Financial advisors are frequently mistrusted as un-transparent crooks. .
It appears that stereotype is not wholly false. A study from the University of Chicago has found that more than 7% of financial advisers have a history of misconduct which ranges from putting a client in an unsuitable investment to committing outright fraud. Only half of misbehaving advisors get fired from their firm for their behavior, and 44% of those fired advisors are hired by another firm within a year, though normally with less prestige and salary.
This is not the only study which has found similar problems in the financial services industry. The Wall Street Journal reported back in 2013 that 13% of brokers had at least one disclosure, ranging from customer complaints to outright bankruptcy.
You may have a good, long-lasting relationship with your financial advisor, but how do you know that he is looking out for your best interests and not his bottom line? Here are some important tips you can use to ensure your financial advisor is trustworthy.
Do your own background research
A lot of people assume that a larger, more prestigious financial services firm is more likely to watch over its brokers and ensure that they are doing the right thing -- thus protecting the company's reputation.
This is not the case, as a look at the five firms with the highest rates of misconduct reveals. The worst firm is Oppenheimer and Co., where nearly one in five employees had a record of misconduct. Two of the other bottom fives are Wells Fargo Advisers and UBS Financial Services.
And financial misconduct is not a one-time thing. The University of Chicago study shows that 40% of disciplined advisors became repeat offenders. If a financial services firm has a culture that is more tolerant of such behavior, then it is unsurprising that otherwise honest advisors may begin pushing the limits of acceptable behavior.
All of this shows that clients must be vigilant in ensuring that their financial advisor is doing the right thing. But while the financial services industry can seem to be opaque, it is not that difficult to find out if a broker has a shady history.
BrokerCheck, which is part of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), will tell you if an advisor is registered with FINRA. It also shows their work history and whether they have received any complaints or convictions throughout their career.
Clients should also check to see if their advisor is properly credentialed. They should also make sure that the credentials are suitable for what is needed from your financial adviser. A certified public account (CPA), for example, specializes in tax advice and not investment advice. A Chartered Financial Analyst is better for total financial advice. If you get the wrong kind of person for the job, you will get poor results.
Transparency is essential
While we generally understand that transparency is essential in the financial services industry, we forget it far too easily. In fact, Enron as well as Bernie Madoff used complexity as a way to trick investors. By acting like their financial methods were more complex than everyone else, they persuaded investors that these more complex ways were the keys to their supposed financial success, and that it was normal not to understand their methods.
The reality is that anyone with a decent grasp of personal finance should be able to grasp financial investment practices at a basic level. But this does not stop some advisers from trying to hide additional fees or unethical investments behind that veil of complexity.
Clients should be capable at any time of understanding how much an advisor is charging them (and in dollar figures, not a percentage) as well as knowing where their money is going at all times and how much it is earning.
The field of financial services can seem tough and mysterious, and this leads to unethical practices. And while the industry is highly competitive, this has not stopped financial services firms from hiring those who have been fired from other companies for misconduct.
It is for that reason that clients must be willing to put in the work to ensure that their client is trustworthy. "Trust but verify" is a key quote in all manners of life, and especially so if you are going to pick someone to handle your investments for you.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.