Steve Scanlon says that almost everyone knows exactly how much their monthly cellphone bill costs them, but almost no one knows the average return on their investments last year.
As a former managing director at Bernstein Global Wealth management in Dallas, Scanlon says people are watching their pennies but not their dollars. Regardless of whether a consumer has a financial planner, they should know their rate of return and fees they’re paying.
“If people are paying 1.5 percent to have professionals manage their money and they’re only getting a 6 percent return, they’re paying 25 percent of the gain in fees, which is ridiculous.”
That’s why Scanlon, who is retired and is no longer managing client money, has created a website called Guardvest.com, which will formally launch in several weeks. It shows investors a snapshot evaluation of their financial manager based on returns, risk management, fees and expenses. The investor can download the information from an existing account without the knowledge of an adviser and the tool compares its returns with indexes.
It’s free to consumers and available to financial management firms for $8.99 per month per client. It’s a way to hold account managers more accountable, Scanlon says, at a time when returns may not merit paying the fees they charge.
He isn’t against hiring professionals to manage money, but he thinks that they ought to be doing more to earn their fee. If they’re not beating the appropriate index and disclosing the total amount of fees they’re charging, including front-end sales loads and administrative fees, the consumer should be asking for a fee reduction or consider handling it themselves.
“Eighty-seven percent of money managers don’t beat the performance of market indexes,” he said, “so why aren’t we demanding more or paying them less?”
For consumers who would rather leave investing to the professionals, Scanlon calls for a radical approach when choosing one: Ask for a “free look.”
Consumers can explain to the potential investment company what they’re looking for in an investment plan, their current portfolio and risk tolerance and have the adviser suggest a portfolio of mutual funds that the consumer can track for six months or a year without investing any money.
“It provides a more complete glimpse into what they can do for you than just past performance,” he said.
Will investment firms provide such a service? Scanlon thinks the best ones will, as they have nothing to lose if they’re performing well for clients.
Jacob Wolkowitz, investment manager at Accredited Investors in Edina, said that his firm already provides potential clients with something similar to a free look at the initial meeting.
“We provide a packet with 12 years of history as well as a current breakdown of investments and an explanation of any recent changes we’ve made,” he said. “They can take it with them and decide on their own time.”
Sophia Bera, a local financial planner whose company, Gen Y Planning, specializes in Gen X and Y clients, doesn’t believe a free look is the best way to serve the younger potential client.
“My value lies in financial planning rather than investments,” she said. “I want to provide a comprehensive financial plan that also includes estate planning, tax and insurance advice,” she said.
Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors, which has offices in Minnesota and Wisconsin, can provide a model portfolio as a starting point, said Nate Wenner, principal and regional director. The company also discloses performance net of fees.
“Any company should disclose its money management fee of 1 to 1.5 percent, but they should also disclose commissions, front-end loads [and] adviser fees,’’ he said.
Consumers who don’t have a financial planner but want to evaluate how they’re managing their own money can also use Guardvest. If a person has the majority of their money in a 401(k), for example, they are able to compare how their investments are doing to the appropriate indexes. They can go to the Guardvest site, locate their investment company such as Fidelity, and input their user name and password for the Fidelity account. The security system, which Scanlon says is as secure as Mint.com, is run by Intuit.
Despite the fact that similar sites such as Mint.com have not had data breaches, security and financial experts have qualms about any site that requires a user ID and password from a secondary source.
“I’m reluctant to do that on any site, even if they have great security,” said personal finance expert Gail MarksJarvis. Still, MarksJarvis thinks asking an adviser for full fee disclosure and comparing each mutual fund to the appropriate index fund is good due diligence.
With or without Guardvest, Scanlon says that consumers should be comparing the fees and performance of their mutual fund investments to indexes.
“If you don’t know how your adviser is doing compared to an index, it is very possible that you are underperforming and paying 10 times more for the privilege,” he said.