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Five Ways Your Financial Adviser Can Screw Up Your Retirement, Legally

Many advisers aren't required to put your interests first, and they don't

Investment advisers should act in their customers’ best interests, President Obama says. Here's how they don't, and how it can hurt you.

Right now, only some advisers are fiduciaries, required to put their clients’ needs first, while many brokers and advisers need only to recommend “suitable” financial products. On Monday, the White House said it would support a plan to change that.

Wall Street industry groups warn that new rules could raise costs and thus make advice unaffordable to many middle-income Americans. It’s not clear what the final administration proposal will look like—Labor Secretary Thomas Perez says it will be “very different” from previous proposals. But the goal is to end biased advice that the administration estimates costs investors $17 billion a year. 

Here are five ways that, under current law, advisers can put their clients at a disadvantage:

401(k)-IRA rollovers

For many workers with a 401(k) who are approaching retirement, the best option is to do nothing. Their employers offer 401(k) plans with low fees and great investment choices. There’s no reason to move the money to an individual retirement account, or IRA. But as Bloomberg’s John Hechinger reported last year, investment firms push workers to do just that. For example, federal employees are urged to shift assets into IRAs with fees that are 20 times as high as those in the Federal Thrift Savings Plan.

Load fees

When customers buy a mutual fund from a broker, they’re still often charged a front-load fee—a one-time fee that can swallow up more than 5 percent of their money before it’s invested. The proceeds from load fees help compensate advisers for their time, though there are often far more efficient ways to get advice. More and more investors are asking for no-load mutual funds, but the Investment Company Institute estimates that $630 billion in load funds were sold in 2013, the latest data available. That was up 19 percent from 2012 and the most since 2008. 

Opaque fees

While you might notice a 5 percent load fee, many other commissions charged by advisers are hard to spot. For example, a “12b-1 fee” can be tacked on to a fund’s expenses every year, with the proceeds often going to an adviser years after he or she sold the fund. Most of these charges should be disclosed somewhere, but it can be very difficult for clients to add up all the various ways an adviser is making money off them. 

Active fund bias

In many investment categories, low-fee index funds have historically performed better than actively managed mutual funds. But when an adviser meets a client with lots of assets in index funds, he or she often urges the client to reallocate into higher-fee funds. When mystery shoppers visited advisers for a 2012 study, 85 percent were told to ditch their diversified, low-fee portfolios.

Poor performance

Commissions, including load fees and 12b-1 fees, give advisers an incentive to recommend certain investment products over others. Firms can also give advisers bonuses for steering client money into the firms’ own funds. The result of this biased advice is that investment performance suffers, academic studies show—and not just because fees eat into returns. A 2014 study compared self-directed investors with clients who received advice with conflicts of interest. The self-directed investors performed an average of 1.25 percentage points better annually. A 2009 study found that direct-sold funds beat broker-sold funds by 0.14 to 0.9 percentage point per year, even disregarding the broker funds' higher fees. Over time, that performance gap can cost you thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars.

For more, read this QuickTake: America’s Retirement Gap

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