Over the years, a number of you have asked me to write a review about what exactly goes on with a free Empower (previously Personal Capital) consultation. Personal Capital was purchased by Empower in 2000 and made the firm even better. The consultation is worth $799 according to them.
Common questions include: Is the consultation really free? Is the consultation a high pressured sales call in disguise? Will I get something out of it even if I don't sign up? Is a free Empower consultation really worth it?
The short answers to the questions are: Yes, the consultation really is free. There's no high pressured sales tactics, just an understanding they'd like to work with you if you've found them helpful.
You can continue to use their free financial tools if you don't hire them. Empower has the best wealth management tool today.
Yes, you will definitely get some good tailored advice. In addition, you get the opportunity to pick someone's brain who sees and advises on multiple different types of financial situations for multiple different types of people.
And yes, spending time getting a review of your finances for free is worth. It gets you to think about your portfolio construction and discover any blindspots.
Empower Free Portfolio Consultation Insights
I sat down with Patrick Dinan CFP®, a Empower Financial Advisor, over the course of 1.5 hours in two sessions. Then, I spent about four hours putting this post together to share with you. This article provides transparency on the advisory service process as an insider.
My goals for the Empower consultation meeting were three fold:
- To understand what a prospective client goes through during the call to advise on a better experience,
- Understand Empower's value proposition for the 49-89 bps under management a year they charge, and
- Learn what specific advice they could give me, a personal finance enthusiast who has been in the business for over 15 years.
I'm sitting in a unique position given I'm very familiar with Empower's free financial tools. I was a DIY user for two years before I joined as a consultant to help build out their online content from November 2013 until mid-2015.
I've gotten to know some of Empower's financial advisors. And I've also sat in on various important meetings with Empower's management team. The CEO, CPO, COO, and CMO gave me a better understanding of their products and desired messaging.
Benefit: Empower Is A Registered Investment Advisor (RIA)
An important takeaway I've gotten from working more intimately with Empowerl is that the firm is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA). In other words, Empower has a fiduciary duty to do what's in your best interest.
They are registered with the SEC, and are not a broker dealer. Broker deals only have a “suitability standard” for their clients, not a fiduciary standard. Whereas RIAs have a much stricter fiduciary standard.
For example, if you want to invest your entire $500,000 retirement portfolio in Apple after you dreamt Steve Jobs reincarnates, Empower won't let you because that violates your risk parameters and is not in your best interest.
A broker dealer, on the other hand, would probably also advise against such an aggressive move. But, if push comes to shove, they could execute the transaction. The more a broker churns your portfolio and puts you into higher fee mutual funds, the more s/he gets paid so long as you don't leave.
But, no matter how much your portfolio turns over with an RIA, the firm gets paid a fixed percentage of assets under management. The main way an RIA gets paid more is if you're happy and your assets continue to grow. Thus, interests are better aligned with an RIA like Empower.
My Empower Consultation With A Financial Advisor
Even if money and investing aren't your strengths, don't worry. There's nothing intimidating about a Empower consultation. For those of you looking for professional financial help, I'd like to highlight exactly what I went through. I'm personally pretty wary about everything. And I'm admittedly impatient over the phone.
But, after using Empower's tools for two and a half years, meeting the advisors, and interacting with the leadership team, I'm confident their financial advisory service can help certain people. Many clients come from traditional brokers like Merrill Lynch, Raymond James, or Edward Jones who are paying more in fees and are not satisfied with the results or their service.
Another group of clients are those who've been able to accumulate a decent chunk of wealth, but are now finding it too cumbersome to DIY. They'd like another set or two of eyeballs looking after their wealth because they aren't financial experts.
For your free financial consultation with a Empower financial advisor, all you have to do is sign up, link at least $100,000 in investable assets (savings, checking, brokerage account, rollover IRA, etc) and schedule an appointment when prompted.
If you don't schedule an appointment, a sales associate will call you to arrange a time with a financial advisor. There will be two calls in total with a financial advisor.
The First 30 Minute Call: Discovery Session
The first Empower consultation call will consist of a five minute intro about the firm and the advisor's background. This is followed by a roughly 15-20 minute discovery period about you.
The discovery process may feel a little intrusive to some, but it is important for the financial advisor to get as much information as possible to provide the best recommendations possible. As a fiduciary, it is the financial advisor's duty to thoroughly understand your financial background.
The visit is almost like a doctor's visit where you have to share some details before being treated.
Confirm Your Assets And Liabilities
Your financial advisor will be able to see the assets and liabilities you've linked on your dashboard. But sometimes it's hard to see what's exactly what that entails. So, the financial advisor may ask you to clarify things. In my case, I own multiple properties so I had to clarify which mortgage goes with each one.
The advisor will also reconfirm your net worth and investable assets. Because I manually input my structured notes portfolio into the assets section, Patrick saw around $400,000 less in equity investments than reality.
Getting the total figures are important because so much about good financial planning is creating proper asset allocation based on your risk tolerance. The downside is Empower doesn't analyze and manage your other risk assets, like real estate. Although, your FA can definitely talk to you about real estate and your entire net worth.
The last part of the Empower consultation call will consist of any final questions from both sides before the advisor conducts a review and recommendation of your portfolio.
My objective is to earn 3X the 10-year yield per year in as low a risk manner as possible, i.e. 6-9%. The second call will usually be done within a week or sooner, depending on your respective schedules.
The Second 45 Minute Call: The Recommendation
The second Empower consultation call is also free with no obligation and usually lasts around 45 minutes. This is where the real value begins. I was pleasantly surprised with how smooth the process.
Before the second call started, I received an e-mail from Patrick and a link that showed a customized powerpoint presentation with his recommendations. This made it easy to visualize his talking points.
Most of you won't get to sit down with a Empower financial advisor face-to-face unless you live in San Francisco or Denver. So a live powerpoint presentation is really helpful. Post-pandemic, doing Zoom video calls is both comfortable and common.
The below slide is the agenda for the call. I used my Rollover IRA account for Patrick to analyze and highlight to all of you. There are a total of roughly 20 charts your financial advisor will go through in the second call. I've just highlighted eight of them.
Set Goals In Your Empower Consultation
We first went through a brief recap from our discussions from the first call to make sure we spent our time wisely for the second call.
My main goal is to produce a 6-9% return on my money with the lowest amount of risk. I want to protect my financial nut I spent 15 years after college building at all costs because it is a passive income machine. As an early retiree, the ideal financial scenario is conservative returns and steady income.
The below slide shows my current allocation of my Rollover IRA. I recently sold half my positions and am sitting on a large chunk of cash.
You'll also notice that I'm 100% allocated towards Technology, something that nobody should do. But as I've written before, my Rollover IRA is my “punt portfolio” where I take very concentrated bets in specific stocks or sectors.
My extreme allocation is actually great for illustrative purposes.
Here are the official observations from Patrick about my existing allocation. A couple pros but lots of cons as discussed.
Please note that the recommendations provided by Patrick are specific to my own situation and you should not use them as a basis for your investment decisions. That's the purpose of going through your own financial consultation with them.
Based on Empower's model portfolio recommendation for someone my age (45), with my moderate risk tolerance and objective of a 6-9% annual return, here is the recommended asset allocation.
The split between stocks and bonds is roughly 75/25, with Alternatives as a new asset class.
Below is my recommended optimal allocation in detail. It's interesting to see US Real Estate and International Real Estate in my Alternatives section because I'm already so heavily invested in real estate with 35% of my net worth tied to SF, Tahoe, and Hawaii properties.
Patrick explained that the real estate alternatives was more focused on commercial real estate with a different return profile. That's something I never considered. The total real estate exposure is only 5% of the portfolio.
If at any point you disagree with the allocation recommendation, voice your opinion. Your financial advisor can work on a solution that is most suitable to you. Remember, this is a working relationship. The sole objective is to allow you to achieve your financial goals in the best manner possible.
Tactical Weighting = Smart Indexing
One thing that is unique with Empower is their belief in Tactical Weighting aka Smart Indexing. The idea is to provide equal weights across styles and sectors so one isn't overly exposed over time.
Most people benchmark their performance to the S&P 500, which is market cap weighted. The stronger the bull run in a particular sector, the higher its weighting. Sometimes, bad things happen if you are overly exposed such as in 2002 with Technology and 2008 with Financials.
Intuitively, having a more equal weighting across sectors through constant rebalancing makes sense. Although it's arguable as to what is the right steady state sector weighting. We all would rather be more exposed to sectors with the highest growth rates and potential for growth. However, you never know.
Below is the theoretical tactical weighting performance since 12/30/90 of $500,000. Due to 1.5% higher returns per annum for Tactical Weighting, one earned roughly $1.7 million more during this time frame.
Composing The Ideal Portfolio With ETFs And Stocks
The above slides should provide you a great idea of what you will receive during your second 45 minute financial call. I was curious as to how the portfolios were structured. So during my Empower consultation, I asked the below questions. You may have similar questions as well.
How is the domestic portfolio constructed?
Answer: Solely through individual stocks.
How is the international portfolio constructed?
Answer: Solely through ETFs and not individual stocks. The ETF allocation for international is mainly because of the diversification constraints of owning individual companies across multiple countries.
When do you rebalance and how is it determined?
Answer: Rebalancing is based off our software analytics and careful monitoring of your account to maintain the target weightings.
How many securities would make up my entire portfolio?
Answer: There will be roughly 75 securities total the consists of stocks, alternatives, and bonds. We will build the portfolio using roughly 15 ETFs and 60 individual stocks to keep you diversified.
Where are the assets held?
Answer: We use Pershing LLC, the institutional clearing house who holds your assets. They hold over a trillion in assets, is SIPC insured (protects individuals up to $500,000 for fraud), and has additional coverage through Lloyd's of London. We believe being independent and having Pershing LLC as a custodian adds an extra layer of security. We never touch clients' money.
The great thing about the construction of your Empower portfolio is that there are no transaction fees. They are included in the annual 49-89 bps fee. In other words, if you tend to rebalance a lot, you get better value with an RIA. This is definitely unique to Empower. Most of the RIA custodians (TD, Schwab etc.) still charge the trading fees. It just doesn’t end up in the RIA’s pocket.
Tax Location And Tax Loss Harvesting
Patrick and I had a good discussion on taxes, one of my favorite topics. Tax location is the practice of allocating dividend bearing securities in tax-deferred or tax-free accounts and allocating capital gains driven securities (growth oriented stocks usually) in taxable accounts.
Thus, tax location is good practice especially for those in the 25% tax bracket or higher. If you never plan to sell your Google stock, and Google doesn't pay a dividend, then it's better to hold Google in a taxable account for example. Empower will optimize your portfolios using tax location.
Tax loss harvesting is also something helpful to conduct. But, it is difficult to do on your own if you have a well diversified portfolio. Empower is constantly looking to optimize your tax liability by finding losers to offset your winners based on their technology and advisor's observations.
The Benefits Of Tax Loss Harvesting
According to Empower's research, tax loss harvesting can add after-tax returns of up to 1% per year. That's a boost that can cover Empower's annual fees alone.
In other words, the process of tax loss harvesting is like getting the financial advice for free because there are no mutual fund fees or trading costs when you purchase or sell a security through Empower either.
Those 1% expense ratios for owning actively managed funds are now gone for good. Empower builds your customized portfolio from the ground up with ETFs and specific stocks. This is exactly as a fund manager would do, but with the added element of providing individual financial advice.
Know that mutual fund companies will incentivize brokerages to sell their products through revenue sharing agreements. Or also known as “pay to play.”
The Final Value Proposition
Empower financial advisors can construct an optimal investment portfolio for your retirement. And, they can also provide ongoing advice as your financial situation changes over time, even if they don't manage the accounts.
Unlike traditional advisors, Empower doesn't have any incentives to sell products tied to any of these topics. Thus, they can truly offer unbiased advice.
Finally, you won't just get one financial advisor, but a team of two financial advisors. You'll also get an operations specialist to look out for your portfolio and retirement planning needs. To become a client is relatively easy. It is completely paperless thanks to Docusign and the award-winning user interface they've created.
Get A Free Financial Consultation With Empower
Many of us will continue to be DIY investors with the help of various free financial online tools and special types of funds with embedded fees that could help us meet our retirement goals. But, for those of you who are looking for more specific guidance so you don't have to worry as much about your financial future, Empower can help.
The tax loss harvesting and consistent rebalancing can ensure you have appropriate risk exposure. That alone sounds worth it for busy people who aren't all over their finances.
If you are interested in signing up as a client after the Empower consultation call, I'd start off closer to the minimum amount of $100,000 first. See how the experience goes before allocating more assets. Make your financial advisor earn your trust and hard-earned savings.
You can sign up for Empower's free financial tools here. Schedule a call if you are a new user. For existing users, simply schedule a call via your dashboard.
Utilize Empower's Retirement Planning Calculator
At the very least, run your financials through their new Retirement Planning Calculator. It uses your real data you've linked, and runs a Monto Carlo simulation to ascertain whether you need to make adjustments to your income and/or expenses to meet your retirement goals.
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