Selecting an appropriate investment firm is critical

Published 2:17 pm Sunday, February 25, 2007

If you are like many busy investors, you may lack the time needed to identify the asset managers that best meet your specific financial needs. On the other hand, selecting an appropriate investment firm is one of the most important decisions you can make — one that can have an enormous impact on your long-term financial goals.

When selecting an asset management firm, it is prudent to examine a number of important factors, and not simply rely on past performance.

Investors should consider a firm’s overall investment philosophy, buy and sell disciplines and the experience and qualifications of key investment personnel, among other important criteria.

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The following key points may be useful to remember when selecting a management firm.

Personnel: The education, credentials and experience of a firm’s investment professionals should be carefully evaluated. Who are the key members of the firm’s investment committee? How long have they worked together? An inexperienced team, or one that has undergone frequent changes, may be unable to meet the challenges of a volatile investment climate.

Investment process: Investment firms should have a defined process for selecting stocks or other securities for your portfolio. This should include diversification guidelines and review procedures, and may include specific sector or industry constraints. A close examination of a firm’s process may reveal weaknesses that could damage portfolio performance.

Implementation: Investment managers should have a plan that assigns qualified personnel to specific tasks, delegates duties appropriately and ensures adequate supervision. Examining the implementation of a firm’s investment process can help investors discover flaws that could lead to inferior portfolio construction.

Research capabilities: is the firm able to produce original investment ideas? Or does it simply aggregate quantitative data from other sources? A firm’s research capabilities and the quality of its research output is an important component of investment decisions.

Business evaluation: A firm’s commercial viability and its success over time should also be measured. Relevant factors include incentives for key personnel, the firm’s ownership and capital base and its client servicing capabilities. This evaluation may reveal factors that could lead to the departure of key staff.

Quality of composite: Most investment firms use composites — a collection of representative accounts — when reporting performance results. Investors should consider the number of accounts covered by the composite, the length of time before new accounts are included, how returns are weighted and other factors. Generally, investors should try to determine if the composite accurately reflects the performance of a firm’s current staff and research process.

Dispersion: Investors should measure the variation in account returns relative to the firm’s composite performance. Evaluation may reveal weaknesses in the implementation of the investment process or unfair treatment of particular investors or groups of investors. However, a high degree of variation might be acceptable if it stems from a manager’s efforts to meet the needs of different clients.

Bill Byrne is a financial advisor with Smith Barney in Natchez.