Is my financial adviser shady?

By Walter Updegrave, senior editor

(Money Magazine) -- My financial adviser recently moved to another company and has invested my IRA in a program he calls "active trading."

He assures me that the professionals doing the trading know how to make considered movements based on market conditions. I'm not so sure. What's your advice? -- Gary S., Augusta, Maine


I think you're absolutely right to be wary about this arrangement. Granted, I don't know how long you've worked with this adviser, what sort of relationship you have with him and how much you feel you trust him.

But I've seen investors separated from their money so many ways over the years -- from Bernie Madoff-type ripoffs to auction-rate preferred securities that were pitched as money fund equivalents to hedge funds run by supposed superstars that imploded -- that simple assurances that these guys know what they're doing just won't cut it.

What you need are real answers to serious questions. And if your retirement stash is already invested with these traders, you need the answers pronto. What kind of questions am I talking about?

Well, to start with who are these professionals? What are their qualifications? Do they work for the same firm as your adviser? Or do they work for an outside firm that invests money for your adviser's firm and others? How did your adviser choose this program, and what others were considered? Why, specifically, does your adviser see this program as a fit for your IRA?

You'll also want to know exactly what these people are trading. Stocks, bonds, options, precious metals, pork belly futures? How often do they buy and sell; just how "active" are they? Do they have a strategy? How long have they been following it and what are their performance results in both up and down markets? Is their track record audited? And how much are you paying for their services?

Is it an annual fee based on a percentage of assets they oversee? If so, what's the charge -- 1% a year, 2% a year, more, less? Do they also get a percentage of any trading profits? (Many hedge funds operate on "2 + 20" basis -- that is, 2% of assets plus 20% of profits.)

And does your adviser get a portion of the traders' fees -- or does he collect his own on top of the traders' take? And about those trades -- do you pay separately for them or are they included in the management fee?

Ultimately, you want to know what you're paying in total fees on your account. Once you start getting much above 1% or so a year, I think you have to wonder whether it's possible to generate performance superior enough to compensate for the drag of fees.

A reputable adviser should be happy to answer such questions. But you can also find answers to most of these questions by checking out the "ADV" form that advisory firms are required to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission or state securities office.

The form comes in two parts. You should read both, but it's part 2 that provides info on the services offered, fees, the background of the advisors, potential conflicts of interest and describes run-ins, if any, with regulators.

Starting this year, investment advisers are required to provide plain-English versions of part 2 of the ADV, so it shouldn't be a problem for your adviser to give you one for whichever firm is running this investment program (and his own firm, if they're not one and the same).

For more on what's in the ADV form, how to get one on your own and how to evaluate advisors, click here and here. While you're at it, make sure you know where your investment stash is being held.

Neither your adviser nor the traders should have direct access to the balance in your account. Rather, your account should be overseen by an independent trustee, such as a trust company or custodian bank.

You should also get statements from that trustee in addition to any you might receive from your adviser or his firm. That reduces the chances of an unscrupulous adviser fooling you with fake performance reports.

I have to tell you that even if this operation proves to be on the up and up -- and I'm not suggesting you'll find otherwise -- I'd still be wary of having a significant portion of my retirement savings riding on someone's trading prowess.

The more an investor trades, the more costs he or she incurs, which makes it harder to generate enough extra return to outweigh the effects of those costs.

That's one reason why it's so tough for actively managed funds to outperform basic market indexes over the long-term after taking fees and risk into account. And even if your adviser shows you an impressive performance record racked up by these traders, I'd still have reservations.

Fact is, it's very difficult to tell how much of ostensibly superior performance is the result of skill vs. luck, not to mention how much is the result of a particular strategy being well suited for a particular set of market conditions that may or may not prevail in the future. (For an insightful look at this issue, check out this recent analysis titled Untangling Skill and Luck by Legg Mason chief investment strategist Michael Mauboussin.)

All of which is to say that, if this were my money, I'd be more inclined to invest it in a way that gets the most of the gains the financial markets deliver over the long term than to bet on the ability of traders to somehow enhance the markets' underlying return.

And the best way to harness the power of the markets, while managing risk, is to create a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds (or stock funds and bond funds) and keep costs down.

I think the best way to do that is to build a portfolio of low-cost index funds, devoting enough to stocks to have a decent shot at long-term capital growth and enough to bonds to provide stability and income.

For more on how to settle on a mix that makes sense for you, you can read our MONEY 101 lesson on Asset Allocation and check out our Fix Your Mix calculator.

If, after establishing such a core portfolio with your IRA and other retirement savings, you feel you have enough extra money you want to devote to a strategy with more panache, fine.

But even then I think you have to ask yourself (and your adviser) what's so special about this particular trading program when there are so many investment pros peddling all manner of strategies.

So start asking those questions I outlined above. If the answers don't completely assuage the doubts that you obviously have about this program, maybe you need another strategy or another adviser, or both. To top of page

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