Beware of Vipers in the Financial World: 3 Warning Signs

Getting good, ethical financial advice is imperative as you work toward retirement, and, unfortunately, that's not a given. Here are three red flags that your adviser may be doing you a disservice.

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Handing over your nest egg can be scary. You’re basically putting your retirement — your future — into someone else’s hands. That’s why it’s so important to exercise extreme caution when choosing a financial professional.

Even if you’ve found someone you think you can trust, it’s smart to remain vigilant. As with any profession, there are people who make promises they can’t keep. Some are great at the pitch but fail when it comes to the follow-through. And some just haven’t been trained very well; their mistakes aren’t intentional, but they can be just as harmful as more purposeful predators.

Keep an eye out for these red flags, which could be a sign that your money isn’t getting the best management. It might be time to move on or, at least, pay more attention and ask more questions.

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1. You’re conservative, but your portfolio isn’t.

If you’ve had a conversation about market risk and your ability to deal with it (both financially and emotionally), that’s a good start. But your idea of a conservative or low-risk financial strategy might be much different from your financial professional’s. If you put too much emphasis on your expectations for growth, your financial professional may simply be confused. Or he might be on autopilot, putting everyone he works with into the same moderate mix.

A better way to frame the discussion might be to talk about how much you’re willing to have at risk. When I ask prospective clients that question, they might say 10%, or even zero. Then I look at their portfolios, and they don’t match up at all. These people have no idea they’re so exposed to risk. If an individual is young, there’s always a chance to rebound from a big loss. But if you’re close to retirement or already there, and your portfolio isn’t protected, it could be devastating.

2. You’re offered limited choices.

Your financial professional should be able to show you a variety of options for your financial strategy. Make sure they explain the differences in the products and inform you why these products can help you pursue your financial goals.

If there were only one product worth having, the others would go away — and there are tens of thousands of financial vehicles out there. Why present only one? Possibly, it’s because the guy you’re working with is more salesman than financial professional. The firm he works for may have proprietary products or a limited selection of products. He may have been trained to present only those products, and there may be a bonus or commission involved. Make sure you know how your financial professional is compensated, because it could affect the options you’re offered.

3. There’s a whole lot of trading going on.

If you notice excessive buying and selling in an account over which you’ve given your broker discretion, and those trades seem to benefit him but not you, that could be a sign of “churning,” which is the deliberate buying and selling of securities to generate trade-based fees. And it’s illegal.

Despite regulatory oversight, these activities can go on under the radar, so it’s up to you to watch your statements. What are some signs to watch for? There should be some decipherable rationale for the movement: If the stock’s position went up, for example, and it’s time to take the profits. Or if it went down and you have to stop the loss. But if it seems as though there’s just random movement from one commissionable product to another, take note and ask questions.

Limiting fees and taxes can help you work toward a successful retirement — if not well-managed, they can eat up the money you’re depending on for income. If you’re paying taxes on money you didn’t get, or fees on excessive trades, that’s an added expense.

What should you do if you think your financial professional might be mishandling your money? Some firms offer a no-obligation portfolio analysis to prospective clients — and there are online trackers, as well. These options are worth checking into, especially if there are no strings attached. They can help identify inefficiencies or any moves that weren’t ideal.

Don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. It will help you determine if you’re getting the service you deserve — and it could help preserve your retirement future.

Kim Franke-Folstad contributed to this article.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Jeff Dixson, Investment Adviser
Founder, President and CEO, Northwest Financial and Tax Solutions

Jeff Dixson is president and CEO at Northwest Financial and Tax Solutions Inc. and is an Investment Adviser Representative and insurance professional. He hosts a weekly radio show, "The Jeff Dixson Show: The Retirement Coach," and is the author of "Winning the Retirement Game."