MONEY

Cracking the mysterious code of financial advisers

Having a lot of fancy acronyms after their name doesn’t mean they’re experienced or honest. Do your own research before you choose an adviser.

Sign up for the Ask the Expert e-mail newsletter

Question: I expect to retire in about three years at age 66 and need advice on what I should do with my 401(k) and a lump sum from my pension plan after I leave my job. I met with a “retirement planning specialist” whose card also said he had a “Wharton certificate in retirement planning.” I have no idea what any of this means. Can you shed some light on these credentials? –H.G.

Answer: When it comes to advisers touting their retirement-planning expertise, there’s no shortage of credentials. You’ve got your CSAs (Certified Senior Advisors), CRFAs (Certified Retirement Financial Advisers), CSCs (Certified Senior Consultants), CRCs (Certified Retirement Counselors)…and lord knows how many more designations that have popped up in the time it took you to read this sentence.

But as I’ve noted before, the difficulty isn’t finding people who claim to have designations that suggest special expertise. It’s determining whether a credential requires rigorous training that can truly improve an adviser’s effectiveness or whether it is really a convenient way for advisers to impress potential clients.

In the case of the adviser you mention, I can tell you that the certificate in retirement planning issued by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is part of a special executive education program created by Wharton and AXA, the big insurance and financial services company.

The program, which is open only to AXA advisers, is essentially a five-day affair. The certificate that attendees receive attests to the fact that they attended and completed the course. There’s no exam. I don’t want to suggest the course is fluff. The advisers study a variety of retirement issues with such well-known Wharton professors as Olivia Mitchell and they do a case study, which is critiqued. But it’s not as if they’re getting a Wharton MBA in retirement planning.

As for that term “retirement planning specialist,” it’s a purely internal title that AXA allows advisers who attended the program to use.

Why, you may ask, are we seeing this proliferation of men and women of letters? Well, one reason is that with the baby boomers marching into retirement, there’s clearly a growing need for more proficiency handling such issues as saving and investing for retirement and turning 401(k)s and other accounts into lifetime income. No doubt many advisers want to learn as much as they can to help clients navigate such matters.

Then there’s a less charitable explanation, which is that initials and designations can create an aura of credibility, warranted or not, and make it easier to sell products that generate fees.

And make no mistake, the use of some credentials by some advisers has been a problem. In testimony last year before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin claimed that the Certified Senior Advisor designation has been used by annuity salesmen as a deceptive marketing tool.

In the wake of such allegations, the Society of CSAs has begun requiring that advisers who use the designation provide a disclosure statement to clients that, among other things, says that “the CSA designation alone does not imply expertise in financial, health or social matters.” Well, thanks for clearing that up.

So how can you increase your chances of ending up with an honest and competent adviser who can really help you address retirement-planning issues as opposed to just salesperson with a string of letters after his or her name?

Well, the first thing you must realize is that no designation – even the mighty CFP (Certified Financial Planner), which is generally considered the creme de la creme for advisers dealing with individuals’ personal finances – guarantees competence or, more importantly, integrity. You’ve still got to assess whether this person has sufficient expertise and is willing to put your interests ahead of his or her own.

Ultimately that’s a judgment call – and a tough one – but you’ll increase your chances of making a good decision by checking with state, federal and other regulators to see whether the adviser has a history of complaints from clients.

It’s also a good idea to get referrals from well-regarded industry groups like the Financial Planning Association or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, as well as recommendations from friends or relatives who have had success with an adviser.

On the other hand, I’d be wary of any advisers who contact me unsolicited, and doubly wary of ones who run free retirement-planning lunches or seminars. Many times such sessions are just a come-on to sell high-priced investments.

Above all, though, you’ve got to maintain a healthy sense of skepticism and trust your instincts. I think you can tell when someone is trying to sell you something as opposed to listening to you talk about your needs, concerns and goals then trying to create a solution that addresses them.

If an annuity or some other product the adviser sells always seems to be the top solution or if the adviser is reluctant to outline fees in writing, then perhaps the letters that should be on that person’s card are GSA (glorified sales associate) – and maybe you should just walk away.

Got a question? Ask the expert.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,073 other followers