Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How is it possible for an RIA not to work in your best interests?

I have always been a big fan of Socrates and the Socratic method of arriving at decisions. Socrates would always ask questions of people to try and get them to justify their positions. In all cases, Socrates would act less informed and question his pupil repeatedly to teach them that they were actually ill informed and the position that they have taken was without merit. Most times these people took the advice of someone else and did not really have a position of their own. With this in mind, let us ask some questions to see if we can arrive at the answer of how it is possible for an RIA (registered investment adviser) not to work in your best interests.

I have to wonder about some of these big registered investment adviser firms out there who are getting other registered investment advisers to outsource their investment management to their mega firm. There are several of these big independent firms that manage billions of dollars of other investment advisers' clients. The thing that goes against the grain for me is all of the extra fees involved.

I was looking at the Form ADV 2A and 2A Appendix of a large $14 billion dollar firm which is growing like a weed and attracting a lot of registered investment adviser money. In effect, it is the feeder fund concept that several registered investment advisers got into hot water about in regard to Bernie Madoff. They referred their clients to Bernie Madoff and did not do their due diligence. That is another story altogether. Today, I wanted to forget about the feeder fund aspect for a moment and just focus on the fees.

This big $14 billion dollar registered investment adviser firm has several different programs available, such as mutual fund asset allocation, ETF asset allocation, strategic ETF asset allocation and so on. Their fees are as high as 1% on some of these accounts for smaller investors with less than $250,000. Then, you have to add whatever the adviser who referred the client to them charges on top of that figure which is usually in the 1% - 1.5% or more range. Do not forget the actual expenses of the investments themselves. According to the Investment Company Institute's latest FactBook, the average equity mutual fund has an expense ratio of 0.99%.

So, if the big mega firm charges 1%, perhaps the adviser goes easy on you and only charges 1%, then you are in the mutual fund portfolio that charges another approximate 1% in expenses. It doesn't take a smart fellow to figure out that this is about 3% a year. I've actually seen worse than 3% believe it or not.

It is great for the adviser who refers his client to this big fourteen billion dollar outsourcing firm. The adviser no longer has to mess with a bunch of back office headaches and can probably cut his overhead. Further, it probably frees up more of the adviser's time. They do not have to worry about how they are going to invest their client's money any more. They hired someone to take that off their plate. Did you notice how beneficial it was for the adviser?

Conversely though, how beneficial is it for the client? Could another adviser not offer a similar mutual fund asset allocation portfolio that they manage for 1 - 1.5% instead of outsourcing to the big mega firm? It would seem to me that the client would reap the benefits of a 1% savings if this was the case.

What about if the adviser managed a portfolio of ETF's on behalf of the client? ETF's have lower expenses and may actually save the client another 0.50 to 0.75% in expenses if the adviser managed these ETF's on behalf of the client, instead of outsourcing it to a mutual fund portfolio at the big 14 billion dollar mega firm.

But, there is a problem by going with a local adviser who picks the investments his or herself. What happens to the client's money if the adviser is injured or disabled? This obviously presents a problem. Sometimes this is the advisers justification for going to the big mega adviser. This does make some sense, however I beg to question if there are other big mega advisers who perhaps charge a more reasonable fee for outsourcing money management to them? The answer is yes. I can think of one in particular that charges a maximum of 0.41% for their money management expertise and that fee grades down from there depending on the total assets managed. They are a big mega money manager who does an excellent job. So, with this alternative, you may be able to get a client's portfolio of ETF's to be roughly around 1.5% to 1.75% all in. This alternative would save the client of the other big fourteen billion dollar mega firm about 1.25 to 1.5% a year, would it not?

So when the title of this blog asks how can an RIA not work in your best interests, then I have provided an answer. When an RIA knows full well that he can find a comparable mega firm for significantly less per year, but chooses to still use the higher priced mega firm, then this is a undisclosed conflict of interest. Unless of course, they explain that there are other mega firms who may charge lower fees in their disclosure documents and you as a client know this and agree to this in writing.

Also, if an adviser can manage the money themselves for their clients instead of outsourcing it, then they will save the clients money in fees. Granted a backup plan is necessary if something were to happen to the adviser, but this can be planned like anything else. A local adviser should have a repeatable process of investing that most any other adviser can look at and implement. (We do.) If not, then you probably do not want to do business with that adviser. Especially if they are just shooting from the hip.

So, the bottom line is when you are advised to go with a big fourteen billion dollar mega firm, you might want to shop around for other mega firms if this is the direction you want to go in. You could save yourself a lot in fees and get a comparable service, if not better.

If you want a big mega firm managing your money for a reasonable fee, then let me know. I can help. Of course, you will receive full disclosure in advance. This offer is only available for clients in states that we are licensed in or maintain an exemption from licensing. Contact me at rick@marianfs.com for full details.