now. Advertising such as this should be taken with a big grain of salt. After all, if “right now” is the best time to buy gold, why are these people selling it?
Financial professionals claiming you will receive enormous returns on your investment should be viewed with a skeptical eye. Even the most accomplished are not clairvoyant; we do not have crystal balls. We cannot say with certainty how any given stock or other non-zero-risk investment will perform. We can determine plans with the best chances of success, but those saying they can guarantee that success are betting they’ll get away with it, and they want to place that bet with your money.
Observe Their Approach
Now that we’ve established no one can guarantee portfolio success, how do you determine whose methods are most likely to return desired results? The first step, of course, is to find out what those methods are. Don’t be afraid to ask your prospective advisor how they determine that highest-probability route. Do they rely solely on themselves, or do they themselves seek advice?
At Asset Preservation, we use a variety of money management firms who all have different approaches and perspectives. We understand that no one is ever right 100% of the time, and only through a diversity of opinion can you arrive at a decision with a higher chance of success.
Vetting experts in subjects you yourself aren’t an expert in is tough, but with some basic research, you can give yourself a better chance of finding a financial expert who can help put you on the right path to a comfortable, well-planned retirement.
Stewart Willis is the founder and president of Asset Preservation Wealth & Tax, a financial planning firm in Phoenix, Arizona. Investment advisory services offered through Foundations Investment Advisors, LLC, an SEC registered investment adviser.
The commentary on this blog reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the author, Stewart Willis, providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Foundations Investment Advisors, LLC (“Foundations”), an SEC registered investment adviser or performance returns of any Foundations client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing on this website constitutes investment, legal or tax advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Personal investment advice can only be rendered after the engagement of Foundations for services, execution of required documentation, including receipt of required disclosures. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Foundations manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Any statistical data or information obtained from or prepared by third party sources that Foundations deems reliable but in no way does Foundations guarantee the accuracy or completeness. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Any past performance is no guarantee of future results. Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Foundations and its advisors are properly licensed or exempted. For more information, please go to https://adviserinfo.sec.gov and search by our firm name or by our CRD # 175083.