What questions should investors ask financial advisors now?

Professional guidance could be critical for investors who are navigating in a volatile market.

  • By Debbie Carlson,
  • U.S. News & World Report
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An old investing adage says, "Don't confuse brains with a bull market."

With equities in a bear market and even some higher-risk bonds losing money, investors who might have felt fine using a digital investment platform might want to seek professional advice. If you already use a financial advisor, take time to review your financial plan to see how it's holding up during this volatile time.

Directing your questions to a financial advisor not only gives a professional the chance to explain why your financial plan is in place, but also gives you as the investor a chance to adjust your strategy as circumstances change.

Here are five important questions to ask a financial advisor today:

  • What should I do?
  • Will my withdrawals be affected?
  • Can you remind me of your fees?
  • How can my current financial disposition improve?
  • What are some near-term opportunities?

What should I do?

Jennifer Ellison, principal at Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough in California, says no matter the time frame, you must ask your financial advisor this question: "What should I do?" The difference between asking that question during a volatile bear market versus a bull market is that you may get a wider range of answers.

"There really is no one answer for everybody," Ellison says. "Some people may have come into this time with too much risk in their portfolio, while others should stay the course and think about when to rebalance." This is the time to review your holdings and your financial plan, she adds.

Craig Bolanos, CEO of Wealth Management Group in Chicago, says anyone who is paying a financial advisor should have a well-thought-out, written financial plan – no matter your age. An advisor should be able to show you why your finances will be OK, even in the current volatile environment, and explain how your own investments fit within the context of your plan.

"This is not an oral argument; this is one that is written and rooted in math," Bolanos says.

A written financial plan is not just about picking stocks or mutual funds, he says, but a holistic guide that looks at your income, taxes, goals, lifestyle and purpose for saving money. The right financial advisor should be able to articulate his or her investment philosophy and help you create a written plan that's tailored to your needs.

Will my withdrawals be affected?

As you review your financial planning with your advisor, you should touch on withdrawals.

If you're a retiree tapping your portfolio for income, ask your financial advisor how much your withdrawal rate will be affected by the market drop. "Retirees should ask this question and really dive into whether their distribution strategy is going to be affected," says Joseph Polakovic, owner and CEO of Castle West Financial.

The distribution strategy, or withdrawal plan, is to ensure you have enough liquid assets to tap now so you don't have to sell assets earmarked for long-term growth. A financial advisor should be able to show you which parts of your portfolio are held for growth and which funds can be used now to support your lifestyle and income needs.

Can you remind me of your fees?

Talking about money is kind of the whole point, right?

Polakovic says this question is important to ask at any time, but in a bear market – during which you face investment losses – fees just add to the cost of using an advisor. "It's important to come to grips about what exactly you're paying for because fees present bigger hurdles for your recovery," he says.

That's why it's critical for you to know exactly what your financial advisor is doing for you on a holistic level. Review that big-picture plan, which should ensure your positions will ultimately be OK, Bolanos says.

If a financial advisor is only picking investments without a holistic plan, "no one needs to pay for that anymore," he adds.

How can my current financial disposition improve?

This question should lead to a range of discussion points, Bolanos says, including whether your income has changed because of a job loss or if passive income from investments in rental property, for example, has dropped.

Financial advisors should also factor in whether or not you are supporting adult children affected by a layoff or aging parents.

"Finances are interconnected up and down the generational tree, so plans may need to be altered," he says.

Depending on those answers, Bolanos says he'll review whether or not a client's cash balances are adequate and suggest ways to improve those cushions. For older clients who may be entitled to a pension but were deferring payments, he may consider starting those since the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. gives more protection to people who are receiving benefits than those who have a vested interest.

What are some near-term opportunities?

With the market having dropped so much, there are opportunities to do some tax-loss harvesting – that is, selling losing positions to be able to get a tax write-off, Ellison says.

She says you should ask your financial advisor about tax-loss harvesting, especially since the stock market swings are still large. "That's something an advisor is going to know a lot better than your average investor," she adds.

The current market volatility means financial advisors should be rebalancing – selling winning positions and buying to add to areas in which the portfolio is underweight in order to get the asset allocation back in line, says David Dietz, president of Midas Financial in Mesa, Arizona.

Most financial advisors will rebalance portfolios once a year or every quarter, but given market swings, financial advisors may want to do it more often. While a financial advisor might not look at asset allocations daily, it should be often enough so that if the balance gets out of whack, they can take advantage of market mispricings.

Polakovic also says financial advisors should be researching now to buy investments earmarked for long-term growth. In a client's discretionary account, in which money is not needed immediately, he is looking at companies that are positioned for future growth.

"It shouldn't be all doom and gloom," he says.

Polakovic says he's looking at companies in sectors such as automation and technology. "As much as those are getting hit right now, these are the companies that allow people to work from home," he adds.

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