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Home > Business > Special

How to choose an investment expert

Deena Katz, Outlook Money | September 06, 2006

After 15 years, our refrigerator stopped working. The fan was still moving, but the air became warm, so warm, in fact, that a bottle of milk exploded. As I was out of town, my husband was forced to clean up. He was not happy. When I got home, he had researched refrigerators by size, capacity, energy efficiency and special features like a vegetable and meat keeper.

He handed me a spreadsheet listing features, benefits and costs. Putting the spreadsheet aside I said, "Let's just go buy one that looks good." "Sit down and read this," he retorted, "There is more to a refrigerator than good looks!"

We finally decided to go to the appliance store and ask the salesman the pros and cons of some of the features we thought were important. Three hours later we had chosen a refrigerator and felt like well-informed consumers instead of whimsical purchasers.

The following day a couple came to our office seeking financial advice. The husband had a list of questions to ask, the wife sat quietly while he went through them. How long have you been practicing? Do you have a specific expertise -- investments, insurance or taxes? What kind of clients do you work with? Will I be working directly with you or will others be dealing with me too?

As I began to answer these questions, I was impressed with the research he had done before the visit. It occurred to me that most people spend more time selecting a refrigerator than selecting a financial advisor. In fact, so many unhappy investors have come to me complaining that their advisor promised "a killing" in the market, then failed to live up to the promise. It is not unusual for an investor to buy a good story rather than a good relationship.

Last year, US Trust completed a survey of the affluent in the United States. Respondents were asked what they felt was the most important characteristic in an advisor was. The choices were: understands my situation and concerns; keeps me informed without being too aggressive; well educated; top performer in his/her field; trustworthy and well known. It was a surprise to many that 94 per cent respondents named 'trustworthy' as the most important character in an advisor.

After the husband asked all the questions he felt were important, I spoke to the wife. "What brings you here?" She looked a little startled.

"Well, my husband has always taken care of the investments. I know little about them and I thought that I would like an advisor who can explain things to me. I am not stupid, just uneducated in the investment area. In any case, I will probably outlive him and I want to know what will happen to our money then. I want someone we can trust," she replied.

With nearly every affluent couple, there is one spouse who takes the lead and makes, or at least presents, the possible choices. It is a good idea to not only find an advisor who is professionally competent, but is also trustworthy and able to explain and educate the other spouse and bring them 'up to speed'.

Fifty years ago it may have been appropriate for an advisor to say, "Don't worry, we'll take care of everything." In today's world, everyone should have some knowledge about his or her financial life and resources.

When looking for a new advisor, ask about his education, credentials, experience, and type of clients with whom he works. Also ask who else will work with you, how he or his organisation protects the privacy of your information, and how they are paid.

Make sure you and your spouse feel comfortable asking questions and be certain you get answers that you can understand and trust. Beyond that, I have two rules I always share with my clients: Never buy any investment that you know nothing about, and never let anyone care more about your money than you do. Commonsense, when it comes to investing, will get you everywhere.

The author is president, Levitt & Katz.

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