Q.

I wanted to ask if you knew anything about Larson Financial….I haven’t gotten involved with them yet, only went to a dinner where they spoke at and am meeting with a rep today just to get some more information. I was curious as to your knowledge of this company and any info you could provide.

A.


Before answering your question, I need to do the expected disclosure this blog is famous for.  I was vaguely aware of Larson Financial from some of their marketing, but first came in contact with them when I was sent a copy of the book Doctor’s Eyes Only by one of their advisors, which I reviewed on the blog.  The review was actually fairly critical of the book.  Although it contained a lot of good information, in my opinion there was way too much advertising included.  One of the authors, Tom Martin, subsequently submitted three guest posts that were published on the blog, Lower Your Roth Conversion Rate, Locking In A Lower Capital Gains Tax and Avoiding The Alternative Minimum Tax.  Tom and I have been collaborating on a project recently and he flew my wife and I out to Indiana and took us out to a nice dinner the night before we met for a few hours about the project.  I learned a lot about Larson Financial in the process that I thought this blog’s readers might be interested in.  You should be aware that I have not been paid to write this review and that I do not get paid a dime if you choose to hire a Larson Financial advisor.

A Firm Serving Doctors

Larson is focused on serving the financial needs of physicians and dentists.  They have offices in 27 states, but will work with you no matter where you live.  They consider themselves the nation’s largest financial planning firm exclusively for doctors.  The organization is a bit of a franchise format, but with fairly heavy control exerted by the central offices both in advice rendered and in the investment portfolios.  So when you hire an advisor, you get his expertise as well as that of the central management of Larson. Upon being hired, each advisor goes through a 2 year “fellowship” (their words, not mine) where he receives additional training, mostly geared toward the unique financial needs of doctors.  The individual advisors keep a percentage of the fees they generate from serving clients, and then pay Larson a certain percentage toward overhead and profit.  Interestingly enough, the profits at the firm-level are all donated to charity through the Larson Financial Foundation, primarily going to support entrepreneurs in poverty-stricken areas of the world, often leading to wells, orphanages, schools, and medical clinics being established.  They also lead medical missions and have often included clients to provide medical expertise.

Financial Planning AND Investment Management

Although most of their clients avail themselves of both services, the company actually provides two separate services, and that separation is clear when you examine their methods and fee structure closely.  On the financial planning side, clients first work with an advisor to build a comprehensive plan, then you have quick checkups on a quarterly basis, discussing different topics each quarter.  In the Summer, you discuss cash flow, budgeting, employee benefits, insurance, and asset protection.  In the Fall, you do tax planning and investment strategy, including your retirement accounts.  In the Winter, you discuss major purchases, debt management, education savings, financial goals, and retirement planning.  In the Spring you do estate planning, charitable planning, and beneficiary reviews.  The financial planning fee also includes contract negotiation and review, a valuable service.  If the firm is also managing your assets, you are given quarterly investment updates at the same time as these financial planning meetings.  Advisors are also “on-call” between meetings to address additional issues.  For additional fees they will also do contract review and negotiation, private practice analysis, and practice management activities.  Their tax arm(MedTax) will also do tax preparation for you and your practice.  Their law arm (Larson Law Firm) will do estate planning, corporate formation, and asset protection.  In short, their goal is to be a one-stop shop for all your financial needs.  But they’re also willing to work with you a la carte for whatever you need help with.

They Use DFA Funds

In conjunction with the University of Chicago and DFA, they’ve developed 9 portfolios that they try to fit their clients into as best they can.  These range from a 20/80 “Risk Averse I” portfolio to the 100/0 “Highly Aggressive” portfolio.  They’re really all pretty similar, just with a varying stock/bond percentage.  They consider the models proprietary information that they spent a lot of time and money on, so while I’ve got them in front of me, I’ve been asked not to share the specifics.  Suffice to say, they look like your typical small-and-value-tilted, Boglehead-style, Slice-N-Dice portfolios, composed almost entirely of DFA funds.  Tom Martin describes the amount of small and value tilting as just as little bit more than DFA’s US Equity Core 2 Portfolio.  I’m convinced there isn’t such a thing as a perfect portfolio, at least known in advance, but these portfolios certainly meet my requirement of being reasonable.  Any reasonable buy-and-hold passive portfolio will work just fine for your retirement, as long as you stick with it over the long-term.

I was pleased to see they use DFA funds.  If I were going to hire an investment manager (I’m not), using DFA funds would be one of my requirements.  I really like Vanguard index funds, but if anyone was going to give them a run for their money, it would be DFA.  DFA funds tend to match or slightly outperform Vanguard index funds over the long run and Bogleheads often debate the merits of DFA vs Vanguard.  DFA funds aren’t true index funds, but they are passively managed, and are done so in several ways that probably make them a little superior to a true index fund.  Some smart people peg the advantage at 0.2-0.3% a year when properly adjusted for risk (remember that DFA funds in general tend to have a riskier value and small tilt).  If you ask DFA, they may claim a 2-3% a year advantage.  Some of their approved advisors might try to claim a 4-6% improvement, but when you pin them down they’re usually comparing small and value tilted DFA funds to non-tilted Vanguard index funds.  You can compare funds and come to your own conclusions.  DFA’s US Large Cap Fund has a 10 year return of 8.24% versus the Vanguard 500’s 10 year return of 8.23%.  DFA’s Emerging Market Portfolio I has a 10 year return of 17.50% vs Vanguard’s 16.50%.  DFA’s Small Cap Value Fund has a 10 year return of 13.04% vs Vanguard’s 11.37% (but keep in mind that DFA’s product is smaller and more valuey and thus riskier.)  Unfortunately, you can’t really get DFA funds unless you go through a DFA approved advisor like Larson.  Many Bogleheads have concluded that it isn’t worth it to them to pay an advisor 1% just to get DFA funds, but if you’re going to use an advisor anyway, I think most smart folks would agree that using DFA funds would probably make up for at least part of the asset management fee.

Larson Will Manage All Your Accounts


One thing that I thought was pretty cool about Larson is that they’re willing to manage and coordinate all of your various accounts, which is pretty important and can boost returns (Larson claims by 2-3%, citing Roger’s Tax Aware Investment Management).  Right now I have three personal Roth IRAs, a spousal Roth IRA, three 529s, two 401Ks, four taxable accounts, two HSAs, a UGMA account and I’ll soon be opening a Solo 401K.  I also have two empty traditional IRAs I use for Backdoor Roth contributions and a SEP-IRA I occasionally use.  That’s 20 accounts, and I’ve closed 3 others in the last year or so.  It wasn’t a big deal when all I had to deal with was two Roth IRAs and the TSP, but things get more and more complex as life goes on.  Keeping my portfolio balanced across all these accounts becomes a more time-consuming task each year.  Larson will work with each of these for you, saving you a significant amount of time, effort, and hassle.  They used to email you instructions for those accounts, like your 401K, that they might not have direct control over.  However, they’ve found it works far better to get on the phone with you, have you log on to your account, have you allow them access at the same time, and make any portfolio changes in real-time with their clients.  That’s a real benefit to someone who doesn’t know how to or doesn’t want to deal with this stuff.  Another cool feature is that they can allow you to use DFA funds within your 401K (as long as it has a brokerage window such as through Fidelity or Schwab), even if they aren’t normally available in the 401K.

Larson Is A Full-Service Firm, and They Charge Like It

Larson provides a lot of service, both with regards to financial planning and investment management.  But they’re not doing it for free (make no mistake, I’d hire them in a second if they were.)  They charge fees that I would rate as average to slightly above average.  Their financial planning fees start at $375 per quarter ($1500 a year) for an individual, although the fee is waived during training.  They don’t collect any mutual fund loads since they don’t use loaded mutual funds, but they do receive commissions when they sell you a term-life or a disability policy (which is probably the main way residents compensate them for their services.)  These commissions range from 40-80% of the first year’s premium for most policies.  Larson guarantees their financial planning fees in writing each year and expects to save its clients’ time and money in an amount more than their fees, otherwise they expect to be fired and refund the fee.

The published investment management fees are:

  • <$250K        1.75% AUM
  • $250-500K   1.5% AUM
  • $500K-$1M 1.25% AUM
  • $1-2M          1% AUM
  • $2-3M          0.9% AUM
  • $3-4M          0.8% AUM
  • $4-5M          0.7% AUM
  • >$5M           Negotiable

Tom Martin doesn’t know of a single investor with the firm who is actually paying the 1.75% rate, however.  Rates are significantly cheaper if they’re managing 401K dollars for your practice.  I think it is good that the rates get cheaper as your assets increase, but in my opinion, the rates start too high and they get cheaper too slowly.  It obviously doesn’t take 2 1/2 times as much effort to manage $3.6 Million as $900K.  You have to consider what you’re getting though.  Keep in mind that many “DFA Advisors” simply won’t take you until you get to $500K or $1M, and then just charge you 1% of AUM.  At least this way you can get right into your desired portfolio even with just a few thousand dollars right out of residency.  A highly-paid physician with a high savings rate won’t spend that many years paying more than 1%.  Fees are also generally paid “pre-tax,” either as a business expense or from tax-deferred accounts, further reducing the fee.

So, all in, a physician with his insurance in place and a $500K portfolio might be paying $2K a year in planning fees and $6250 in portfolio management fees for a total of $8250.  Does that seem like a lot of money?  It does to me, that’s why I do both my own financial planning and investment management.  But if I actually assigned my usual hourly rate to the time I spend doing this stuff, it might look like a bargain.  Unlike me, most doctors don’t see personal finance and investing as a hobby that is a fun way to spend their time.  Although a relatively high percentage of this blog’s readers are do-it-yourself investors, the truth is that most doctors desire to and probably should hire a GOOD advisor to help them.  I don’t have a problem with doctors paying a fair, fully-disclosed fee for good advice and good service.  I’m convinced that Larson Financial is giving good advice and will leave it up to the reader as to whether they feel it is being offered at a fair price for them personally.  Larson is a great solution for the busy doctor who has little time, interest, or expertise in financial matters.