All of these supposedly venerable institutions work hard on their marketing plans. They may trot out their biggest winners over the past year or two until you wonder why you were not invested in those things years ago. Or they may sell you a simple plan (oh, but that there could be a simple plan) to effortlessly get rich over time. They give you a glowy picture of what your retirement years could look like, in percentages and dollar bills, and lay before you a yellow brick road built on charts and graphs. Surely you, too, will find financial peace and freedom (just like they have?) if you give them all your money and follow these easy steps. Step 1: Don't blame them if you lose a lot of money.
After all, didn't your friend's great grandfather invest in some stocks in the 1940s, buy and hold them through bear markets, and become a multimillionaire? This surely can happen to you as well (assuming past performance is a reliable guarantee of future results, which of course never happens).
They tell you they will care about your individual concerns and needs and will cater to your desires. (This may be true as long as you don't try to take your money back.)
You may indeed find a fit for your personal style. You may find a broker who has been the family broker for 35 years, or an ally, a kindred spirit who really does care about you and your family. You may find an honest firm that does as well as can be expected when the markets blow up in everyone's face, as they do from time to time.
But this should be the bottom line question to any financial adviser: When the markets lose 30 to 40 percent, as they historically do from time to time, how are you going to hedge my risk?
"Bonds," they will say. But bonds hedge risk only in certain economic scenarios, unless you hold them to term and happen to outperform inflation.
You also should ask them what would have happened to their proposed portfolio in the mid-1970s, when selling bonds you owned before maturity would often have lost you a great deal of money, but holding them to term would not have kept up with inflation? Six-to-12-month CDs were outperforming bonds, equities, and most real estate, too.
Or in the 1930s, many of the businesses backing the corporate bonds sector that your broker will offer were going bankrupt. What if that were to happen again? Don't they believe in buy and hold?
What may have worked in the 2000-2002 bear market will likely not work in the next bear market. But again, they will likely show you only the performance graphs of the few things that did survive the last time. How many investors were actually in that exact portfolio of assets they are laying out before you, is a question they may not want you to ask.
No one knows what will do well in the next bear market. Gold, oil, bonds, Asia, nanotech, biotech, one or all may, or may not, find success in the coming decade. Their success over a longer period of time may seem like a logical prediction. But all of them will very likely lose 30 to 50 percent at some point along the way.
Tell your adviser to show you all of the programs they were selling in 1999, just before the bear market began. How much did some of those accounts lose from peak to trough through 2002? Why didn't they sell their clients the same conservative programs they are offering you now, back in 2000? Don't they believe in buy and hold?
Bottom line: Would you be comfortable with losses of 30 percent or more to your account?
If so, you are a candidate for brokerage accounts and baskets of mutual funds.
If not, you're not likely a candidate.
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