Q&A: Professional investment management fees

Dear Liz: I have an IRA with over $100,000 at a discount brokerage. I had it in a target date fund. Due to market downturns, I got nervous and was convinced to put my investment into the brokerage’s portfolio advisory services with additional fees coming to $1,600 per year. In general, is it wise to change investments to these more professional services?

Answer: If professional management keeps you from bailing out of your investments when markets decline, then paying a higher fee may be justified. But the higher the fees you pay, the less money you can accumulate. For example, your IRA could grow to more than $600,000 over 30 years if you net a 6% return. If your fees are one percentage point higher, and you net just 5%, you’d end up with less than $450,000.

Some discount brokers, including Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard, now offer a low-cost “robo” option that invests your money using computer algorithms. These robo options don’t offer the highly customized investment portfolios that some other services provide, but they come at a much lower cost — typically 0.3% to 0.4%. A few, including Vanguard and Betterment, offer access to financial advisors.

Is a money manager worth the cost?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are nearing 60. The company where we both have worked for over 30 years recently merged with another firm. The money in our retirement accounts, which totals several hundred thousand dollars, will be distributed to us, and we need to figure out how to manage it.

We took your advice to interview several fee-only financial planners, and all of them are pushing for wealth management. They would manage the money in exchange for a percentage of the assets. How do we find an unbiased opinion of whether it is worth it to spend over $10,000 a year for this service rather than putting that money toward our retirement?

I find it doubtful that any of the planners can earn a return that would be worth at least $10,000 a year. We’re with Vanguard’s Target Fund 2020, which we currently use for retirement funds we have gathered outside of work.

Answer: You’re right that a financial planner — or any money manager, for that matter — is unlikely to offer returns substantially above what you would get in passive investments that seek to match the market, rather than beat it. Study after study shows that few investors, professional or amateur, can consistently outperform the stock market averages.

What wealth management should provide is a suite of services to help you in all areas of your financial life. You should get a comprehensive financial plan as well as assistance with your taxes, insurance needs and estate planning.

Your investments should be targeted to your specific needs, time horizon and risk tolerance. Your planner should advise you about sustainable withdrawal rates once you retire, so that you minimize the risk of running out of money.

Your planner should be willing to act as your fiduciary, meaning your needs come first, so you don’t have to worry about the conflicts of interest that may arise when an advisor is recommending products that pay him or her commissions. The best wealth managers, in short, provide a one-stop shop that alleviates the need for you to try to coordinate all these services yourself.

If you don’t feel you need this level of service, however, seek out a fee-only planner who works by the hour. You can find referrals to this type of fee-only planner from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.