Dear Helaine: A few years ago, I began working with a financial adviser I initially liked, but whose judgment I am now questioning due to communication issues. When I email him to ask a question, I receive emails back from his assistants and colleagues, whom I don’t know and haven’t met with directly. I am not sure he is a fiduciary, and I’m not eager to ask outright because of these communication blunders.
Here’s my question: I invested about $50,000 in mutual funds through his firm. I paid the firm a small amount to manage the money, and some small percentage was taken out of my fund when I signed up with them. I can’t remember the details now.
Last fall, when we had our annual chat, the adviser recommended I sell half my mutual funds before 2018, and half in January 2018, and place the proceeds in a number of lower-cost index funds. Both funds are growing at a low annual rate. The last time I checked it was between 10 and 20 percent. Earlier this year, I was hit with a tax bill of around $5,000, and I am expecting a similar tax bill this year as well, so I am not eager to add to it by selling off these funds.
My “spider senses” are tingling. Should I look for a new adviser? Will I face another huge tax bill if I find another firm to manage the money? — Scared to Ask
Dear Scared to Ask: You cannot work with a financial adviser who makes you so uncomfortable you don’t feel able to ask something basic like if he has a legal duty to give advice that’s in your best interests. I am saying this regardless of whether the adviser is a fiduciary. If you are made to feel like an afterthought when you need assistance, you are in the wrong place.
Now on to the specifics: Those funds sound ... just OK. The S&P 500 gained just under 12 percent in 2016 and a little more than 20 percent last year. I can tell you that over time, you’ll almost certainly do better in index funds — very few managed mutual funds manage to beat their benchmark indexes year after year.
As for the adviser, it does sound like he’s attempting to be mindful of the tax bill. Not only will capital gains, if you sell, be paid off over two years, index funds generally throw off less in the way of taxable income than managed mutual funds, because there is a whole lot less buying and selling of stocks going on.
Finally, while one shouldn’t make light of a tax bill, you shouldn’t allow fear of it to be the sole guide of your investment strategy.
But you should have been told all this. Apparently, you were not, or at least not in a way you understood. While you are hunting for a new adviser, I suggest reaching out to the current one and asking about all this advice, if he is a fiduciary, how much he’s charging you per year, and why he’s delegated your account to others. The answers will help you evaluate the worth of his suggestions and give you valuable practice for how to engage with your next adviser.