Recruit the Right Broker: Full-Service Firms

If you'd rather pay someone else for stock recommendations, then pull into full-service.

A carefully selected broker can supply you with valuable investment information and make profitable investment suggestions.

Do you want investment advice and recommendations? If so, you're in the market for a full-service broker.

Mostly, these are the high-profile national firms with armies of analysts who crank out buy and sell recommendations for a long list of stocks and bonds. Individual brokers assigned to your account will be called financial consultants or something similar. Rarely are they officially referred to as brokers.

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Full-service firms offer a wide range of customer services, including research reports, individual advice, asset-management accounts, consolidated account statements, and seminars on retirement planning, tax shelters and other investment-related topics. Among their most popular programs are so-called wrap accounts, in which the firm manages a portfolio of mutual funds or stocks you select.

You may get advice as part of the package and you pay no commissions to buy and sell in the account, instead paying an annual “wrap” fee of 0.75% to 1.5% of your assets if you own funds. For wrap accounts containing stocks, the fee may be 3% or so. This fee structure makes wrap accounts attractive for investors in mutual funds that charge sales commissions, but a bit on the expensive side for investors in stocks, especially buy-and-hold investors who don’t generate enough commissions to cover the wrap fee.

If you have a good working relationship with a broker, and he or she provides valuable help in making your investment decisions, then commissions shouldn’t be a major concern. Most people select a brokerage firm for reasons that have nothing to do with commissions, anyway. Perhaps its office is conveniently located, its research reports have been useful, or the account executive is helpful. Factors such as these can easily compensate for the commissions, especially for relatively modest investors.

Because they offer so many services, full-service brokers may excel at some and fall back a bit on others. In recent studies, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine found little difference in commissions for similar trades. (In fact, prized customers — those with big accounts who make lots of trades or who use a number of the firms’ products or services — can often get discounts on commissions, anyway.)

Where the full-service brokers separate themselves from the competition is in areas such as stock picking, asset allocation and breadth of research.

The best way to start your search for the full-service broker right for you is to talk to friends who invest. Who do they use? Then quiz your friends as closely as you comfortably can about their investment goals and styles: Are they buy-and-hold types or do they trade frequently? Do they favor stocks or bonds? Small companies or large? Are they in contact with their broker frequently, or only once in a while? Are their phone calls returned? Are the firm's account statements easy to understand? Does the broker provide research reports and other backup for investment recommendations? Finally, knowing what they do about you, would your friends recommend their broker to be your broker?

This process will produce a few names for you to pursue.

The next step is to check the brokers' regulatory histories. Have they ever been sued, fined or suspended?

If their records are clean, call to set up face-to-face interviews. During your meeting, be sure to do the following: Briefly outline your investment goals. Ask about the brokers' experience and educational background, both academic and professional.Ask about their approach to investments: Do they specialize in a particular area, or are they generalists?

Note what kinds of questions each broker asks about you and your financial situation.A broker should know your goals, your resources and your risk tolerance before he or she is in a position to advise you.Your interests and the broker's interests should be the same: to lay the seeds for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.If a broker shows little interest in finding out your financial position and goals, and instead presses you with a sales pitch on getting rich, scratch that one off your list and move on.