A money-back guarantee might seem like an enticing assurance that a product or service is reliable. But when it comes to choosing an investment firm, it’s not very useful. Charles Schwab has been offering to refund investment advisory fees when investors are unhappy, and TD Ameritrade has been offering to rebate the fees after two quarters of negative performance. As I have traveled around the country, some investors have expressed excitement to me over these offers.
The problem: Many investors mistakenly believe that they will get better advice because of the offers and will be protected from investment losses. The guarantees are not a good reason to select a particular brokerage or a useful way to judge the value of the help you get.
How the offers work: Schwab’s “Accountability Guarantee” allows customers who use any of five advisory services to request a refund of fees for the previous quarter for any reason. The services include Schwab Managed Portfolios, whose model portfolios of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are selected with the help of an adviser (minimum investment $25,000), and Schwab Private Client, which provides an adviser who creates a portfolio tailored for you (minimum investment $500,000). Annual fees are 0.9% of your managed assets or lower.
TD Ameritrade’s “Discretionary Service Fee Rebate” applies to its Amerivest service, which provides an adviser to help you select among several model portfolios. If your holdings experience two consecutive quarters of negative returns, Amerivest will automatically refund the fees from both quarters. Amerivest requires a $25,000 minimum investment and charges an annual fee of up to 1.25% of managed assets. The guarantees do not reimburse investment losses.
My take: Schwab and TD Ameritrade are worried about losing clients to much-lower-cost services known as robo-advisers offered by firms ranging from online newcomers to giants such as Vanguard and Schwab itself. Robo-advisers generally charge 0.35% or less to generate model porfolios of ETFs—although most won’t put you in touch with a human adviser.
But a money-back guarantee is not helpful in choosing the best human adviser. It’s better to look for advisers with long, solid track records. And you should avoid judging their advice based on your portfolio’s returns from one quarter to the next.