Q&A: Keeping an eye on your financial planner

Dear Liz: I’m a fee-only financial planner with a quick comment regarding the investor who complained about a financial advisor who ran up a huge capital gains tax bill. I’ll bet that the vast majority of the gains came from selling the person’s initial investments to re-position them according to the advisor’s recommendations. That seems most likely given the gains seemed to be huge (implying the current investments had been in place for a long time) and the client’s balance didn’t seem to grow much at the same time. Of course, that’s not necessarily an excuse — accounts with unrealized capital gains need to be handled very carefully by an advisor. And you are dead-on with the main point of your response: Giving an advisor discretionary trading status is risky. I would add to that the client doesn’t seem to know the advisor’s investment strategy, so that’s another disconnect. I’m glad that fee-only gets a lot of positive comments in the financial press, but you’re correct that you still need to move with caution.

Answer: Advisors are in an unenviable position when they’re trying to fix a portfolio that hasn’t been properly diversified over the years. Big gains build up because the investor doesn’t want to sell and pay capital gains taxes. By refusing to sell some winners occasionally, though, those winners can comprise an ever larger share of the portfolio, making it more and more risky. A concentrated portfolio can fall more in a bad market and gain less in a good one than a portfolio that’s properly diversified.

So the advisor may have been doing what needed to be done, but the fact that the investor didn’t understand what the advisor was doing or why indicates a breakdown in communication, at the very least. No one should give an advisor blanket permission to trade an account without understanding the advisor’s strategy and being willing to monitor how it’s being carried out.

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