What Is Investment Management, and Do You Need It?

Investment management is the process of building a portfolio of stocks, bonds and other investments based on your goals. You can hire an investment management service, or manage your own portfolio.
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Hiring someone to manage your investment portfolio may sound like a service only the wealthy need — or can afford. But investment management is about making the most of your money: No matter how much you have in your portfolio, it’s important to ensure every dollar is optimized. An investment manager can help you do that.

Investment management definition

Investment management is the creation and overall care of an investment portfolio. Investment management often includes suggesting an investment strategy, buying and selling investments and managing the portfolio's asset allocation. Investment management can be done on your own or with an advisor's help.

» Need some help? Check out our roundup of the best wealth advisors

Investment management, portfolio management and asset management are all terms that refer to services that provide oversight of a client’s investments. Investment management isn't just about managing the specific assets in a client's portfolio, it includes ensuring the portfolio continues to align with the client's goals, risk tolerance and financial priorities.

What does an investment manager do?

An investment manager is a person or company that manages an investment portfolio on behalf of a client. Investment managers come up with an investment strategy to meet a client's goals, then use that strategy to decide how to divide the client's portfolio among different types of investments, such as stocks and bonds. The manager buys and sells those investments for the client as needed, and monitors the portfolio's overall performance.

Some investment managers are also financial planners, providing holistic financial advice on topics like cash-flow management, taxes, insurance and estate planning. Others work with high-net-worth clients to address their financial planning and investment management needs, as well as coordinate the services of other professionals, such as lawyers and accountants. This is often referred to as wealth management. Wealth management offers more areas of expertise, such as estate and tax planning, accounting services and retirement planning in addition to investment management. If you need a hand choosing investments for your IRA, investment management could be helpful. Wealth management would probably be overkill.

» Not sure what kind of help you need? Learn more about the different types of financial advisors.

How do investment management services work?

Most investment management firms require you to set up an investment account with them or at a brokerage they use. If you have existing accounts at other firms — such as IRAs, taxable brokerage accounts or retirement plan assets still in a former employer’s plan — they will help you transfer your money.

The manager’s investment decisions are based on a variety of factors, starting with your savings goals (retirement, education, a large purchase) and time frame. You’ll also answer questions to help them assess your risk tolerance, or your ability to endure swings in investment returns and stock market fluctuations. Market conditions, historical performance, tax efficiency and investment fees also inform the manager’s investing strategy.

When to hire an investment manager

It’s common to end up with a collection of investment accounts — a few IRAs, a couple of old 401(k)s from former jobs, that brokerage account you opened after you saw a Warren Buffett documentary. Investment management can streamline your financial life by consolidating accounts from different firms under one roof, making it easier to execute a cohesive investment plan.

But even if your investments are held within one account, investment management is helpful if:

  • You’re not confident about making investing decisions on your own (or want a second opinion).

  • You want someone else to keep tabs on your portfolio and rebalance assets when the mix drifts from the original formula.

  • You’re dealing with complex issues, such as an inheritance, retirement-income planning, tax strategies or legacy planning.

  • You want an advisor to help manage other financial needs, like cash-flow planning, insurance or debt management, in addition to portfolio management.

  • You've had a major life event (such as getting married or having a child) or a significant change in income.

How to find an investment management service

Whether you want investment management only or someone to advise you on every aspect of your financial life, there’s a service for you. We outline the typical costs associated with several types of investment management services below.

Robo-advisors

Robo-advisors are a simple, low-cost solution for all types of investors. A sophisticated computer algorithm determines the ideal investment mix of stocks, bonds and cash based on information you provide about your investment goals and risk tolerance.

Robo-advisors are less expensive than working with a traditional investment manager, and many have low or no account minimums, making them well-suited for beginner investors.

Cost: Robo-advisors typically charge 0.25% to 0.50% of the assets the service manages for you.

Online financial planning services

Your investments are only one part of your financial life. As life goes on, money management grows more complex. Online financial planning services provide guidance that includes investment management but extends into other services as well.

Some services offer you access to a team of financial advisors; others offer a level of service that closely mimics what you’d get from a traditional brick-and-mortar-based financial advisory firm: In addition to low-cost investment management, customers are paired with a dedicated human financial advisor who develops a financial plan and helps them execute the advice.

Cost: A service that offers you access to a team of financial advisors will typically cost less, with fees that start at 0.30% of assets under management. A more holistic financial planning service that provides a dedicated certified financial planner, or CFP, will charge either a flat annual fee (generally starting around $400).

Personal CapitalFacet Wealth and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are some of NerdWallet's recommended online planning services that also offer investment management. (Personal Capital, Facet Wealth and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services are NerdWallet advertising partners.)

Traditional financial advisors

Traditional financial advisors provide portfolio management coupled with financial planning services. Clients meet face-to-face with a dedicated financial planner to discuss their overall financial picture and inventory assets and liabilities. You can hire a financial advisor to craft an overall financial plan or one to achieve specific goals, such as investing for higher education. The office may outsource some of the tasks (and some even use robo-advisors to manage customer investment accounts).

Cost: We recommend a fee-only financial advisor, which means they don't earn commissions from the investments they use, which could introduce a conflict of interest. The cost of a financial advisor varies, but most charge an assets under management, or AUM, fee — typically 1%; more for small accounts and less for larger ones. Other advisors charge clients by the hour or an annual retainer.

Frequently asked questions

Becoming an investment manager — or starting an investment management firm — can be a lucrative career move. Financial advisors earned a median of $89,330 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the field is growing: The BLS predicts a 4% growth rate between 2019 and 2029.

Investment managers typically have a bachelor’s degree and can benefit from earning a master’s degree or a particular financial certification, like the certified financial planner designation. Investment managers often need to register with either their state or the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, depending on their assets under management.

Managing a client’s investments has its challenges: Investment management isn’t a precise science, and often even the pros fail to accurately predict the market. Despite this, a client’s anger may be directed at their advisor in times of financial turmoil, especially if their portfolio takes a dive. The investment management industry is also facing new challenges from the rise of robo-advisors, which offer a less expensive alternative to traditional investment management.

An investment is something you buy in the hopes that it will increase in value over time. There are many common types of investment vehicles, such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Investors usually buy these investments and hold onto them for a long time, benefiting if their value goes up. Of course, investors can also lose money if their investment’s value goes down. Some investments (such as bonds) have less risk of losing value than others (such as stocks).

Other things can be investments too. Many people think of their home as an investment, though not everyone makes money on a home sale — like other investments, homes can also lose value. Large purchases that depreciate in value over time, such as vehicles, are generally not considered investments.

The riskiest investments often have a very low level of diversification, are based on market speculation or do not have a proven track record. Some examples of highly risky investments include options, penny stocks and futures. Having only a small portion of your portfolio dedicated to risky investments can help mitigate risk to your overall portfolio, especially if the rest of your portfolio is made up of diversified investments such as mutual funds.

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