Is Financial Engines right for you?

financial enginesDear Mr. Market:

If you were asked to list two or three of the largest Registered Investment Advisory (RIA) firms in the country which ones would come to mind first? You’d definitely hear many of the names associated with Wall Street and the investment industry. Names like: Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, Fidelity and Wells Fargo – while these are certainly large firms none of them are RIA’s. We’ve written on several occasions what an RIA is and how they are driven by their fiduciary responsibility to their clients. A simple online search of RIA’s will show that the largest firm is nearly 40% larger than any its closest competitor. It specializes in assisting individuals in managing their company retirement accounts and has become a behemoth in the investment industry. Financial Engines, Inc. has risen out of relative obscurity and is quickly becoming a household name.

Financial Engines is based out of Sunnyvale, CA, is publicly traded under the ticker symbol FNGN, and currently manages over $90 billion in assets! To put this in perspective the second largest RIA firm is Fisher Investments with assets under management of just over $50 billion. Fisher Investments is a marketing machine and if you have a portfolio over $500,000 in value, you’ve most likely received one of their post card mailings or solicitation emails.

Financial Engines, on the other hand, is a relatively young company and is the creation of some of the brightest minds in the industry that made their mark in the late 1990’s. The founders of the firm are Nobel Prize winning economist William Sharpe, Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest, Attorney Craig Johnson and Jeff Maggioncalda. While the firm went through some minor growing pains, they have certainly found their target market – working with individuals and managing the investments in their company retirement plans. Continue reading

Building Your Financial Team – The Road to Success

Teamwork arrowDear Mr. Market:

How ‘fit’ is your financial team? Putting together a financial team to help you meet your financial goals is like building a winning sports team. Each member of your financial team needs to know what their responsibility is and what they are contributing to your financial success.   With tax-season behind us and the equity and fixed income markets experiencing volatility, now is a great time to assess your team and see if it is truly making the grade!

There is no single approach to building your team or a guide on how to assemble one. The key is the team needs to work for you, they need to give you a sense of comfort and they need to work together. Whether you work with individuals or utilize software solutions it is important that an assessment takes place so that you don’t suddenly find yourself in a hole that you need to dig out of.

In this article we will discuss how to build your “Team of Trust”. We will look at three key areas that every investor should consider: Estate Planning, Tax Planning and Financial Advice. We will discuss some key elements with each member of the team: Why? Who? What? How Much? Continue reading

What is the difference between Fee-Only and Fee-Based advisors?

Compensation #3Dear Mr. Market:

Last week I had lunch with an old colleague of mine. It’s always good to catch up with others in the same profession but sometimes it also truly helps you understand why so many consumers are confused. Here’s a brief background and then a summary of an actual conversation between two financial advisors:

Both financial advisors began their careers working for major wirehouse firms (think Morgan Stanley, Prudential, UBS, Smith Barney, etc…). They each then worked at Charles Schwab as part of the Retail Branch Network and Schwab Private Client (SPC) group. Thereafter, Advisor #1 (who we will call Fee-Based Advisor) left Schwab to join one of the advisors that is in their Schwab Advisor Network program.  This is a network that has made certain firms wildly successful as Charles Schwab branch representatives get compensated to vector investors and Schwab account holders to meet with advisors who pay to be in their program. Advisor #2 (who we will call Fee-Only Advisor) is not part of any network and is not affiliated with any brokerage firm, mutual fund company, or insurance company. “Fee-Only Advisor” is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA).

Fee-Based Advisor: So…how are things out there?

Fee-Only Advisor: Good…I keep plugging away but sometimes it’s frustrating to see how undereducated the general public is about this industry. Continue reading

The New “MyRA” … A Direct Route To Retirement Or A Bad Detour?

Dear Mr. Market:

MyRA#7

If you ask the average hard working American what their top financial concerns is, it’s that that they won’t be able to retire.  We could certainly go on and on about different solutions and how people can get on track to make their dreams a reality but today we will focus on a new program offered from the government.  On January 29th President Obama delivered his State of the Union address.  One of the takeaways from this speech was a new retirement account called MyRA (short for My Retirement Account).

Currently over half of the U.S. workforce is not covered by a retirement plan through their employer.  MyRA is targeted at low to middle-income workers, encouraging them to save for their own retirement.  Contributions will be funded through automatic payroll deductions where individuals can start with as little as $25 and contribute amounts as small as $5.  Individuals would be guaranteed that their account would never go down and they will not pay any fees on the accounts.  Sounds like a great product doesn’t it?!  Well let’s take a step back and dig a bit deeper to really explore what the MyRA is all about….

The MyRA can essentially be viewed as a way to introduce individuals that have not saved or funded a retirement account to the many long-term benefits of doing so. At this point companies are not required to be involved in the program, if President Obama wants to force employers to participate a vote from Congress would be required.  The accounts would be funded with after tax dollars much like a Roth IRA.  While it will be funded with payroll deductions individuals will be able to keep their accounts when they change jobs.  MyRA is subject to Roth IRA income and contributions limits.  Individuals can invest up to $5.500 per year (or $6,500 for investors 50 or older); once the owner reaches the age of 59 ½ they can make withdrawals tax-free.  There are also no required minimum distributions (R.M.D.’s). Continue reading

Windhaven Portfolios: Is Schwab just blowing hot air?

Dear Mr. Market:

The investment industry is notorious for not being transparent with investors.  The industry tends to be a shade of grey as opposed to being black and white. There are often hidden agendas or conflicts of interest that the average investor is never aware of or informed about.  Think back to some of the situations that have negatively impacted investors in just the last few years: Bernie Madoff, Insider Trading, the Mortgage Industry debacle and the meltdown of Enron!  Conflict of interest is essentially why the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is now in existence.

Conflict of InterestOccurs when an individual or organization is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation. (from Wikipedia).

WindhavenToday we will take a look at an investment firm that has had incredible growth over the last several years: Windhaven Investments.

schwabIn 2010 Charles Schwab & Company (SCHW) purchased a small investment advisory firm in Boston named Winward Investments.  The firm’s strategies had posted impressive results for several years and didn’t use the industry standard ‘buy and hold’ type of approach.  They used primarily ETF’s (Exchange Traded Funds) and claim to invest in over 40 different sectors, participating in positive markets and protecting in downturns.  Schwab paid a hefty price for the firm, paying $150 million in cash and stock (source: WSJ). Continue reading

Are you really looking for horrible investment advice?

Dear Mr. Market,

How great would it be to have a job where you could constantly deliver results short of expectations and never have to worry about being fired?  What if you could always simply blame your lack of performance on random external forces or global events?  Imagine if you had a yearly performance review that went something like this…

 “You missed your target goals by 28% and were wrong more often than you were right!  Nice work, we are going to give you a bonus and a 10% raise!”

pay performance

 This doesn’t happen in the real world…or does it?!  The financial services industry has become notorious for overpaying executives even when the company itself is struggling to survive or is even on the verge of declaring bankruptcy.  For example, Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers was one of the 25 best-paid CEO’s for eight years straight – right up until his firm collapsed in 2008.  It has been called ‘”the largest bankruptcy in history”;  it triggered a chain reaction that produced the worst financial crisis and economic downturn in 70 years!  What about professionals in the financial industry that consistently underperform but are not at risk of losing their jobs? Continue reading

Where to find a top advisor?!

Top advisor - magnifying glassSo…if you’re looking for the best financial advisor there is do you simply run a quick search on Google? Would it look something like ” best financial advisor in Denver” or “best financial advisor in Orange County”?  Would you rely on a list that ranks the best financial advisors?

In nearly every aspect of our lives we rank products or services and take pride if we are associated with or use that brand.  How often have you heard that a product has a “Gold Star Rating” or is recommended by ‘Consumer Reports’?  It should be no surprise that the same applies when it comes to the Financial Services industry.  Investors want to work with the best and often rely on rankings issued by various publications and websites for this information.

The key difference is that there are many more variables that need to be taken into consideration when looking at the financial industry and ranking firms or individuals.  In this article we will take a look at a list that is published annually and is highly respected – ‘Barron’s Top 1,000 Advisors List’.  Through our discussion it will become clear why ranking financial professionals is not as easy as ranking cars or laundry detergent and the results need to be looked at closely. Continue reading