From expertise to execution, find the right broker

Do you want a firm to take control or just someone to carry out your decisions? Simon Read explains the different services on offer

The Popular view of a stockbroker is someone who earns big money, wears striped shirts and yells "buy" and "sell" down the telephone before heading off to the golf course or the nearest glitzy wine bar with a bunch of get-rich-quick clients.

The reality is rather different. Life in the dealing rooms may have an air of excitement but for the most part it's like almost any other office - and managing other people's money is a serious business.

After more than a decade of privatisations, PEPs and personal pension plans, many of us now own shares. Many small investors make their own decisions, using a stockbroker simply to carry out the transaction. This is known as an execution-only service. The high-street players - the banks and building societies - and the telephone brokers have moved into this area with aggressive pricing and marketing, which means that you can now buy or sell shares at a cost of little more than pounds 10.

These services are primarily aimed at people with privatisation shares to sell, those who want to buy into popular new share issues or those who manage their own portfolios. The broker does not offer any advice.

For advice or skilled portfolio management most people will turn to the traditional stockbroking firms. The good stockbroker will ask a number of questions - a process known as fact-finding. The firm will want to understand your individual circumstances and your specific requirements.

If you have ethical considerations, good brokers will also take them into account - but it's worth discussing this early on to ensure that your broker is sympathetic to your needs.

Many traditional stockbrokers do operate an execution-only service but their mainstream business is in advisory and discretionary portfolio management.

An advisory service will give you a degree of portfolio management but still leave you to make decisions, based on the professional advice you receive.

If you are not interested in where or how your funds are invested - but simply want to collect the profits - you should opt for full-service discretionary portfolio management. This requires a degree of trust on your part - so you should be completely confident that you and your broker understand your investment objectives.

A discretionary service allows a broker to act quickly on your behalf, which is especially important in times of rapidly moving markets. But using a discretionary service should not mean that you lose touch with your investments - brokers will normally send you a contract note for each deal and will provide portfolio valuations and reviews at agreed intervals.

This kind of service has its price and you can pay by commission or fees or a mixture of both. If you pay by commission it means you'll be charged each time you deal, while a fee is generally annual or half-yearly. The minimum commission is generally pounds 20 to pounds 25 per transaction while annual fees will be around 1 per cent of the total portfolio under management. You pay these whatever the outcome.

But choosing a stockbroker to run a discretionary portfolio for you shouldn't be done on price. Find out as much as you can about the firm to get an idea of whether it will suit you. Check what returns the broker has achieved for clients in recent years. Ask what is the average size portfolio it manages; if it's roughly the same as yours then you could be in the right place. Take time to talk about investment strategy - if you can understand why the firm makes certain decisions on your behalf, it will give you more confidence in its ability to meet your needs.

It's also worth asking what else your stockbroker can do for you. These days many will be able to advise you on the whole range of personal finance.

If you have any problems with a stockbroker you can complain to the regulators : the Securities and Futures Authority (SFA) or the Investment Managers' Regulatory Organisation (Imro). Members of both organisations are covered by the Investors' Compensation Scheme.

q For a directory of firms that look after individual investors contact the Association of Private Client Investment Managers and Stockbrokers, 112 Middlesex Street, London E1 7HY.

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