Do Financial Advisors Have a Transparency Problem? Your Client May Think So

Some 40% of investors in a new study said they were not provided or did not know about core information about investment performance from their investment advisor, 401(k) plan provider and other financial firms.

The report, from Phoenix Marketing International, also states that 33% of financial services clients say they "lack the confidence that information is presented in exactly the same way, regardless of outcome, whether (investment) performance is good or bad." Another 35% say weren't confident the information they receive from their investment professionals was accurate and dependable.

In addition, 35% of investors said they were not highly confident that the information they received was accurate and reliable.

For advisers who tend to underestimate transparency issues, the message is "don't" - as clients are paying closer attention these days.

"We're moving a lot of money away from our investment advisor, because we don't hear about risks or better investments; we don't get updates on fees and costs, or when it's a good time to buy or sell, or sometimes an investment comes to term and is sold and we pay a penalty," says Amanda Ponzar, chief marketing officer at Community Health Charities in Alexandria, Va. "To be honest, I think most investors feel like the house always wins because the investment firm takes fees whether you win or lose, whether your investment grows or shrinks, even if you lose principal."

Ponzar says she doesn't understand the many fees she's paying. "Oftentimes, there are commissions, buying and selling fees, 1% upfront costs on the amount invested, ongoing maintenance fees and annual fees," she explains. "I have no idea, to be honest, what the investment advisor or firm are taking. This makes me, and most investors, uncomfortable."

Sending a 40-page book with loads of fine print won't win over clients like Ponzar, either. "You need to have a financial PhD to figure it out," she says. "I wish investment firms had to show your principal, your employer contribution (if there is one), your fees (what advisor and firm are taking), and then the profit and loss in statements." They should have to show their commission and the total fees on everything they sell, just like credit card providers have to do, she adds.

"Our industry does have a transparency problem," says Jeremy Walter, founder of Fident Financial, LLC, in Lancaster, Pa. "However, I think the tide is shifting, somewhat, with the growth of fee-only registered investment advisers."

Walter says he tells clients that you can't know if your advisor is worth what you're paying if you don't know how much they're getting paid. "It's a gray area in our industry," he notes. "While I'm a big fan of the fee-only approach, I don't group all advisers who still work on commission as necessarily immoral, but they should be disclosing how much money they're getting paid from their recommendations of investment products."

"And if a client doesn't know - they should ask," he adds.

A big issue is that financial advisers are "somewhat rare" in the larger professional advice industry, in that CPA and attorney compensation is pretty straight forward - you just write them a check, Walter says. "Fee-only advisers deduct fees from client accounts, or they receive payment directly from a client via ACH or check, but a lot of fee-based or commission-only advisers means of compensation are less clear," he explains. "Typically, commissions are disclosed somewhere in the prospectus of investment products, but I'm not sure if any of my clients have actually read one of those things from front to back."

Walter says investors should take the time to ask, or at least read up, on how their advisor is getting paid, and advisers should do a better job of explaining just how they are paid. "A good financial advisor relationship is built largely on mutual trust, and advisers can help build that trust, especially with new clients, if they clearly and blatantly spell out just how they are getting compensated for their jobs," he notes.

The way the investment advisory industry is modeled, clients like Poznar won't get that higher level of openness, market insiders say. As Walter says, it's largely up to clients to stand up and demand transparency.

"Too often, financial advisers aren't set up to be transparent," says Tomer Cohen, founder of Five Roads Capital Management, LLC, in Lexington, Mass. "They maintain multiple different strategies across mutual funds, hedge funds, and separate accounts, so their performance reporting isn't relevant for much of their client base."

Clients compound this problem by not asking the right questions or following up with their advisor, Cohen says. "Clients should feel comfortable calling their advisor and asking them to produce performance reports that are specific to their accounts," he adds.

The investment industry's history is one that is built on trust, and not on transparency, and that hasn't changed over the years.

"Our financial system developed centuries ago with wealthy New Englanders going away on ships and entrusting their assets to their wealth managers," says Kristin Hull, founder of Nia Global Solutions in Oakland, Calif. "With little communication, available at that time, there was much trust and very little communication about performance of investments. Investments were often more long term at that time, and had much less frequent volatility."

As Hull attests, clients and advisers are far from those days and yet we still rely on trust with wealth managers and very little communication. These days, that may no longer be enough with wary clients.