Finding a Financial Planner Who Wears the Right Hat

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''I have been using the services of a financial planner. Quarterly deductions are made from my account for services rendered. The amount is 1-3/4 percent of the total value of my investment, which is 25 percent of my income. The brokerage firm with which he does business is in [another city]. He is often not in his office. I can't afford this sort of thing.''

- J.G., Deland, Fla.

Finding an appropriate financial planner or stockbroker can be as daunting a challenge as finding a consistently successful stock. Part of the problem is sartorial, part linguistic: The world of high finance is comprised of scores of experts who wear many different types of hats and professional listings. And fee schedules vary widely for each one.

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The financial planner, for example, may not be a licensed stockbroker. Thus, to buy or sell a stock, the financial planner - such as the one cited in the above letter to this reporter - would have to go to a broker/dealer to execute a transaction, the same as if a customer were going to a broker to buy or sell securities on his own.

Conversely, the broker may not be a financial planner - a person who dispenses information or advice on investments, or provides other services, such as insurance products. Moreover, the person who calls himself a financial planner may not even be licensed!

Beware: No license required

Today, neither the federal government nor any state in the country requires a license for ''financial planners'' as a profession, according to Duane Thompson, director of government relations for the Institute of Certified Financial Planners (ICFP) in Denver.

But investment advisers, who ''may be able to place trades with broker/dealers or recommend a certain course of financial action for a fee,'' have to be registered in 46 states, as well as with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr. Thompson says.

Moreover, brokers and dealers are licensed with securities groups, such as the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) in Washington. Brokers who trade in stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange must be registered with the Big Board.

And if all this isn't confusing enough, financial planners may not even be recognized as such by their own peer groups. One of the largest professional groups for planners is the International Association for Financial Planning in Atlanta. It counts more than 250,000 financial planners in the US. But the IAFP is a trade association that does not license its members.

Professional designations

Several groups do license members or provide a special designation for professionals who meet certain defined standards, usually including passing a formal examination.

* The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc., for example, is based in Denver. Its 31,000 members are licensees who are designated ''CFP,'' for certified financial planner. The designation is granted only after an applicant passes a 10-hour examination and meets rigid ethical requirements, explains Diana Stotler, a board spokeswoman.

* The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in Jersey City, N.J., awards a special designation to accountants who are also financial planners - the ''PFS'' or personal financial specialist.

* And the American College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., awards the designation of ''ChFC'' or chartered financial consultant.

Thus, it would be possible to call on a financial planner who is also a CFP, PFS, ChFC, and member of the IAFP. And the planner could even be an ''RIA'' or registered investment adviser - a person licensed by a state securities agency.

But would the financial planner be any good at providing financial services? That's a trickier question to answer.

To find a planner in your area, assuming you need one, you could get referrals through the IAFP at 1-800-945-4237; the ICFP at 1-800-282-7526; the AICPA at 1-800-862-4272; or the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers at 1-800-366-2732.

In the case of the NAPFA, advisers are paid on a fee-only basis. Many experts consider that to be better for investors than the other two main fee arrangements - fee plus commission or just commission. In the case of fee-only payments, the financial planner is compensated by the hour or for a specific task.

Does your planner push certain products, such as insurance? If so, he probably has a vested stake in selling the product.

Is he accessible? In the age of fax and answering machines, beepers, and portable telephones, how could he not be?

Experts say unavailability is often considered a sign of casualness. Fortunately, the great majority of financial planners are eager to serve the needs of their clients.

Check the reputation of a potential broker

To find a reputable broker, you can call Weiss Research at 1-800-289-9222. For a fee ranging from $15 for a verbal rating to $45 for a full report, Weiss will provide a safety rating on the financial stability of a number of US brokerage houses.

You can also call the NASD at 1-800-289-9999 to find out if there have been any complaints filed against a particular broker. The North American Securities Administrators Association, at 1-202-737-0900, will give you the phone number of a state regulatory agency with whom you could check for complaints at the local level against a specific firm or individual.

You will need to determine if your broker dispenses investment advice or just places buy and sell orders. At the least, experts say, he - or an associate, when he is away - should always be reachable by phone or computer. And they should be able to provide a list of other referrals (clients) with whom you can talk.

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