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How to Tell If Your Financial Adviser Is Charging You Too Much

August 9, 2017, 4:43 PM UTC
Male stock broker using telephone at desk, rear view
Bryce Duffy Getty Images

Excessive fees have become an obsession for many investors, and rightly so: Over time, an extra 1 percent or 2 percent a year can take a big bite out of a portfolio.

It’s not always easy to know how much you’re paying, however. Even if you can decipher your quarterly statements, you might not realize your adviser has an incentive to steer you into particular funds or recommend expensive insurance products.

The good news is that the market for financial advice is getting more competitive. Fees on many investments are falling, including those on some of the priciest products, such as hedge funds. Revenue for the asset management industry dropped last year, the first annual decline since 2008.

But how do you know if you’re getting a good deal? A new survey of almost 1,000 financial advisers sheds light on what U.S. investors are actually paying and what they’re getting in return. Inside Information, an adviser newsletter, asked advisers about a variety of costs to clients, including investment fees, trading costs, and financial planning fees. The sample was limited almost entirely to independent advisers, who tend to charge more transparent fees than brokers or insurance agents paid on commission.

The traditional rule of thumb is that a financial adviser costs 1 percent per year. That’s only partly right. The survey found that the median cost of hiring a financial adviser is 1 percent only for clients with $1 million or less in assets.

The more money you have, the less you typically pay. The median cost of a financial adviser for portfolios worth $5 million to $10 million is just 0.5 percent per year.

In one sense, the rich are getting a better deal. But in another sense, they’re getting hosed. An investor with $500,000 paying a 1 percent fee is handing over $5,000 a year to his adviser. An investor with $5 million paying a 0.5 percent fee is being charged $25,000 for more or less the same service.

Looking solely at the median cost of hiring an adviser can be deceiving. Bob Veres, the editor and publisher of Inside Information, was surprised by the wide variety of fees that financial advisers charge. “There are people charging 2 percent or more,” he said. “I don’t know how they get away with it.”

For the smallest portfolios, more than 1 in 5 advisers charge 1.5 percent or more per year. High fees are rarer for wealthier clients, but not unheard of; 1 in 8 advisers charge 1 percent or more to clients with $2 million to $3 million in assets.

These numbers are just the cost of hiring an adviser, and don’t take into account other fees that investors pay. The biggest are fees on mutual funds and other investments. The typical adviser picks investments costing 0.5 percent a year in expense ratios, the survey found.

If you add up all the costs paid by investors, including trading costs and platform fees, the total is a lot higher than 1 percent.

While a majority of clients pay from 1 percent to 2 percent, there are plenty of outliers. For clients with $1 million to $2 million, 18 percent of advisers end up charging 2 percent or more.

There’s nothing wrong with paying 1.5 percent a year—if your adviser is providing real value for that money. A good financial planner can help with far more than just managing your investments. Planners’ services can include, among other things, tax planning, retirement planning, estate planning, and advice on insurance, budgeting, maximizing Social Security, and making charitable gifts.

Many advisers are adding these services to prove their value to cost-conscious customers. “The core of what a financial advisor does to earn their fees is changing,” financial planner Michael Kitces wrote in a review of the survey results. However, “there’s no clear consensus on how to value [financial planning services] effectively.”

In the meantime, advisers and customers are questioning the traditional ways financial advice is delivered. Many brokers are switching from charging commissions to charging fees based on the assets under management. The Inside Information survey shows some independent advisers are beginning to shift to other kinds of charges, such as hourly rates and retainer fees. Only a third of advisers surveyed charge only AUM fees.

Lawyers tend to charge by the hour, and doctors based on the services they deliver. It’s strange that advisers still charge based on the quantity of assets they handle, not the actual work they do, Veres said.

“If financial planning is going to be a profession,” he said, “there’s going to be a need to be a tighter match between what you charge and the service you provide.”