Prospective clients want to know how good a financial adviser is at investing, but information about returns can be incomplete and misleading.
Some financial advisers don’t mind sharing information about the performance returns they have pulled in for clients. Those numbers, nonetheless, may come with a caveat.
Clients of Jim Winkelmann, an adviser in St. Louis, Mo., can request a free performance report through his website. It lists details about six model portfolios including their ten-year annual returns, and year-to-date returns.
But a warning in bold, red letters reminds clients that little to nothing can be learned from past performance. “Do not base decisions on this information,” it says.
Winkelmann, who oversees $130 million in assets, is among a minority of advisers who share their investment track records. Yet some financial services professionals believe the practice should be more common because it can help prospective clients determine if an adviser will do a good job.
Some advisers, nonetheless, say they are skittish because of a maze of rules and guidance from the Securities and Exchange Commission and state regulators that make advertising tricky. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Wall Street’s industry-funded watchdog, also warns on its website against advisers boasting “above-average account performance.”
Regulators typically prefer, but do not require, that advisers who advertise returns follow the Global Investment Performance Standards, the king of performance guidelines, say securities industry experts. This set of principles helps advisers calculate and report results. The group that developed the GIPS standards also recommends that advisers hire a reputable, independent firm to verify those figures.
While using GIPS is optional, advisers who do not use it may soon be at a disadvantage because it will be harder to distinguish themselves from competitors, said Michael Kitces, an adviser in Washington and industry blogger.
But the steep price tag — roughly $5,000 to $10,000 to put a system in place and hire staff — is keeping some advisers away, Kitces said.
Instead some advisers use their own calculations. But those can mislead investors or land advisers in hot water with regulators. Some advisers, for example, may showcase only the years of their best results.
Many advisers avoid performance advertising, but not because of the rules or GIPS expenses. Rather, they do not believe the figures are an accurate reflection of their client portfolios. That is especially true of advisers who offer financial planning services and who must often work with some assets clients already have, said John Clair, an adviser in Midlothian, Va.
Some types of assets that advisers can get stuck with include retirement plans that offer poor fund choices or mediocre employer stock the client wants to keep, Clair said. Those investments can skew returns, which would make them of little value to potential clients, Clair said.
Other factors that can also sway performance returns include the wide range of investment goals and risk tolerances among advisers’ clients, said Dave O’Brien, another adviser in Midlothian.
What’s more, overall performance numbers alone do not explain two important strategies that may be boosting returns: an adviser’s ability to reduce tax and transactions costs, O’Brien said.
Clair and O’Brien both have software that lets clients track real-time performance of their individual portfolios. But advertising historical track records is more suited to hawking a product, such as a mutual fund, instead of comprehensive advice, said O’Brien.
“We’re providing a service that’s unique to each client,” O’Brien said. To the layman they may seem the same, but they’re not.”