How does your financial advisor get paid?

No one expects their professional service provider to give their services away for free. Doctors don’t, lawyers don’t, CPAs don’t nor do financial advisors. However, in the financial services industry often what you actually pay is not clear.

Cerulli Associates surveyed investors and found that most investors wanted to understand how their advisors were getting paid. They wanted “transparency.”

“Helping investors understand the full extent of an advisor’s potential revenue streams has been a persistent challenge for both advice providers and advisors, and has become even more complicated with the ongoing evolution of integrated wealth management conglomerates,” Smith explains.
“The financial industry was built around the premise that investors understand the fees they pay and sign documents affirming their awareness,” Smith continues. “Cerulli’s research indicates that investors who truly comprehend the entirety of their costs are more the exception than the rule. The overall expenses of pooled investment vehicles, including management fees and other embedded fees such as 12b-1s, are essentially nonexistent to many investors-if they do not see a line item deduction from their accounts, they do not recognize a transfer of wealth from themselves to their advisor or provider.”

Even that last sentence can add to the confusion if you aren’t very familiar with the terminology of the investment industry, with terms like “pooled investment vehicles,” “embedded fees,” and “12b-1s.” To better understand how (and from where) financial advisors are paid, here’s a brief list:

“Commissions:” when you buy of sell a stock, bond, or fund, you pay the broker a commission. This also applies to insurance products such as life insurance and annuities. Broker commission formulas for stocks are often based upon the stock’s price and trading volume. Commissions for insurance products and annuities are generally a fixed percentage of the size of the policy being sold, but they can be as high as 10%-15% for some products. Commissions for bonds are discussed below.

“Mark-up” or “mark-down:” this typically applies to the purchase or sale of bonds, and is the difference between the market price of a bond and what an investment firm offers an investor. In other words, it is the difference between what the bond is actually worth and what you can buy or sell it for. The mark-up or mark-down formula is based upon the number of bonds being bought or sold, their price and their bond rating.

“Load:” a sales charge that is assessed when purchasing a mutual fund. Some load fees are charged up front (referred to as a “front end load,” often seen with A share class mutual funds bought or sold via a broker), when sold (referred to as a “back-end load,” often seen with B share class mutual funds bought or sold via a broker), or as long as the fund is held (referred to as a “level load,” often seen with C share class mutual funds bought or sold via a broker). The load you pay is passed along to the broker. Front end loads are usually between 3% – 8%, with 5% being fairly typical. Back end loads are the most confusing, and (thankfully) are being eliminated by many fund companies. In very general terms (for the sake of this article), they don’t charge you a front end load, but if you want to sell the fund within 5 or 6 years of purchasing the fund, they will hit you with a fee (called a “deferred sales charge”) of between 1% – 5%, depending on how soon you sell it (with the higher fee coming the earlier you sell it). Oh, and on top of that, they typically also charge you a 12b-1 fee (discussed next) of 1%. Level loads typically don’t charge a front end load or a back end load, but they do maintain a 1% 12b-1 fee for as long as you own the fund.

“12b-1 fee:” an annual fee, usually 0.25%, paid by the mutual fund to the broker to help the fund market its products. It’s often referred to a “trailer.” As mentioned above, for B and C share class mutual funds, this fee is typically a much higher 1%.

“Management fee:” this is the fee that an investment manager charges for creating and managing a portfolio of securities.

A “Fee Only” investment advisor’s only compensation is the management fee. This eliminates the conflict of interest inherent in the other types of compensation such as commissions, loads and trailers. It provides an incentive for the Fee Only advisor to shop for the lowest cost investment products for his clients.

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