Brokers not just for the rich
But make sure you shop around

The Canadian Press

You're not thrilled with the return on Canada Savings Bonds. And you're definitely not happy with the yield these days on GICs.

You suspect you could do a lot better with your hard-earned cash, especially when you see new records set almost daily on the Toronto Stock Exchange. But you wouldn't even know where to start.

It's probably time to get yourself a broker.

Many people never even consider hiring a stock broker, or investment adviser as they're now more often called, figuring they're mainly for fancy folk with six figures to invest. Wrong. Experts say anyone with even a small savings is a potential candidate.

"The average portfolio profile of a Canadian investor is $5,000" says Dominic Jones, of the Investment Learning Centre of Canada, run by the Canadian Securities Institute.

No matter how much you have to invest, the last thing you want to do is end up up with some super-sales type who pushes you into mediocre investments, eats up your savings in fees and makes you feel about two inches high whenever you try to question them. The best way to protect yourself is to find a broker through a referral.

"Ask your friends and family first for references," said Jones. "Are they using someone? What has their experience been with that person?"

If you come up empty, you should call at least three reputable firms. Ask to speak to the branch manager. Explain your situation whether you're a young investor with $7,500 or a retired person with $75,000 to invest. Ask them to suggest someone appropriate, someone with a similar clientele.

Then interview all three. See who makes you the most comfortable, who explains things well. And don't be afraid to ask questions.

"It may seem embarrassing but ask about their education, you're looking for someone who's tried to upgrade themselves on a regular basis," said Jones.

"You should also be asking right up front what fees they charge, `How do you get paid?' Generally, it's on a commission basis. Shop around."

Once you settle on someone, they'll sit down with you to fill out a Know Your Client form. It asks all about your investment philosophy and what level of risk you feel comfortable with.

The two of you will also discuss whether you plan to be aggressive with buying and selling, or prefer to buy stocks and hold on to them for a long time.

Your broker will use all that information to draw up suggestions for what investments are suitable.

A few days later you'll get a proposed portfolio. It will likely have a mix of mutual funds, common shares, preferred shares and bonds.

Look it over carefully. Take a few days yourself. If your broker is recommending a stock, you may want more information about the company before deciding it's OK.

Ask for a copy of the brokerage's research report. It will tell you what their analyst -- someone who studies that company -- thinks of the stock's prospects over the next few months.

"It will help you understand the product you're buying," said Ira Katzin, an investment adviser with RBC Dominion Securities. "How many times do you go buy a car sight unseen? Or a pair of shoes? You try them on first."

Don't worry if you don't like some of the suggestions in the portfolio being recommended. Or if you feel something is too risky. You don't have to go ahead with that part.

But it's vital that if anything at all makes you uneasy, you say so.

"Whose money is this anyways? In many cases, that money can't be replaced if it's lost," Katzin said. "If you don't like what they have planned, you must speak up."

Always take your time to mull over each recommendation. If you don't agree, say so and ask for another suggestion. If you feel > they're making -- or pushing for -- too many trades, be honest and tell them to cut back.

And Katzin says if worst comes to worst, and after a few months with your new adviser you feel they're not for you, it's not the end of the world.

"You call your branch manager and say: `He and I aren't clicking. Can you please suggest somebody else that more adequately meets my investment objectives, or is more personable, or is more my style?'

"Don't feel embarrassed. Definitely not."

And don't feel embarrassed to speak up if you spot a mistake. It happens. Just ask the broker to correct it. Most times it will be fixed without delay.

But if they refuse, write the branch manager a letter outlining the problem and ask that it be dealt with. Keep a copy for yourself.

If you still aren't satisfied within a reasonable period call the Investment Dealers Association or the stock exchange, both of which investigate investor complaints.