Gosh, aren’t people wonderful? When you first start investing, the number of experts that rush over to help you out with your little portfolio is amazing—and, to be honest, just a little confusing. Should you follow the suggestions of the nice man at your local bank branch? Hand over your money to that mutual fund manager your financial adviser likes so much? Or invest according to what a bestselling author says?
This is when you begin to realize that the most fundamental investing skill of them all is the ability to recognize who you can trust and who you can’t. Like a poker player, you have to be able to detect the bluffers from the people who truly do hold a good hand. Here are five questions that you should ask anyone who wants to help manage your money:
How do you make money from this? Anyone who offers to help you manage your cash is looking for a piece of it. Bank employees are encouraged to push bank products. Financial advisers earn hidden fees for selling you mutual funds. Bestselling authors have to tantalize readers with the prospect of huge returns to sell their books. The more willing someone is to explain how he makes money from helping you—and the more specific he is about how much he’s making—the more trustworthy he is. A good adviser will disclose what his fees are for selling you a mutual fund or buying a stock for your portfolio. He will also be happy to show you how much each mutual fund is charging you in the way of management fees, or MERs.
What are your qualifications? A surprising number of supposed financial experts have no qualifications. Oh, sure, they’ll hand you a line about how they graduated from the school of hard knocks, but that’s not real knowledge. You should steer clear of any “financial adviser” who doesn’t possess the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) qualification and ignore any money manager who doesn’t possess the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. If you’re assessing authors, prefer those with PhDs in finance, especially those that teach at top universities.
What else should I read? If the expert’s answer is to grab a sheaf of marketing materials and push them into your hand, you should cross that person off your list. Genuine experts will welcome your interest and suggest some fine background reading. Some excellent books are A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel, Winning the Loser’s Game by Charles Ellis, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein and Contrarian Investment Strategies by David Dreman.
What returns can I expect? Be suspicious of anyone who talks glibly of 12%-a-year returns or better. Mutual funds that invest in Canadian and U.S. stocks have returned 9% a year or less over the past couple of decades. Funds that invest in Canadian bonds have returned about 7.5%. Those returns have come during an unusually prosperous time for both markets. A reasonable expectation for your portfolio is 6% to 8% a year.
What do you think of index funds? Lowcost index funds beat 75% of actively managed mutual funds over time. Not everyone is a fan of indexing, but any financial adviser should be willing to discuss indexing with you. If he or she won’t, look elsewhere.