Financial Advisor Fees -- How They Really Work

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There are 3 ways that financial advisors or retirement advisors can charge in the US:

They can charge commissions based on transactions.  For example, when you buy or sell a stock or a bond.  The typical fees to a full service firm ,e.g. Merrill Lynch, where you value their research and recommendations, maybe 2% for a transaction.  So if you buy $10,000 of stock, your financial advisor fee is $200.  The same transactions can be made through any discount broker for $9.99 so you better feel that their advice is worth the commission paid to a full service broker.  At least when you buy an exchange listed stock, the financial advisor fee is transparent and printed on the confirmation.  (This is not true if you buy a stock in which your broker is also a dealer--the markup on your purchase is similar to a bond purchase described below).  By the way, your Merrill Lynch broker gets 35% of the commission he generates and Merill keeps the other 65%.  If your financial advisor is independent and does not work for a large firm but works with an independent broker dealer, then he keeps typically 90% of commission generated.

Not so if you purchase a load mutual fund or a bond.  In the case of a load mutual fund, the financial advisor fee is set by the fund and buried in the prospectus.  Typically, this fee will be 4% of the initial investment (i.e. $400 on a $10,000 transaction) or 1% annually.  if you don't read the prospectus, you won't see the financial advisor fee printed on the confirmation.  In the case of a bond, the fee is not disclosed.  Guidelines allow the brokerage firm to buy bonds, mark them up as much as 5% and then sell them to you for the 5% profit. The profit is not disclosed to you.  You may be shocked that this is the way financial advisor fees work on Wall Street.  Welcome to your education.

The second way that financial advisors assess fees is a non-transaction based system.  Foe example, they may manage your portfolio and charge you 1% annually of the portfolio value.  This system usually requires you have at least $100,000 portfolio and the financial advisor fee is $1,000 annually on such an account.  These advisors must have a registered investment advisor certificate (most financial advisors do not as they charge commissions) and with a registered investment advisor, the fee is fully disclosed in a separate management agreement and on your quarterly statement.  Your account is held at a discount brokerage firm that earns $9.99 each time there is a transaction in your account.  Your advisor gets no portion of that so he has no incentive to make trades.  His incentive, based on the structure of his financial advisor fee, is to keep you as a cliert for a long time (so he gets to collect the fee each year) and make your account grow (as that's the only way he gets a raise).

A registered investment advisor may also charge fees for time.  For example, to do a a financial plan that may take 10 hours he charges $1,500.  Again, this is fully disclosed in the investment management agreement you must sign. Close to this would be a fee charged for a project.  Let's say you own eight rental houses and want to know which homes are best to sell given the tax implications and cash flow.  The advisor can take on a project either for an hourly fee or project fee on which you both agree.

Last, some financial advisors charge incentive fees.  However, US regulations only allow wealthy investors to pay incentive fees because the government believes this is a risky way to invest.  The typical hedge fund, which requires a $1 million investment (and thus only deals with accredited or wealthy investors) will charge a financial advisor fee of 2% annually plus 20% of profit.  The belief is that this financial advisor fee structure incents the advisor to take larger risks because he gets a piece of the profit and thus the government allows such arrangements only when the investor is wealthy.

If you don't know how you are being charged, ask.  Fees could be hidden and you may be shocked to learn how you pay your financial advisor and what you pay for retirement help.

29 thoughts on “Financial Advisor Fees -- How They Really Work

  1. Lokes says:

    I idea of seeking advice of financial advisor is very personal. For some people, dealing with financial issues is unpleasant. For these people, the real question will be how to choose the right advisor, rather than whether or not to work with.

    Forex Income

  2. OC Financier says:

    I'm an advisor. I pulled my clients out of the market to cash in July of 07. We have also made short moves and made profits. My spread above the S&P has been as high as 60% recently.

    So if you have a $300,000 IRA and you lost half of it in the market because you thought your professional was making too much, then how much did it cost you in your Vanguard mutual funds?

    The idea is not to worry about fees. It is to seek quality, in a proven audited track record advisor and expect his performance to generate a profitable situation. If not get one that does this for his clients in a proven way over the long term.

    If not, I'd start reading some books about the markets, economics, trading, and as much data you can get your hands on. Otherwise your true cost in the market will be even more than outlined above.

  3. MZ Capital says:

    When retaining a financial advisor, particularly one from the big banks and brokerage houses, be very mindful of their hidden fees. Here are two cautionary tales:



  4. What's brutal is when two types of fees are combined. My friend is nearing retirement and has a financial advisor at UBS. He is going mainly into bonds and the advisor wanted .5% a year to manage his account putting it into bonds funds (which tend to be simple and have lower returns in the long run than equity). Yes, the bond funds also had loads.

    Mutual Funds with No Loads last blog post..The best of the top no load mutual funds

  5. Most mutual funds and even etfs charge maintence fees. Etfs are lower cost and some closed end funds have low cost. They get set percent every year no matter what the fund does so everyone should look for the fees and how the fund has done for last 5 and 10 years.

    Best etf funds lists last blog post..Bond etf.

  6. Some funds have a load fee and the annual fee. If the fund does well over the years the fee does not bother me as much. I am willing to pay the up front cost if they have a consistent record of earnings that is better than other funds. Sometimes you do get what you pay for and if you buy a mutual fund you are paying for them to buy and sell stocks to earn you money.

  7. CommonCents says:

    Seven Steps to finding a Good Broker!

    1) Just ask for full disclodure of all fees and services to be rendered for the fees in writing
    2) Evaluate and compare the track record of Broker.
    3) Evaluate your intuition about the broker.
    4) Check http://www.nasd.com (Finra.org) under "brokercheck" to evaluate the broker's work experience and see whether the broker has any disclosures on their record that concern you. (Disclosure = red flags)
    5) Interview the broker - remember you are now his employer.
    6) Take the best combination of experience, education, and trustworthiness under consideration.
    7) Take one step at a time.
    (Don't turn over all your millions in year one) Give him a 50K CD to work with and let him move up the ladder of trust over the years.


  8. Yes, this is one of the most important things to look at when selecting a financial adviser. I agree to an extent with OC Financier. The overall goal would be to make money. Sometimes it is a better deal to go with a adviser with a little higher fee, if the adviser, has the track record to justify it. Overall what really matters is what you net after the fees. What good is having an adviser that charges you a very low fee but under his advisement your portfolio only returns half of what a more experienced adviser may bring in that charges just a little more.

    The main thing is for the adviser to fully disclose all avenues of his compensation. If they are shady about that or try to gloss over that, you would have to ask yourself, what else might they be shady on if you become a client. Having a trustworthy adviser is key when they are controlling your families financial future

  9. financial adviser says:

    Investment Advisors Representative are held to a fiduciary standard. A Financial Advisor held to a Fiduciary Standard occupies a position of special trust and confidence when working with a client. As a fiduciary, they are required to act with undivided loyalty to clients. This includes disclosure of how to be compensated and any corresponding conflicts of interest. This is something that we all should look for.

  10. Forex Robots says:

    What i dislike is when financial advisors charge upfront fees, round turn fees in combination with a lot of hidden fees where you even do not know about because information about is on page 176 from the contract.

    I would be for more transparency and success based fees like high water mark and bonus fees when the financial advisor to a great job.

  11. Gab says:

    It's a great move to ask for the help of financial advisor. Financial advisor knows more about business dealings than you so you can be sure that they handle financial issues.

  12. Arlington VA Real Estate says:

    "If you don’t know how you are being charged, ask. Fees could be hidden..." So true! My parents almost got scammed out of their retirement plan before my grandfather got wise and took a step forward to check it out.

  13. Fort Wayne Real Estate says:

    I honestly had no idea that there were different types of financial advisers. I'm going to have to look even more into this. Thank you for sparking my interest and for providing this great information.

  14. new houses says:

    Many people prefer a fee based financial advisor, since there is little opportunity for a conflict of interest. The advisor is not earning a commission from the products they sell you -- so you can be sure that they are recommending the products and services that best meet your goals and risk tolerence.

  15. Stock Market Analysis says:

    I bring in fee based financial advisors a lot, as new houses said, it keep the conflict of interest to a minimum.

  16. well the major thing is for the consultant to completely reveal all avenues of his compensation. If they are shady about that or trial to gloss over that, you would have to inquire yourself, what additional might they be shady on if you become a client. Having a dependable consultant is key when they are commanding your families economic future. The consultant is not making a charge from the goods they deal you, so you can be certain that they are suggesting the goods and services that best rendezvous your aims.

  17. chris says:

    The quality of a financial advisor's work is independent of the method of compensation used. In other words, competence and compensation are independent of each other. No matter what the method of compensation, the possibility of conflict of interest always exists. It's essential that you have a strong sense of trust about the advisor you choose. To establish that trust, you must check out the advisor thoroughly. Find out the advisor's background and credentials, get references (and call them) and ask for a sample of written recommendations provided by that advisor. An advisor who is honest and straightforward about compensation gives you the information you need to make smart financial decisions. Do not consider hiring a financial advisor who will not disclose how he or she is compensated.

  18. jim says:

    The fees will depend on your particular needs. However, the planner should be able to provide you with an estimate of possible costs based on the work to be done. Ask whether the fees will be based on the planner's hourly rates, a flat fee or a percentage they'll receive as a commission. The financial planner should spell out for you in writing how they'll be paid for the services they'll provide.

  19. pat says:

    The advisor charges a fee based on a percentage of your account value. As your account value grows, they will make more money. If your account value goes down, they will make less money. In this way, they have an incentive to grow your account and to minimize losses.

  20. robert says:

    The advisor charges a fee based on a percentage of your account value. As your account value grows, they will make more money. If your account value goes down, they will make less money. In this way, they have an incentive to grow your account and to minimize losses.
    A typical asset management fee can range from 2.0% per year on the high side to .50% per year on the low side. Typically the more assets you have, the lower the fee.

  21. steve says:

    Many advisors that charge a one-time fee for a given service can customize the service and the fee to meet a need. A lot of hourly planners do this type of project work as well, and flat fees are often based on time expectation. So if you are willing to some of the work on your own, it will cost the planner less time therefore costing you less money.

  22. new houses in north idaho says:

    Many advisors today can collect fees and commissions. They often use the term fee-based. It is important to understand the difference between a fee-only advisor, and a fee-based advisor.

  23. Financial advisor paying based on commissions is the traditional method. This is shorthand for saying that clients are charged a fee, usually called a commission, for each security transaction made, whether to buy or to sell. The financial advisor, in turn, retains a portion of these commissions as compensation, usually through an intermediate process that converts commissions into a metric called production credits.

  24. Bob Richards says:

    It is important to distinguish a fee form a commission. Those who have registered investment adviser certificates have a license to charge "fees" which mean a percent of your portfolio (e.g. 1% annually to manage your account) or charge hourly for financial planning or a flat fee for a financial plan. Commissions however are always directly related to the investment such as 2% to buy or sell a stock. Topic: fees vs commission

  25. Bob Richards says:

    This is a meaty issue. Others would argue that those working should not be subsidizing the income of those who don't work, i.e. retirees and that retirees already get preferential treatment. If you don't know this already, social security income that retirees receive is NOT their own money. The average retiree burns through their own money (the money taken form their checks while working) in about 4 years. After that, the social security payments they receive come directly out of the paychecks of people working. This author is not making a value judgment or political judgment about right and wrong, just stating the facts that intelligent people want to have.

  26. bill says:

    Everyone can choose to pay their IFA by a fee rather than commission, if they want to. In the past the majority of consumers tended to opt for commission. In the future there may well be a shift towards more people paying fees and this will be explained in the information on your IFA’s charging arrangements. Most importantly only an IFA has to offer a choice of payment options i.e. paying by fee or commission or a combination of the two. Tied and multi-tied agents don’t have to offer you this choice, but some may.

  27. new houses in spokane says:

    What differs in most cases is that the Fee-Based advisor and their broker-dealer will also receive compensation from the underlying investment vehicles (mutual funds, etc.) in the form of 12b-1 fees or a similar form of trailing fee, or in the form of commissions on stock trades executed exclusively through the advisor's brokerage firm. Additionally it has been my experience that often the assets under management fee for these wrap programs is higher that charged by most Fee-Only advisors for similar asset levels.

  28. gf says:

    i told an advisor i would split 50/50 all gains over the vanguard 500 index returns if he cant beat he would get nothing. The advisor declined my offer he wanted to get paid even if i lost money they are all crooks

  29. Anastasia says:

    Spot on with this write-up, I seriously believe that this site needs much more attention.
    I'll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the information!

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