Lynn O'Shaughnessy

I've received thousands of e-mails since I began writing this column 2 1/2 years ago and, by far, the most frequent SOS I get is from readers who want to know where they should turn for financial help.

At this time of year, there are probably even more investors eager for an expert to examine what may look more like a skillet of scrambled eggs than a functional portfolio. Acknowledging the need for help is a healthy development for investors who feel guilt-ridden whenever they take a peek at their portfolios. Or, more likely, when they are too scared even to look. Ultimately, seeking out a professional's opinion can also increase your net worth, as well as your financial security. If anyone ever devised a 12-step program for wayward investors, finding an adviser would surely be No. 1.

Consequently, I'm going to devote some columns at the start of 2007 to discussing where you can turn for help. Just as importantly, I'll explain what business cards you shouldn't accept. While the country is awash in financial advisers, here's a reality you will rarely see discussed: You may be better off on your own than turning to certain professionals. I've believed that for a long time, but now I can point to a devastating study that provides data to support my opinion. The research should make anyone who uses a stockbroker or a commissioned financial adviser extremely nervous.

The authors of the research, two Harvard Business School professors and an academic at the University of Oregon, aimed to measure whether Americans who rely on commissioned professionals to select their mutual funds prospered from their investment picks. They began their research by assuming that these folks did provide valuable service because so many people rely on them.

But it turns out that Americans' financial herding instincts are flawed.

The ambitious study, which examined the money moving in and out of 4,000 mutual funds from 1996 to 2002, looked at the cost and performance statistics of funds that brokers selected versus those that individuals bought. The stock funds pushed by brokers earned a meager annual return of 2.92 percent (net of expenses) versus a much more impressive 6.62 percent for the funds that investors bought on their own. With bond funds, individuals also kicked butt.

Brokered fixed-income funds generated a yearly performance of 4.87 percent, compared to 6.07 percent for the average Joe investor.

The cost of this appalling underperformance was stunning. The researchers calculated that the professionals' mediocre investment choices cost their clients close to $9 billion a year!

Lynn O'Shaughnessy

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of Retirement Bible.

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