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If you want really good financial planning advice, the odds are good that you’ll have to be rich already and have lots of money to spend on fees for your financial advisor. Or you may find that your financial advisor is really just a broker who gets paid to push investments at you.
But Philadephia-based Veritat Advisors is unveiling its new web site today that offers financial planning for the rest of us. The company has a unique combination of personal service and automated web service. Every client gets to pick their own personal financial advisor based on the advisor’s resume and other interests. They can submit information to the advisor and then do a live video chat.
The automated processing of the clients allows Veritat Advisors to operate with costs that are roughly one-ninth of the cost of traditional advisors, said Kent Smetters, founder and chief executive of the company, in an interview. As a result, the company can charge much lower fees for its financial planning advice.
Clients pay a one-time fee of $250 and a monthly fee of $40. Clients can get a 14-day free trial and a 30-day money back guarantee. The company’s advisors do not accept commissions for selling investments. By comparison, the estimated 62,000 certified financial planners in the U.S. charge an average of $150 an hour and $3,500 for a comprehensive financial plan.
After the initial planning is done, the advisor will continue to work with the client and his or her family to help them stay on track.
The initial commitment is for three consultations, plus quarterly and annual reviews. After a big life event (such as having a baby), clients can get an “on demand” appointment at no additional cost. Advisors can also tap their own support specialists. The advisors handle email via a secure messaging system.
Economist Robert Shiller of Yale University estimates that 50 million Americans with no access to professional advice could benefit from it.
Veritat is the brainchild of Smetters, a professor of insurance and risk management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and Danielle Qi, a former student who went on to work at McKinsey & Co. Qi is chief operating officer.
Veritat itself is a registered investment advisor, and each of its advisors has passed the FINRA Series 65 exam for financial planners. Adding to its credibility, the company has Svi Bodie of the Boston University School of Management on its board of advisors. Backers include Andrew Rudd, co-founder of financial information firm Barra, and Arnold Wood, head of Boston money manager Martingale Asset Management. The company has raised around $1.25 million.
Smetters says it’s important that his company’s advisors can give independent advice. Just how big is the problem of conflicts of interest among financial advisors? A 2008 Rand Institute for Civil Justice report said that most investors find brokers to be indistinguishable from certified financial planners. And a 2010 survey sponsored by several industry groups found that two-thirds of investors wrongly believe that brokers are required to put their clients’ interests first.
The problem with the business is that it may be hard to scale if demand proves to be really high. Smetters says he has a lot of financial advisors on tap as consultants and is prepared to turn them into employees once they start getting clients. But one factor may keep the demand from getting out of control. Veritat’s advisors will not focus on people with extreme financial problems, such as those considering filing for bankruptcy. Rather, Smetters says the company will focus on the middle group of people who are neither on the ropes nor extremely rich. On top of that, Smetters said that automation will allow planners to service far more people than they normally might.
The advice offered will touch on matters such as how to save for emergencies, afford retirement, pay off debt, weather the stock market’s vagaries, save for college, and handle matters such as insurance, wills and estate. Rivals include People’s Financial Advisor, which charges $99 for a computer-generated plan and $99 for each phone consultation.
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