If you rely on a financial advisory firm to manage your assets, how do you know if you’re getting what you pay for?

We think the answer to this question comes down to several specific points, one of which (an important one, but by no means the only one) is investment performance. If your advisor hasn’t at least outperformed broad market indexes by the amount of his or her advisory fees, ask yourself whether it might have been simpler to invest in broad index funds on your own.

But if you do need (or prefer) to use an advisor, what’s the best way to judge the value of the service you’re getting?

Staying the course

First, you may need to broaden your view of value. It’s not limited solely to absolute performance generated in any one period. Consider not only performance over time, but also whether your advisor added value by encouraging you to stay with a sound investment plan and cautioned you against chasing performance, regardless of market conditions. We’ve all been nervous about how we will make up what we lost during the 2008–2009 market downturn. The almost irresistible urge to change your asset allocation and take a chance on riskier investments—or to pull out entirely and “lock in loss”—should have been successfully deterred by your advisor.

A solid framework

Second, consider whether your advisor has constructed your portfolio from the top down rather than bottom-up. Left on their own, many investors work from the bottom up, starting with manager and fund selection. This is very difficult to accomplish because of the diversity of available managers. It’s generally not enough to just pick a fund according to its “style box” (like “large-cap growth,” for example), since funds within a classification can have very different characteristics. Repeating this process several times in different categories could ultimately result in a disappointing aggregate portfolio.

Your advisor should be able to explain the asset allocation framework he or she developed for you. Listen for your advisor’s expectations of risk and return, and an explanation of how those expectations are tied directly to your goals. Your asset allocation should start at the broad level (stocks, bonds, cash), and then, if you’re investing in mutual funds, move on to actively managed vs. index funds, or a combination of both. Your advisor should also be able to explain your portfolio’s stock sub-asset allocation—market capitalization, growth vs. value, and domestic vs. international. For bonds, he or she should be able to talk about maturity, duration, and credit quality. And if your portfolio weightings differ from the broader-market weightings for a particular asset class, you should know this—and why.

(By the way, this explanation shouldn’t take your advisor more than 10 to 15 minutes. One lesson everyone should have taken to heart over the last two years is that if you can’t understand what you’re invested in, you probably shouldn’t be in it.)

Location, location, location

Finally, your advisor should be very mindful of asset location by positioning assets between taxable and tax-advantaged accounts with the objective of maximizing your portfolio’s expected after-tax return. The extra return you achieve on an after-tax basis without increasing portfolio risk may be incremental in any given year, but it can make a big difference when compounded over time.

If your advisory firm has prevented you from making ill-advised moves, constructed a reasonable, understandable allocation, and positioned your assets with your tax picture in mind, they have added value. Start there, and then look at relative performance.

Note: All investments are subject to risk. Investments in bond funds are subject to interest rate, credit, and inflation risk. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.