Q&A: When is it time to take the money and run to a new investment advisor?

Dear Liz: My wife and I are in our early 30s. She has a stock portfolio that has positions in 20 blue chip stocks purchased primarily in the last 20 years. It was set up by her family and managed by a family friend at a large brokerage. Recently, the family friend retired and transitioned the portfolio to a new team at this brokerage. They basically told us that our portfolio underperformed and only saw an average of 3% growth per year over the last 20 years.

The new brokerage team is recommending we gradually transition our 20 positions into a portfolio of 300 stocks that will mirror an index. They would harvest any tax losses to offset the capital gains tax that would otherwise be due. They will charge a 1% fee, and after several years, we will probably have a portfolio that is entirely small positions in a huge number of companies.

My gut reaction was that if they want to mirror an index, why not just buy an index fund with cash freed up from tax-loss harvesting? My wife really feels most comfortable doing whatever her parents recommend and is overwhelmed by what I call advanced investing but wants us to make this decision together.

Answer: If your wife is being charged a 1% annual fee, she should be getting a heck of a lot more than investment management. One percent is the typical fee charged by comprehensive financial planners who offer a wide array of services including retirement, tax, investment, insurance and estate planning. If her portfolio is more than $1 million, the fee probably would be even lower.

Another, larger problem is that the new team of stockbrokers probably does not have a fiduciary duty to your wife. In other words, they’re allowed to recommend a course of action that is more profitable for them, even if there are better-performing and less-expensive options available. That, more than anything else, should be motivating her to find a new advisor who is willing to be a fiduciary.

You can help in a number of ways, starting with the advisor search. The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network and the Garrett Planning Network all represent fee-only planners and can offer referrals.

You also can encourage your wife to educate herself about investing, since (as you know) it’s not rocket science and she needs to know the basics to responsibly handle her money. Relying on her family’s influence has left her with an undiversified, underperforming portfolio — and delivered her into the hands of people who probably don’t have her best interests at heart. It’s time to grow up and take charge.

Finally, you can stop referring to it as “our” portfolio. It’s lovely that she wants to share it with you, but the money is hers and she needs to take ownership.

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Q&A: What to do when a financial advisor doesn’t act in your best interests

Dear Liz: I hired a fee-only financial advisor a year ago. The advisor’s firm also included a CPA who prepared my 2017 tax return.

My tax liability was 100% more than what I paid via my W-2 withholding because the advisor traded constantly, incurring short-term capital gains. He authorized 45 trades in a three-month period. My capital gains for 2017 were more than I have ever earned annually in my 40-plus years of filing returns, yet the overall gain in my account was negligible.

I am 67 and soon to be retired. I do not believe he was acting in my best interests as his client. Is there any action I can take?

Answer: If you’re considering legal action, you’ll need to consult an attorney. If you want to take your beef to a regulatory agency, you can start by contacting the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

Just because an advisor is fee-only does not mean he or she is competent or is a fiduciary (someone who is legally required to put your best interests first). Most advisors are held to a lower standard of “suitability,” which basically means their recommendations can’t be unsuitable, given the client’s situation.

Giving an advisor authority to make trades in your account is risky business. When you don’t know an advisor well, it’s better to start with a non-discretionary account that requires your approval for any trades.

If the advisor earns your trust, you can consider switching to a discretionary account that allows trading — but first you should have an investment plan that makes clear, in writing, what your goals for the account are, what investments are appropriate and how often the advisor expects to make trades.

Most people are best served by passive investment strategies that seek to minimize fees and match various market benchmarks. Attempting to beat the market with frequent trading is usually futile, and costly. That’s especially true in taxable accounts because short-term capital gains are taxed at regular income tax rates, while investments held long term can qualify for lower capital gains rates.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Fighting auto loan bias, despite Congress. Also in the news: What you should tell your financial advisor, how much you should spend on a Mother’s Day gift, and why you shouldn’t pay anyone to help with your student loans.

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