"We can't legislate wisdom or passion. We can't legislate competency. All we can do is create the structures and hope that good people will be appointed who will attract other good people - people who will make careers and listen and see to it that never again do we go through what we have gone through."
Connecticut senator, Chris Dodd, as quoted in The New York Times, July 15, 2010
With the recent passage of the historic Financial Regulation Bill, the transgressions of the financial industry and new provisions designed to prevent these types of excesses in the future have once again taken center stage. The legislation comes at a time when mistrust of financial services is epidemic. Nervous investors traumatized by losses and mismanagement of their funds wonder how to go about getting reliable and trustworthy advice.
Not long ago I came across a small column in the Business section of The New York Times Sunday edition, entitled "Beware Advice That's Generic." I thought, "What's wrong with offering advice that may have a broad general application?" I realized that if people mistake such advice as directed towards them specifically, it could end up doing them a disservice. This led me to the larger question, in relation to financial matters, whose information and advice can you trust?
This is a big issue and one that deserves careful thought. I would like to offer three basic ideas to help put you on firmer ground when seeking and evaluating financial advice. First, become more independent. Take more responsibility for your financial well-being. Second, commit to the selective use of a number of different resources. Third, establish a relationship, or two, with trusted financial professionals.
Taking more responsibility means educating yourself about financial subjects. Pick a topic and research it. Maybe you want to learn more about bonds or determining a good investment mix. Having more information will help you make better financial decisions. While you will probably still want to seek professional advice, the more you know yourself the better your decisions will be. The old saying is true- no one cares as much about your money as you do.
Beware of Sound Bites and White Noise
Choosing your resources for information selectively is extremely important. People seem to want sound bites and easy answers. But in personal finance there are few easy answers and the sound bites can lead you astray if you aren't careful. I would encourage people to avoid the television and radio. There is too much "white noise" being passed off as valuable information about the markets.
Pare down both the quantity of information you take in, as well as the focus of your information gathering. Investigate subjects of particular interest to you. I find the personal finance articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Morningstar to be of very high quality. And, referring back to the article I saw in The Times - be wary of generic advice that doesn't apply to your situation!
Becoming better informed is an important part of taking charge of our financial health. However, we recognize the need for expertise. Much as the family physician is a trusted source of advice on many important issues, he is not the one we would go to for a knee replacement. We may very well turn to him, though, for a good referral to the appropriate specialist. In much the same way, we need to cultivate those relationships we already have with trusted professionals in various areas of our financial lives. These could be personal bankers, accountants or estate-planning attorneys. Ask these professionals, as well as neighbors and friends, if they can recommend a financial planner whom they like. Many financial advisers offer free initial consultations. Subscribe to their newsletters. Get to know who they are and how they might help you.
In conclusion, educating ourselves is really our best response to the skepticism and mistrust we may feel when looking for sound financial guidance. Seek out a few good sources of information, and begin to develop a relationship with a financial professional. Don't wait until an urgent need leaves you scrambling to find someone. Engage simultaneously in all three of the steps we have discussed. The old adage applies here: dig your well before you need it.
And finally, you still need to be skeptical and to ask a lot of questions. By all means, get a second opinion.
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