Q What sort of results should I expect from my financial planner?
Should he be able to get better results with my account than the Dow Jones industrial average or the Standard & Poor's 500 annually or over a five-year period of time?
A I'm a skeptic that most financial planners and money managers can consistently beat a market benchmark like the Standard & Poor's 500. The evidence is overwhelming that most actively traded funds -- from equity mutual funds to global hedge funds -- don't do well compared to the market, especially after taking fees into account.
This is why I consistently recommend broad-based index funds for most people. There is no professional money manager trying to beat the market, buying and selling stocks or bonds with an index. You'll do as well -- and as poorly -- as the market index, minus a small fee. The main decision with index funds is how much of your investments you want exposed to domestic stocks, bonds, international equities and the like.
That said, it's a strong signal that it's time to move on if a planner or money manager has been promising to beat the market over the past five years and has consistently underperformed the standard benchmarks instead.
Here's the thing: In many cases I don't think the standard for evaluating performance by a financial planner is beating the market. (I'm assuming we're talking about a financial planner who can create an overall money blueprint for a family, such as a certified financial planner rather than a mutual fund money manager or Wall Street broker.)
I like four different standards for evaluating whether you're coming out ahead with your professional adviser.
The first benchmark: Has the planner worked at helping you match your financial resources with your values, your goals, your desires? Financial planning is really about figuring out what it is you want out of life and then tapping into the expertise of a planner to match your money to that vision.
Second: A good planner will help you construct a financial foundation that protects you from downside risk. The stock market periodically plunges into bear markets. The economy stumbles at inopportune times. You might lose your job, your parents may fall ill, a son or daughter may get divorced and move home with the grandkids. Key money questions in planning are, "What is the downside?" "What could go wrong?" A good planner works with you to create a margin of financial safety.
Third: Transitions are difficult. The kids heading off to college is one kind of transition. Another big change is retirement and, later on, the frailties of old age. A planner should provide blueprints for thinking through the inevitable trade-offs of major transitions.
Fourth: I think a primary job of a planner is to stop us from doing really foolish things with our money. It's hard to resist the siren song of a surefire winner. (Think dot.com and housing.) It's also difficult to avoid fears of an economic apocalypse during a crisis. (Think the 2008 credit crunch and the Great Recession.) A planner should help keep you on a more even keel through good times and bad.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.