The Advicer: ‘It’s hard to get straight answers.’ I recently saw $100K go ‘poof’ — and after 9 years of ups and downs with my adviser, I haven’t earned a dime. Where do I turn for help?

How to find the right financial adviser for you.


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Question: I’m looking for a new adviser but it seems every firm has their own hustle, and it’s hard to get straight answers. I have $700,000 spread over three accounts. I started with $194,000 from the sale of stock acquired over my employment with a company. The original $194,000 is now $193,000 after nine years. The other two accounts are sitting in cash. My original adviser recommended that I pay a one-time 4% fee and then never pay management fees. When he retired after three years, I had made zero. After that, I was given a new adviser, but for her to manage it I would lose the “lifetime no management fee” part. I let her manage it, and in two years she added $100,000 to my portfolio. Then the market shifted and that $100,000 went poof. Since then the account has done nothing. I have refused to put the cash accounts under her control, because I’m not going to pay a fee and not have the account grow. 

Now I’m looking for a new management firm but it’s overwhelming. I’ve looked at some large independent money management firms, but their management fee is high, and after much research I’m really not comfortable with their strategy. So I’m still searching. I really don’t want to go another nine years and still be at the same dollar amount as when I started. 

Answer: There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll first look at what might have gone wrong, or not, with your current adviser, and then give you advice on how to find a new adviser (quick tip: this free tool from SmartAsset can match you to a fiduciary adviser who may meet your needs, and we’ll share other strategies below).

Have an issue with your financial adviser or looking for a new one? Email questions or concerns to picks@marketwatch.com.

Not earning a dime on your investments over nine years is certainly frustrating — and perhaps they should have done better than they did. “It all depends on what you invested in, what the costs were, and the behavior of the markets over that time period. You can go many years without investments growing and suddenly they can rocket upward. But that doesn’t mean your adviser had anything to do with it,” says certified financial planner Kenneth Robinson at Practical Financial Planning. On the flip side, this stagnant portfolio could be a series of bad decisions from your adviser, or at least a misunderstanding of your goals. 

“There are plenty of potential culprits behind a bad return. I’d spend some time probing the investment decisions to determine what went wrong,” says certified financial planner Matt Bacon and Carmichael Hill & Associates. 

It also seems like you have quite a bit of your portfolio tied to one stock, and if that stock hasn’t returned anything over nine years, it’s probably time to make a change. “You would want to verify the tax impact of trading out of that stock, but being more diversified would probably do you well,” says certified financial planner Terrance Hutchins at Logos Financial Group. 

It’s also possible that your cash allocation is higher than it needs to be. Over time, inflation erodes the value of cash and having too much set aside means that not only will you not outpace inflation, you’ll lose out on having your money work for you.

What an adviser should be doing for you, and where to find the right financial adviser

It’s also important too to understand that an adviser should likely be doing more for you that just selecting investments. For her part, Amy Zamikovsky, certified financial planner at Woodson Wealth Management, says the essential foundation of proper wealth management is a comprehensive financial plan. “Any adviser taking on the responsibility of managing another’s wealth cannot adequately do so without a financial plan … No one should make any financial recommendations of any kind, including asset allocations, and especially product recommendations, without having first built their client an accurate holistic financial plan,” says Zamikovsky.

In other words, ask yourself: Has your current adviser built a financial plan for you? “If not, how do they know how you should be invested? A good planner will build a plan based on your goals and then determine the best investment allocation to sustain a plan. This allocation should then be monitored as needed, but managed accordingly and maintained to the recommended allocation,” says Michael Gibney, certified financial planner at Modera Wealth Management. 

Know this too: Most advisers are not the best stock pickers. “Yes, it’s possible to find someone who is a wizard at timing the market and making the right moves at the right time. However there is very little evidence that timing the market has validity, so your adviser is limited in determining what kind of returns you receive from your investments,” says Hutchins. 

Indeed, no adviser is going to be able to guarantee that your strategy will make money, at least if they’re investing in equities. “Don’t shop based on some promised rate of return. Choose an adviser whose investment philosophy matches your own and understand that no one can predict where the market is about to go, least of all the ones who most vigorously claim they can,” says Robinson.

What specifically might you want to look for in an adviser? “Find a fee-only, fiduciary adviser that invests on a passive, tax-efficient, low costs basis,” says certified financial planner Bruce Primeau at Summit Wealth Advocates. Moreover, you should consider working with an adviser who holds a financial industry designation such as the CFP or CFA as these professionals undergo extensive coursework and training, and they operate as fiduciaries, meaning they put their client’s best interests first. 

Be sure to ask any adviser you want to hire these 15 questions, and here’s a guide on what you might pay different types of advisers. You can look for an adviser through spots like Garrett Planning Network, the CFP Board, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) or this free tool from SmartAsset can match you to an adviser who may meet your needs.

Questions edited for brevity and clarity.

Have an issue with your financial adviser or looking for a new one? Email questions or concerns to picks@marketwatch.com.

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