Financial advice: bonus or bull?
It's time to ditch advisers, financial services' product-floggers. Go-it- alone by investing directly in shares, property. Your bonus can help.

"Bonus? What bonus?"- questions you may be asking as South Africa's economic growth dramatically pulls back and teeters on the precipice of negative numbers as we get ready for what looks likely to be another tough year.

Jobs are under pressure, small businesses are struggling to survive and, with high interest rates and inflation eating into hard-earned cash, few consumers are in the mood for Christmas spending.

Even if SA Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni starts lowering interest rates any time soon, such moves are likely to take the better part of next year to kick in. It will take some time for Ship SA to change course.

Regardless of the bitter financial world we find ourselves in now, some companies continue to trot out their stock-standard advice. Usually, it is a cynical way to promote a "product" that produces big fees for the company and the army of greedy mouths between consumers and stiff upper-lipped corporate executives.

The hook at this time of year is that annual "bonus" cheque we all dream about.

Take Old Mutual, for example. It issued a media statement this week full of commonsense, practical tips.

"Pay off debt and save a little nest egg before you spoil yourself." Tick. "Pay off the most expensive debt first, such as your credit cards and shop cards." Tick. "Take some extra money and pay yourself first by investing it for your future". Tick.

And so the advice, in the style of US queen of pop personal finance Suze Orman, went on.

But, pandering as usual to the financial advisers who aggressively ply its "products", Old Mutual signed off urging people to get in touch with one of its sales representatives soon.

"It is important to consult with a financial adviser who will help you structure an action plan to enable you to invest in your future whilst still living within your means today, emphasised (market development manager Sylvia) Walker."

After reading the release this week, my mind wandered back to a meeting I had with an Old Mutual financial adviser in 2001.

The company had asked me, a personal finance journalist at the time, to "test drive" their best financial adviser. So I handed over my personal stuff to a well-groomed good-looking chap who must have been in his 20s for analysis and recommendations.

It was an unforgettable meeting, not least of all because, as he went through his sales patter, aeroplanes started crashing into New York's Twin Towers on a television channel flickering quietly in the background. The adviser and I watched the horror of 9/11 unfold as he took me through his suggestions.

If I'd listened to him that day, I'd be worse off now. And, although we both knew it was an exercise aimed at producing some positive PR for Old Mutual, I had some real business to hand over to him. But he wasn't listening, really.

He ignored my request to be an ad hoc lump sum investor in a Retirement Annuity. Why? I can only assume because the commissions are so much yummier when people sign monthly debit orders with inflationary increases built into them.

He also thought it was a bad idea for me to be dabbling in residential property and shares. I assume this was because investing directly in the asset classes cut out more of the middle people - people like him who like to build annuity incomes on commissions for doing a job once, while the customer pays, over and over.

This wasn't my only encounter with a financial adviser. I've had others.

I am still paying for one of those decades-long endowments I was persuaded to buy when I first started working. I haven't seen that particular adviser for many years. Yet I know I'm still a feature in his life because his adviser code is on the statements I receive from Metropolitan once a year when it tells me my monthly instalment will go up automatically unless I notify it otherwise for two years in a row.

In spite of repeated attempts to put a lid on inflationary increases by "notifying them otherwise", the monthly sum keeps going up and up. Nothing can stop that adviser-oriented machinery from working, not even the PR department at Metropolitan.

So I've given up. I'm treating my endowment as an intellectual exercise. It will be interesting to see how far off the forecast millions my monthly R200 or so will be worth when it is time to cash it in many years from now. Or maybe I'll just surrender it when I can be bothered to fight through the system.

Right now, there'll be many people wondering why their financial advisers allowed their long-term portfolios to crash along with financial markets.

Just think: if the JSE is back at levels last seen several years ago, then every cent you have saved in recent years in a so-called retirement product with a general domestic equity flavour has been wiped out.

Of course, the advisers have still collected their monthly commissions and fees for leaving you there and will continue to do so.

Don't expect to get your fees back from them, though. Instead, you can expect to hear why it is important to keep the long-term picture in your mind and have a diversified portfolio so that bonds and cash can prop you up at times like these. Expect to see graphs that iron out investment performance volatility.

Financial advisers are experts at providing words of reassurance and comfort when times are tough and they will make you feel better about why they missed all the warning signs.

If you are fortunate enough to receive a bonus this year, use it to educate yourself on money matters and start investing directly in asset classes and cutting out the middle people. There are few worth the fees they charge.

Buy financial books, study a basic accounting course, regularly visit sites like Moneyweb and Realestateweb and become a do-it-yourself investor. There's an old cliché worth remembering that goes along the lines of this: no-one will look after your money quite like you will.

Jackie Cameron is editor of Realestateweb- Moneyweb's premier property content provider.

Article by: Jackie Cameron - www.realestateweb.co.za