By the Mole, Money Magazine's undercover financial planner
NEW YORK (Money) -- In the last two years, I've been writing columns as the Mole for CNNMoney.com and Money Magazine, with the goal of helping the consumer make informed decisions, and of making financial planning a profession rather than a sales job.
I have been contacted by the Financial Planning Association and CFP - the licensing organization for Certified Financial Planners. These organizations claim to share my goals, yet I still see a wide divergence between the talk and the walk.
For example, I received an email from the CEO of the CFP Board that stated "Our professional review staff investigates each complaint it receives." I'm sad to say I tested this claim and multiple attempts haven't even been successful in getting an acknowledgement that the CFP Board received the complaint.
If there ever will be a financial planning profession to serve the public, our actions must be consistent with our statements.
Thus, the mole is now bidding you adieu and returning to my burrow . . . for now. But there is something you should know about us moles. Just when you think we are gone, we have a nasty habit of popping up again, and not always in places you'd expect. In a perfect world, it would not be necessary for me to give inside information in an effort to level the playing field between the industry and the consumer, but it's not a perfect world.
Admittedly I'm not as prolific a writer as Jonathan Clements, who wrote 1,009 incredibly useful columns for The Wall Street Journal. But, the 75 or so columns I've written over the last two years have been very rewarding for me to write, and I hope have been helpful for the consumer to build wealth for themselves, rather than for my industry.
To all the planners that sent me those emails chock-full of colorful language, you'll be happy to know that this will be my last Mole column for CNNMoney.com. Before you celebrate, however, I recommend you read on for my parting words of consumer advice.
1. Incentives matter. Nearly everyone I have met in the financial services industry believes they are a very ethical person. Thankfully there are few like Bernie Madoff, who is alleged to have taken $50 billion from investors (including charitable foundations), that now must close up. Yet, as long as money changes hands, we have incentives to transfer your wealth to ours. Stay vigilant, always question those incentives, and keep your fees low. As Vanguard founder Jack Bogle likes to say, and I like to quote, "you get what you don't pay for."
2. Understand your investment strategy. There is a strong relationship between a sophisticated investment strategy and low returns. When it comes to investing, the KISS principle (keep it simple stupid) really works.
3. Never completely trust anyone with your money. This is a corollary to understanding the strategy. Keep your adviser on her toes and keep asking questions. Trust any adviser enough to listen but never to follow blindly. It's a recipe for disaster.
4. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Beware of promises of high returns without risk.
5. Put yourself in someone else's shoes. Ask yourself how the party you are dealing with makes money. For example, can an insurance company really pay planners great commissions, cover their costs, make a profit and still pay you market returns?
6. To find our biggest enemy, look in the mirror. Sure, financial planners reinforce our feelings but never forget we are often our own worst enemy. This column has also focused on our human behavior that tends to make us invest in things at just the wrong moment - after they have done well.
7. Never feel too good about your investment strategy. In my experience, it's those that feel the most confident that end up taking the biggest falls. Understand the risks you take and avoid any inner voices that whisper "this has to go up."
8. Ignore the experts. How many of those TV gurus actually predicted the 2008 market plunge? They were all dead wrong, yet still we watch them and follow their advice.
9. We are not all above average. In a market almost completely "professionally invested," I have yet to meet a below average money manager. It's easy to claim we are beating the market if we don't have to show our results.
10. Use some uncommon "common sense." Before you make a major investing move, take a step back, and explain your logic to a friend. That will give you some time to think about the logic of your move (or the lack thereof). What we often think is logic turns out to be driven by how we feel about something and we ignore common sense.
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my readers. It has been an honor to write for Money Magazine and CNNMoney.com. As a bonus, here's an 11th piece of parting wisdom - keep reading the great advice these wonderful writers and editors have to give. I know I will.