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The Other Side of the Advisor Fees Discussion

Advisor fees aren't cheap, but the benefits of an advisor outweigh the costs.

A personal business consultation

Financial advisors prevent investors from panicking once the markets tank.

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A recent article by Motley Fool took dead aim at the cost of working with a financial advisor. The title says it all: "The Invisible and Brutal Cost of Using a Financial Advisor." The premise of the article can be summarized as follows:

1. A hypothetical advisory fee of 1 percent of assets per year significantly reduces net returns over time.

2. Net returns are further reduced by the loss of the opportunity to invest fees deducted by the advisor.

The Motley Fool piece damns advisors with this faint praise: “I am not saying financial advisors are wicked people nor am I saying many advisers don't provide a deeply valuable service. However, if you do use a financial advisor or money manager, take a long, hard look … and ask yourself, ‘Am I getting my money's worth?’"

These suggestions will help you do such an evaluation:

Review Vanguard’s white paper. In March, Vanguard released an extensive analysis (called "Putting a Value on Your Value: Quantifying Vanguard Advisor's Alpha") of the value "alpha" added by advisors. The conclusion: "Based on our analysis, advisers can potentially add ‘about 3 percent’ in net returns by using the Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha framework." It reached this figure by placing a value, or range of values, on the following services:

  • Moving to low-cost funds: 0.45 percent
  • Annual rebalancing: up to 0.35 percent
  • Behavioral coaching: 1 percent to 2 percent
  • Tax efficiencies: zero percent to 0.75 percent
  • Withdrawal order for spending: up to 0.70 percent

Be aware of higher returns of investors in Dimensional Funds.

An analysis of investor success at capturing fund returns with and without passive advisors, "The Value of a Passive Advisor," published by Index Fund Advisors, yielded some surprising results. The analysis was performed over various time periods. The data comes from a number of independent, reliable sources, including Morningstar and "The Little Book of Common Sense Investing," by John Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group.

It found that investors in funds managed by Dimensional Fund Advisors (available only from designated investment advisors) captured 109 percent of the returns of those funds. In contrast, investors in index funds without passive advisors captured only 78 to 88 percent of the returns of those funds. Full disclosure: I am affiliated with Buckingham. Buckingham uses Dimensional's funds in the portfolios of its clients.

The ability of investors in Dimensional's funds to capture more than 100 percent of the returns of those funds can be explained by two factors. Unlike many investors without advisors, investors in Dimensional's funds receive coaching to keep them from panicking and selling when the markets tank. In addition, their advisors rebalance regularly, which can be counterintuitive. Often, investors without advisors are reluctant to sell stocks when they are going up and purchase them when they are going down.

Harvest tax losses. Low-cost advisors may not do tax-loss harvesting at all. If they do, they may do it infrequently. Capturing losses in a timely manner can have a significant impact on your returns over time.

Rebalance frequently. Many advisors rebalance once a quarter, if that frequently. A competent advisor will have software that determines reasonable tolerance ranges and will rebalance whenever it is necessary to keep your risk profile at its intended level.

Don’t hold an excessive number of mutual funds. A hidden cost of poor advice is caused by the use of too many funds in your portfolio. Having a large number of funds increases the cost of rebalancing, which reduces your net returns.

Compare services. Many low-cost advisors offer only investment advice. A true “wealth advisor” will offer additional services and may not break out the cost of providing those services from the advisory fee charged to clients. These services may include:

  • Providing a comprehensive review of insurance policies, including life insurance, long-term care, and property and casualty insurance
  • Integrating your investment plan with your estate plan
  • Providing Roth individual retirement account conversion advice
  • Giving advice on when you should start taking your Social Security payments
  • Providing advice on mortgage financing
  • Providing advice on investments held in your retirement accounts, even though those accounts are not managed by your advisor and your advisor receives no additional compensation for doing so

I have long been a proponent of focusing on fees and costs when making investment decisions. However, you should not view an advisor’s fees in a vacuum. There can be a significant difference in both the quality of advice and the breath of services offered by different advisors. You should consider all of these factors and not just fees alone.

Dan Solin is the director of investor advocacy for the BAM ALLIANCE and a wealth advisor with Buckingham. He is a New York Times best-selling author of the Smartest series of books. His latest book, “The Smartest Sales Book You’ll Ever Read,” has just been published.