By Brian O'Connell
Stockbrokers are enjoying a resurgence of sorts these days. With Americans' 401(k) plans getting hammered, and investors scrambling for answers, a calm, seasoned hand at the wheel increasingly seems like a good idea.
Okay, fine. But where do you start if you don’t have a broker?
First, do you even need a stockbroker? Before you hire a portfolio professional, you need to do some thinking about how—and how much—you would like to invest. If all you plan to do is invest in some CDs or mutual funds, then paying a broker to help you doesn't make much sense. (For this you can generally educate yourself, by researching the terms and interest rates of various CD accounts, or the ratings and reputation of different mutual funds. Try our partner sites, TheStreet.com and manybanking.com).
But if you're looking to invest in the more volatile, high stakes world of the stock market, you may be well served by engaging a professional broker. Whether you're best served by a no frills, low fee online account, or a full-service broker depends on your own goals and personal preferences.
Consider an online broker. Why not go online? Cyber-brokers charge much lower commissions and fees than the full-service firms. They also take a largely hands-off approach, which is great if you prefer to do the legwork yourself. That means you’ll be picking the stocks and funds yourself, and relying on the web site to process the purchases. The sites should also provide background information on the products you’re looking at.
Before you make any kind of commitment, be sure to ask about trading commissions, maintenance fees and other costs. Also find out which additional services they offer, such as phone trades, local offices and ATM and check-writing capabilities. Of course, the downside of cyber-broking is the absence of handholding and experienced counsel should the market turn south. And without a dedicated human advisor, you run a greater risk of technical difficulties: Think clogged servers, missing checks and long waits on customer service lines.
Check out discount brokers. If a purely online brokerage account isn't for you, there are a number of discount brokers, such as Charles Schwab (Stock Quote: SCHW). These brokers have established an online presence, while also maintaining advisory and account management services. As a result, the cost of their services fall somewhere in between the no frills web sites and the full-service brokers. Even if you think you know a lot about the markets, most people simply lack the time and focus to adequately monitor and allocate their investments, year after year. This can be a great solution for an investor with strong opinions about where and how to invest, but would still appreciate a sounding board, and a personal touch, from time to time.
Get referrals. If your financial goals and needs are fairly involved, and you think it's worth your while to spend the extra money in return for full service, start asking around among your friends and colleagues for some referrals. You are entrusting your assets with a broker, so it's critical to find someone who'll have your full confidence. Besides helping you build an investment portfolio, you should be able to meet with a planner who will review your complete financial situation and set up a profile based on your assets, income and goals, before advising you.
Full service firms can also help with referrals for accountants and lawyers to deal with some of the more complicated components of personal finance, like taxes and estate planning. Before you sign with anyone, make sure you get a commission schedule that spells out the fees you'll have to pay. It's also important to know how your broker is paid. Will he or she receive commissions for selling certain financial products (which may or may not be in your best interest)? Unfortunately, financial services is a field notorious for corrupt characters and scam artists, so it's important to ask the tough questions and feel comfortable from the start. Check the background of your potential broker at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's web site.
Get credentials. Before you invest, make sure your broker and investment adviser are licensed to sell securities. Your state securities regulator or FINRA can provide you with all kinds of helpful info. They can also give you access to something called the Central Registration Depository. This computerized database will tell you if a broker is properly licensed in your state and if he or she has a history of regulatory run-ins or complaints from investors. You can also learn about a broker's educational backgrounds and previous job history here.
In the end, the best stockbroker for you is the one that will meet your particular needs. With the online firms and deep discounters, you basically get what you pay for—no advice, no research and no hand-holding. Unless you're prepared to fly completely solo (and accept the attendant risks), you're probably best off seeking some form of professional advice, whether from a reputable discount firm or a full service brokerage.
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