Private Wealth Management.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” ~Robert Frost

Pulling Back the Curtain on the Tricks of the Trade
Source: Unshakeable • Who Can You Really Trust? Chapter 5 • by Tony Robbins

It is difficult to get a man to understand something
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.


When I ask people how they’re doing, the most common answer I get is: “Busy.” We’re all running faster than ever these days. So it’s no surprise that more and more of us are hiring financial advisors to help us navigate the complicated journey to financial freedom. From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of the US population using financial advisors doubled. In fact, more than 40% of Americans now use an advisor. And the more money you have, the more likely you are to see out advice: 81% of people with more than $5 million have an advisor.

But how do you find an advisor you trust – and who deserves your trust?

It’s astonishing how many people don’t trust the person giving them financial advice! A 2016 survey by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards found that 60% of respondents “believe that financial advisors act in their companies’ best interest rather than the consumers’ best interests.” That figure had soared from 25% since 2010. To put that into perspective, Congress currently has a dismal 20% approval rating, but just 10% of Americans surveyed trust financial institutions. It’s hard to think of any other industry where customers feel so suspicious – except perhaps the used-car business.

What accounts for this epidemic of distrust? Well, it’s not easy to place your full faith and confidence in an industry that’s constantly in the news for yet another scandal. Check out the “Hall of Shame” table below, and you’ll see that 10 of the world’s largest financial firms have had to fork out $179.5 billion in legal settlements just in the seven years from 2009-2015. Between them, America’s four largest banks-Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo – made 88 settlements amounting to a total of $145 billion!

Hall of Shame
Table of Corporate Settlements

Source : Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Some of the stories behind these settlements are so outrageous that they make you shake your head in wonder. Here’s a sample of four typical newspaper headlines just from the last few months:

“Bank of America to Pay $415 Million to Settle SEC Probe”: the Wall Street Journal reports that the bank’s Merrill Lynch brokerage unit “misused customer cash and securities to generate profits” for itself, putting at risk up to $58 billion in client assets!
“Citigroup Fined in Rate-Rigging Inquiry but Avoids Criminal Charges”: the New York Times reports that the bank was fined $425 million for manipulating benchmark interest rates from 2007-2012. Citigroup’s motive: “to benefit its own trading positions at the expense of its trading partners’ and clients’.”
“Ex-Barclays Employees Guilty of LIBOR Rigging”: USA Today reports that three former Barclays employees conspired “to manipulate a global financial benchmark used to set rates on trillions of dollars of mortgages and other loans.” Did you get that? That’s trillions, with a T!
“Wells Fargo Fined $185M for Fraudulently Opening Accounts”: the New York Times reports that employees of the bank “opened roughly 1.5 million bank accounts and applied for 565,000 credit cards” without customer consent! The bank fired at least 5,300 employees involved in this scandal.

How can you place your financial future in the hands of people who work in an industry with this demonstrated record of putting its own interests above those of its clients? How can you expect them not to deceive, exploit, and abuse you?

After all, these companies aren’t fringe operators with fly-by-night reputations. These are – or were some of the most respected and most blue-chip behemoths in the business! For example, Wells Fargo had long been celebrated as one of the best-run banks in the world. Yet its CEP was forced to resign in shame over his firm’s opening of fake bank accounts, forfeiting $41 million in stock options that he’d received as a reward for his performance.

Now, let me be absolutely clear. I’m not criticizing any individuals who work in this field or for these specific firms.
I’d be surprised if the CEO of Wells Fargo truly knew about this widespread wrongdoing within his massive company, which has more than a quarter million employees. Policing companies this enormous has become an almost impossible challenge for some. I have lots of friends and clients in the financial industry, so I’m speaking with firsthand knowledge when I tell you that they – and the vast majority of their colleagues – are people of real integrity. They have good hearts and good intentions.

The trouble is, they work in a system that’s beyond their control – a system that has tremendously powerful financial incentives to focus on maximizing profits above all else. This is a system that richly rewards employees who put their employer’s interests first, their own interests second, and their clients’ interest a distant third. And for folks like you and me, that’s a recipe for disaster – unless we take the precaution of learning how the system works against us, and how to counter it.


Before we go any further, it’s worth explaining where financial advisors fit within this profit-hungry system – and what exactly they do. They operate in a realm where nothing is quite what it seems to be. So it’s fitting that they go by many different names, which often seem downright misleading!

According to the Wall Street Journal, there are more than 200 different designation for financial advisors, including “financial consultants,” “wealth managers,” “financial advisors,” “investment consultants,” “wealth advisors,” and (in case that doesn’t sound exclusive enough) “private wealth advisors.” These are all just different ways of saying “I’m respectable! I’m professional! Of course, you can trust me!”

Regardless of the title, what you really need to know is that 90% of the roughly 310,000 financial advisors in America re actually just brokers. In other words, they’re paid to sell financial products to customers like you and me in return for a fee.

Why does this matter? Because brokers have a vested interest in hawking expensive products, which might include actively managed mutual funds, whole life insurance policies, variable annuities, and wrap accounts. These products typically pay them a onetime sales commission or, even better (for them), ongoing annual fees. A broker at a major firm might be required to produce at least $500,000 a year in sales. So it doesn’t matter how fancy the title sounds: these are salespeople under intense pressure to generate revenues. If calling themselves a financial consultant or a private wealth advisor helps them reach their aggressive sales target, so be it. If calling themselves a wizard, a pixie, or an elf helped more, that’d be just fine, too.

Does this mean they’re dishonest? Not at all. But it does mean they’re working for the house. And remember: the house always wins. There’s a good chance your broker is a sincere person with high integrity, but he’s selling what he’s been trained to sell – and you should always assume that whatever he’s selling will benefit the house first. Sophisticated customers know this is standard operating procedure: one survey found that 42% of ultra wealthy clients think their advisor is more concerned with selling products than helping them!

Warren Buffett jokes that you never want to ask a barber whether you need a haircut. Well, brokers are the barbers of the financial world. They’re trained and incentivized to sell, regardless of whether you need what they’re selling! That’s not a criticism. It’s just a fact.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not out to criticize or demonize the financial firms that employ these brokers. Have these companies done their fair share of stupid, unethical, and illegal things? You bet. But they’re not evil or malicious. They never set out to sabotage the global economic system! These companies simply do what they’re incentivized to do, which is to meet shareholders’ needs. And what do shareholders need? Bigger profits. And what creates bigger profits? More fees. If there’s a legally grey area that these companies can exploit to generate those additional fees, they’re likely to do it because that’s what they’re incentivized to do.

You might expect all those enormous legal settlements to act as a deterrent, encouraging these companies to improve their behavior. But these penalties re paltry for such colossal businesses. Bank of America had to shell out $415 million in fines for misusing its customer’ assets. Big deal! In one three-month period in 2015, the bank earned a profit of $5.3 billion. That’s just in 12 weeks! For companies this rich, those pesky fines are just a routine cost of doing business- the equivalent of you or me getting a parking ticket.

Instead of changing their ways, these companies focus much of their effort on burnishing their brands through slick ad campaigns featuring dreamy images of sailboats and romantic walks on the beach. Why am I telling you this? Because we’re conditioned to trust brands. We need to break free from this conditioning and look with more critical eyes at the reality, not the illusion. Otherwise how can we safeguard ourselves against this powerful system that’s fueled by self-interest?

It makes me angry and sad that the financial system is so broken. But anger and sadness won’t protect you from getting ripped off. What will protect you is knowing how the system can work against you. If you don’t understand the incentives of your advisor, you’re liable to discover that you’ve done wonders for his financial future while potentially wrecking your own.

This chapter will show you how to navigate the minefield. You’ll learn to distinguish between three different types of advisors so you can sidestep the salespeople and choose a fiduciary who is required by law to act in your best interests. We’ll also give you the criteria to judge whether a particular advisor is right or wrong for you, based on fact, not on how likable he or she is. After all, it’s easy to be persuaded by people you like, especially when they are sincere. Remember, people can be sincere – and sincerely wrong.

Maybe you’re wondering if you need an advisor at all. If you decide to manage your own finances, this book and Money: Master the Game will set you on the right track so you can achieve your financial goals. But in my experience, the best financial advisors can add extraordinary value by helping you with everything from investing, to taxes, to insurance. They provide holistic advice that’s truly invaluable. If you’re not convinced, check out Vanguard’s study below.

For me, getting first-rate advice has been a game changes, saving me a tremendous amount of money and time. I’m a capable guy, and I pride myself on understanding the most important principles in anything I’m a part of, but I’m not about to do brain surgery on myself!


While the wrong advisors can be detrimental to your financial health, the right ones can be worth their value in gold. A recent Vanguard study explored exactly how much monetary value an advisor can bring to your investments.
Lowering expense ratios: 45 basis points (0.45%) back in your pocket
Rebalancing portfolios: 35 basis points (0.35%) of increased performance
Asset allocation 75 basis points (0.75%) of increased performance
Withdrawing the right investment in retirement: 70 basis points (0.70%) in savings
Behavioral coaching: 150 basis points (1.50%) for serving as your practical psychologist
The grand total: 3.75 % of added value! That’s more than three times what a sophisticated advisor would charge. And heck that doesn’t include reducing taxes and more.

Francis M. Kinniry Jr. et al., Putting a Value on Your Value: Quantifying Vanguard Advisor’s Alpha, Vanguard Research (September 2016).

One of these is not like the other.


Did you ever have that unsettling suspicion that someone wasn’t telling you the “whole” truth, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why you didn’t trust the person or how exactly he or she might be lying to you? It’s a familiar feeling when you’re searching for financial advice. How can you tell if the person offering you “help” is the real deal? And how can you even know where to start, when so many different people with so many different titles are offing you potential solutions?

In the interests of cutting through the confusion, I’m going to make this as simple and straightforward as possible. In reality, all financial advisors fall into just one of three categories. What you really need to know is whether your advisor is:

a broker,
an independent advisor, or
a dually registered advisor.

Now let’s break this down in more detail so you know exactly what you’re dealing with.


As I mentioned earlier, about 90% of all financial advisors in America are brokers, regardless of the title on their business card. They’re paid a fee or commission for selling products. Many of them work for enormous Wall Street banks, brokerage houses, and insurance companies – the kind that splash their names on sports arenas.

How do you know if the product a broker recommends is the best one for you? Let me clear it up. Brokers don’t have to recommend the best product for you. What?! Yes, you heard me right. All they’re obliged to do is follow what’s known as the “suitability” standard. That means they must simply believe that any recommendations they make are “suitable” for their clients.

Suitability is an extremely low bar to clear. Do you dream of marrying a suitable person or your soul mate? But for a broker, suitable is good enough.

The problem is, brokers and their employers earn more by recommending certain products. For example, and actively managed fund with high expenses will be far more lucrative for the broker and the brokerage house than a low-cost index fund, which will be far more lucrative for you and your family. Does it sound to you like there’s a serious conflict of interest here? Damn right!

How is it that profits over people has become the accepted standard? To put this in context, the United Kingdom has a fiduciary standard, which means that all financial advisors are required by law to act in their clients’ best interests. Australia also has a fiduciary standard. So why aren’t American professionals obligated to act as fiduciaries? Actually, they are – except for financial professionals. Doctors, lawyers, and certified public accountants in the United States are legally required to act in the best interest of the people they help. Yet financial advisors get a free pass!

There have been many attempts to enact laws requiring advisors to serve their clients’ best interests. But the financial industry has lobbied hard to block these laws.
Why? Frankly, advisors and their employers would earn way less money if they could no longer stack the deck in their favor. Imagine their horror if they could no longer hawk their own overpriced products, or collect substantial commissions and secret kickbacks such as revenue-sharing deals from other companies.

One piece of (moderately) good news is that the Department of Labor recently passed a new regulation requiring advisors to put their clients’ interests first in one specific situation: when handling 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts. But even then, there are still major loopholes. In addition, with the recent election of Donald Trump, his advisors are all talking about rolling back the new regulations before they’re even implemented. So by the time you read this, those protections may not even exist!

Here’s the bottom line: this system is so riddled with conflicts of interest that it puts you in a highly vulnerable position. But what if you’re already working with a broker you like and trust?

I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible to find talented, trustworthy brokers who do a fine job. But playing a game where the odds are so heavily stacked against you isn’t an intelligent move. The most successful investors – and even professional gamblers – always try to make sure the odds are on their side. How can the odds be on your side if your broker has a hidden financial agenda? David Swensen, Yale’s investment guru, warned me that no matter how much you may like your broker, “Your broker is not your friend.”


Of 308,937 financial advisors in the United States, only 31,000 – approximately 10% – are registered investment advisors (also known as RIAs or independent advisors). Like doctors and lawyers, they have a fiduciary duty and a legal obligation to act in their clients’ best interests at all times. It’s simple common sense, right? But in the strange twilight zone of the financial industry, it’s anything but common.

To give you a sense of how strong the laws are, if your RIA tells you to buy Apple in the morning, and he buys it for himself at a cheaper price in the afternoon, he has to give you his stock! Try asking our broker to do that! In addition, before doing business with you, your RIA must disclose any conflicts of interest and explain up front how he or she is paid. No hocus pocus, nothing hidden, no tricks, no lies, all cards on the table!

Why would you ever choose a financial advisor who doesn’t have to act in your best interests over one who does? You wouldn’t! Yet most people do just that! One reason is that they simply don’t know any better. The fact that you’re reading this book puts you in an elite group – one that understands the fundamental rules of this high-stakes game. Another reason why so many people use brokers is that RIAs are like rare birds: there’s only a one-in-ten change of spotting one.

How come there are so few RIAs, if this is such a superior model? The most obvious reason is that brokers tend to earn a lot more money. All those fat fees from selling financial products can be extremely lucrative. By contrast, RIAs don’t accept sales commissions. Instead, they typically charge a flat fee for financial service, or a percentage of their client’s assets under management. It’s a cleaner model that removes awkward conflicts of interest.


When I first learned about the difference between brokers and RIAs, everything seemed so clear and simple to me! You undoubtedly want someone who’ll act in your best interests, right? So it seemed obvious to insist on working with an independent advisor who’s legally obligated to act as a fiduciary. I thought of fiduciaries as the gold standard. But then I discovered that this subject is murkier than I’d realized!

Here’s the problem: the vast majority of independent advisors are registered as both fiduciaries and brokers. WTF?! In fact, as many as 26,000 of 31,000 RIAs operate in this grey area where they have one foot in both camps. That’s right: only 5,000 of the nation’s 310,000 financial advisors are pure fiduciaries. That’s a measly 1.6%. Now you know why it’s so hard to get unconflicted and transparent advice.

When I wrote Money: Master the game, I became a champion of fiduciaries, only to discover this inconvenient truth about dual registration, first brought to be by Peter Mallouk.

It infuriated me to learn how these “dual registrants” actually operate. One moment, they play the part of an independent advisor, reassuring you that they abide by the fiduciary standard and can provide you with conflict-free advice for a fee. A second later, they switch hats and act as a broker, earning commissions by selling you products. When they’re playing this broker role, they no longer have to abide by the fiduciary standard. In other words, they’re sometimes obligated to serve your best interests and sometimes not! How warped it that?

How are you supposed to tell which hat they’re wearing at any given moment? Believe me, it’s not easy. I’ve had the experience of asking an advisor if he was a fiduciary and having him look me in the eye and assure me that he was. He talked to me about how untrustworthy brokers are and how much better it is to be a fiduciary. He told me that our interests were perfectly aligned. Then I discovered that he was also acting as a broker, since he was dually registered, and it turned out that he made all sorts of side deals that earned him loads of commissions! Here was a person I thought I could recommend as a fiduciary, and he lied to my face. Still, he hadn’t broken any laws. I was furious when I realized how easy it is to get misled.

Ironically, most dual registrants were originally brokers who gave up corner offices and sizeable incomes to make the leap to becoming RIAs. They wanted complete independence, to be able to provide their clients with the full range of investment options – not just the carefully crafted menu of products that their previous employer imposed. The wanted to wear the white hat and not the black hat. And so they took the risk and made the jump to RIA, only to discover the sad truth that it’s financially really hard to be a pure fiduciary.

These dually registered advisors have good intentions, but they get caught between two worlds, trying to be honorable while also having to make compromises. It’s not the fault of the individuals; it’s that the industry is structured so that selling products is the easiest way to make good money and pay the bills.


I’m about to give you all of my money
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey
Is for a little respect.


By now, you’ve learned some key facts that will save you a lot of suffering and sorrow. You know that 90% of financial advisors are really just brokers in disguise. You know that they don’t have to put your interests first. You know that they’re under tremendous pressure to peddle overpriced products. You know that the odds of finding good advice improve dramatically if you steer clear of all brokers – however unfair that seems – and work instead with independent advisors who have a fiduciary duty to put your interests first. You know that all fiduciaries are not created equal, since some can suddenly mutate into brokers.

So now you know what to avoid. We’ve eliminated about 98% of all the advisors out there, no the grounds that they’re either brokers or dually registered hybrids. What are you left with? Thousands of independent advisors who are legally obligated to act as fiduciaries. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find one who meets your needs.

But you still have to read carefully. Why? Because conflicts of interest can arise even when you’re working with an independent advisor – typically involving clever but legal schemes to make additional money off you while you’re looking the other way. Here are three tricks of the trade you should watch out for:


Brokers routinely sell proprietary funds created by their own firm. It’s a not-so-subtle strategy for keeping fees in the family – a common money-making scheme that depends on clients being naïve enough not to ask whether another firm might offer better or cheaper funds. It’s just the kind of self-serving behavior that you should make you wary of working with brokers. But I’m sorry to tell you that many independent advisors have also figured out furtive ways to use this ruse.

Here’s how it typically works: the advisory firm has two arms, one of which is a registered investment advisor that offers independent advice. So far, so good. But the firm’s second arm is a sister company that owns and operates a bunch of proprietary mutual funds. The RIA pretends to offer impartial advice but actually recommends that you buy the overpriced funds sold by its sister company! As Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady would say, “How conveeeenient!” The great thing is that all the profits stay in house, which is better for everyone – oh, except for the client.

The poor client (we might as well call him the mark) pays the advisor twice: for “independent” advise on which investments to own and for the parent company’s own mediocre funds. Most clients aren’t even aware that they’re buying funds owned by the same firm. That’s because the fund arm and the advisory arm typically operate under different brand names. It’s like watching a master pickpocket at work. The trickery is so sly and cynical that you almost have to admire it.


Here’s another scheme that’s become increasingly common: you pay an advisor fee to manage your money – let’s say, 1% of your assets. The advisor then recommends a “model portfolio” (he may even give it a fancy name like the “XYZ Portfolio Series”), which has its own additional fee – let’s say, 0.25% of your assets. This fee is over and above the cost of the underlying investments in your portfolio.

But nothing additional is being done for you: the “model portfolio” consists of various investments the advisor has assembled, which is what you paid him to do in the first place. It’s like buying $100 worth of groceries and then getting slapped with a $25 fee for the right to carry them out of the store in a paper bag!

If an advisor charges a money management fee for selecting investments, that would be it. End of story. Why should they be able to add another fee for pooling those investments together? I’ll tell you why: because they can. Because you might not notice.


Some independent advisors make private deals with investment firms that enable the advisor to earn commissions without you knowing it. Here’s how it works: your advisor recommends the funds of a specific mutual fund company. The advisor can’t do anything so tawdry as receiving a backdoor commission from the fund company in return for recommending its products. This represents a terrible conundrum for the advisor. What to do? Easy! Call this payoff something else!

So the ingenious advisor approaches the fund company and asks instead for a “consulting fee.” The fund company gladly pays this fee, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for you, the client, who just got duped into thinking that you were actually getting “independent” advice. What’s the moral? If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Or a broker.


Competence is such a rare bird in these woods
that I appreciate it whenever I see it.

-FRANK UNDERWOOD, House of Cards

I hope it’s clear by now that your best bet is to hire an independent advisor who’s a true fiduciary. But how do you select a specific advisor who makes sense for you?

As you can see from the quadrant on the following page, not all fiduciaries are created equal. It’s not enough to find someone who’s legally obligated to put your interests first. You also need someone who is financially sophisticated and highly skilled. In other words, your fiduciary should fit in the top right corner of the quadrant: high fiduciary with high sophistication. That’s the diametric opposite of the lower left hand corner, which is a salesperson with low sophistication.

High Sophistication/Skills

Low Fiduciary (Salesman) High Fiduciary (RIA)

Low Sophistication/Skills

How can you tell if a particular fiduciary has the right skills and experience for you?
When you’re selecting and vetting them, you can apply the following five criteria:

First, Check Out the Advisor’s Credentials. You need to make sure that the person, or someone on her team, has the right qualifications for the job you need done. We’re not talking about fancy titles here. I mean actual professional credentials. If you’re looking for planning help, make sure the advisor has a certified financial planner (CFP) on the team. If you’re looking for legal help, make sure there are estate planning attorneys on the team. Looking for tax advice? Make sure there are CPA’s on the team. These credentials aren’t a guarantee of high-level skills. Even so, it’s important to know that any advisor you’re considering has reached the minimum level of competency required to advise in the relevant field.

Ideally, If You’re Using and Advisor, You Should Be Getting More Than Just Someone to Design Your Investment Strategy. What you really need is someone who can help you as the years go by to grow your overall wealth by showing you how to save money on your mortgage, insurance, taxes, and so on – someone who can also help you to design and protect your legacy. That might sound unnecessary right now, but it’s important to have this breadth of expertise, since taxes alone can make a difference of 30% to 50% in what you retain from your investments today! I find it ironic when I see ads for wealth management, and all they’re doing is designing a portfolio. It’s best to start with a person you’re going to grow with through time. So make sure he has the resources to grow with you even if you’re starting small. Also keep in mind, size does matter. You don’t want to end up with a sincere but inexperienced advisor who manages only a relatively tiny sum for a few dozen clients.

Next, you Want to Make Sure Your Advisor Has Experience in Working with People Just Like You. Does she have the track record to prove she’s performed well for clients in your position, with your needs? For example, if your main focus is on building wealth so you can retire, you want a real expert in retirement planning. Yet in an anonymous survey, the Journal of Financial Planning found that 46% of advisors had no retirement plan of their own! I can’t believe they admitted this! Can you imagine hiring a personal trainer who hasn’t exercised in decades or a nutritionist who’s pounding down Twinkies while telling you to eat vegetables?

It’s Also Important to Make Sure That You and Your Advisor Are Aligned Philosophically. For example, does he believe he can beat the market over the long run by picking individual stocks or actively managed funds? Or does he recognize that the odds of beating the market are low, leading him to focus on selecting a well-diversified portfolio of index funds? Some advisors might meet your need for a true fiduciary but still fall short because they’re determined to pick stocks. Personally, I’d run a mile from any advisor who claims to beat the market regularly. Maybe it’s true, but I doubt it. More likely, he’s too optimistic or is lying to himself.

Finally, It’s Important to Find an Advisor You Can Relate to on a Personal Level. A good advisor will be a partner and ally for many years, guiding you on a long-distance financial journey. Sure, it’s a professional relationship, but isn’t money also a deeply personal subject for you, just as it is for me? It’s tied up with our hopes and dreams, our desire to take care of the next generation, to have a charitable impact, to life an extraordinary life on our own terms. It help if you can have those conversations with an advisor you connect with, trust, and like.


Much of this chapter has focused on the many obstacles we need to overcome in our quest for great financial advice: the conflicts of interest, the dissembling and deceit, they cynical and self-serving behavior. Isn’t it extraordinary that it’s so hard to find client-focused advisors with high-level skills who actually provide the service they claim to provide? No wonder so many people lose heart and decide to handle their finances on their own!

But let me tell you, there’s a huge prize when you reach the finish line of this crazy obstacle course and find a truly great advisor. For many people, nothing has a more positive impact on their financial future than partnering with an intelligent guide who knows the territory and can show them proven ways to win in any environment. A world-class advisor will help you immeasurably from start to finish: defining your goals, keeping you on a steady path toward them – in particular, by helping you to weather market volatility – and massively increasing the probability that you’ll actually achieve those goals.

September 8th, 2017

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