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Is Your Investment Advisor Capitalizing on Your Fear?

January 16th, 2012

Make no mistake. Investors are petrified right now. And they’re telling their investment advisors about it. The question is: “What is he or she doing in response?” If the answer is adjusting your asset allocation, focusing on your long-term investment goals, or doing a bit of handholding, you probably have a good one. But if they’re preying on your emotional state with unsuitable investments or all-or-nothing advice, beware.

The story is as old as equity investing itself. When times are good, investors get complacent, take too much risk and generally regret it. When times are bad, investors become anxiety-ridden, take too little risk and generally regret it. Seasoned advisors know this and try to keep you on the right track. But less knowledgeable or less scrupulous advisors may try to take advantage of your worries.

For instance, your investment advisor may recommend that you load up on variable annuities in this uncertain environment. Not a good idea. Some annuities are right for some people. They offer tax-deferred compounding (like an IRA) and a principal guarantee. But the typical annuity is ridiculously expensive, offers mediocre insurance coverage, restricts your investment choices to so-so mutual funds, lacks liquidity and comes with enormous surrender penalties.

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Too many investors learn these things about annuities after they’ve plunked for one. Hence, you’ll often hear investors complain that they are “stuck in an annuity” for several years. Investigate these insurance contracts before you invest. On the whole they are oversold, frequently misrepresented and completely inappropriate for many folks.

Another sign that you have a misguided (or unethical) investment advisor is if he suggests that you abandon proven investment principles. For example, if your investment plan is based on a broker’s economic forecast or market timing advice, good luck. You’re going to need it.

No one can accurately predict the economy with any consistency. And it wouldn’t really matter if they could. Stocks routinely rally during the bad times and sell-off during the good ones. If your investment advisor doesn’t know this, you shouldn’t be using her. If she does and is still trying to convince you to flee the market, that’s even worse.

Also beware investment advisors who are paid on a transaction basis and therefore have an incentive for you to trade more frequently. Some brokers today are telling their clients that the old rules no longer apply, that you need to jump in and out of the market and from stock to stock. For a commission-based broker, this can be entirely self-serving advice. And it is almost certain to end badly… at least for the client.

I know it’s tough to buy – or just hang in there – when the outlook is dark. But look back at history. The market was a screaming “Buy” after the crash of ’87, the bear market of 1990, the tech wreck of 1994, the Asian Contagion of 1997, the 2000 to 2002 bear market, and even during the depths of the financial crisis in 2008.

If you’re using an advisor who insists that “this time it’s different,” you might reasonably examine his experience, his ethics and his disciplinary history. And seek out more-qualified advice.

Good Investing,

by Alexander Green, Investment U Chief Investment Strategist


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