A Hierarchy of Advisor Value

I talk often with lots of advisors of all sorts and from a wide variety of firms. They are profoundly disillusioned an astonishingly high amount of the time. When the markets are strong, they are disappointed that they didn’t capture enough of the upside. When the markets are weak, they are apoplectic that they didn’t avoid the downturn. When markets are sideways, they’re just plain frustrated. When they try to anticipate these movements they usually fail and when they don’t – a very rare event indeed – their next moves inevitably don’t keep up the good work. They hate seeming to start from scratch every day and living from transaction to transaction, dependent upon the machinations of markets for survival.

This profound disillusionment is well-earned, of course, and is predicated upon three primary problem areas: execution; expectation; and erroneous priorities. The basis for each of these problems can be established in surprisingly short order.

In terms of execution, the trade ideas they offer rarely turn out well and the performance provided by money managers, when they go that route, almost never meet expectations such that it’s not unfair to say that much of the money management business has been an abject failure pretty much across-the-board, even for the mega-rich. Poor investor behavior makes that dreadful performance even worse — we trade too often, at the wrong times and into the wrong instruments. We chase returns via managers, sectors and trades that have been hot only to be disappointed when mean reversion inevitably sets in. Our inflated expectations make matters worse still because investors expect outperformance as a matter of course and investment managers tell them to expect it, implicitly and explicitly. That’s what makes the sale after all.

Erroneous priorities include a failure to manage to personal needs, goals and risk tolerances as well as “plans” that change with every market movement. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that clients with huge appetites and tolerance for risk when markets are rallying frequently want to go to cash at the first sign of trouble. At the advisor level, the priority problem is even more fundamental and encompasses each of these problem areas. Much of what tries to pass as “financial advice” is actually glorified (or even not-so-glorified) stock-picking. In my experience, most advisors and their clients wrongly think that the advisor’s primary function is to pick good investment vehicles.

Advisors are well aware of the failures of the money management business, of course, as well as the limitations of a transactional business model. That’s a big reason why their disillusionment is so existential. They have been let down again and again by the idea that they have (finally!) come up with a formula for success only for reality to crush those promises. Even worse, and consistent with that conundrum, a 2012 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that financial advisors reinforce behavioral biases and misconceptions – the problems outlined above – in ways that serve the advisors’ interests rather than those of their clients.

Still, many of these advisors keep hoping against hope. They routinely tell me that if they proposed a data-driven, evidence-based approach with their clients that actually had a reasonable chance for success, their clients wouldn’t perceive a need their services. Not so coincidentally, that’s a big reason why so many advisors are terrified by the proposed Department of Labor fiduciary rule with respect to retirement accounts. And that’s why the Dilbert cartoon reproduced below about index funds (one possible data-driven approach but hardly the only one) is so wickedly funny.

Hierarchy 1

Proper advisor priorities begin with a recognition of what is important and what is achievable. That’s why I have created this hierarchy of advisor value, which was developed for a presentation I have been giving to groups of advisors. Hierarchy of Advisor Value (wide)(ATM)

Managing to this hierarchy won’t make the markets any less infuriating, but doing so will make the financial advice business much more fulfilling and gratifying. It can even make that business more lucrative, at least over the longer-term. Simply put, it will require carefully and truly putting the client’s interests first, even when the client doesn’t see it that way.  Continue reading

A New Kind of Investment Outlook

Outlook212015 Outlook2014-2015

Forecasting Follies

Nobody’s perfect.

That universal truth is easy to prove, of course, and no sane person would deny it. Indeed, even the smartest of us are far from immune even in our areas of expertise when we’re actively trying to do our best. A famous study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded that up to 100,000 people die each year due to readily preventable medical errors. Since physicians are among the smartest and most highly trained professionals imaginable, being stupid is obviously not a prerequisite for making mistakes, even horrible mistakes.

It’s also easy to prove how error-prone we are in the investment world. Every year I take a look at various predictions for the year that’s ending and they are uniformly lousy in the aggregate. Moreover, when somebody does get one right or almost right, that performance quality is not repeated in subsequent years.

2014 provided more of the same in this regard. The median S&P 500 forecast among 50 top-end investment experts called for a year-end level of 1,950, up 6.44 percent on the year. As noted above, the actual closing level was 2,059, up 11.39 percent, essentially five full percentage points higher. That’s a miss of monumental proportions.

Last January, analysts called for far higher oil prices, firmer inflation, a worse jobless rate and higher interest rates. The exact opposite happened in each of those areas. The consensus crude oil price forecast was nearly $95 per barrel (up a bit) and 72 out of 72 economists were anticipating higher interest rates and lower bond prices. Advisor magazine reported that bond market sentiment was utterly bearish, leading pundits to recommend that investors limit their bond holdings to the shortest maturities in 2014. Meanwhile, 30-year U.S. Treasury bonds returned nearly 30 percent. Last April, Peter Schiff of EuroPacific Capital made the bold prediction that the “Federal Reserve’s quantitative-easing program will push gold to $5,000 an ounce.” The shiny yellow metal closed 2014 at just under $1,200, 80 percent or so lower than Schiff’s target.

Alleged experts miss on their forecasts and miss by a lot. Let’s stipulate that these alleged experts are highly educated, vastly experienced, and examine the vagaries of the markets pretty much all day, every day. But it remains a virtual certainty that they will be wrong often and often spectacularly wrong. On account of hindsight bias, we tend to see past events as having been predictable and perhaps inevitable. Accordingly, we think we can extrapolate from them into the future. But the sad fact is that we can’t buy past results. Continue reading

The Advice Business Needs a Serious Fix

RES_0614_AnnuityAnalytics-resize-600x338The latest edition of Research magazine is out it includes my monthly column, as usual. The set-up follows.

We all recognize that there are a number of areas in life where the purported answer we receive depends almost entirely upon the person to whom the question is asked. If you ask a Chevy salesman for a car recommendation, it isn’t likely that you will be pitched a Ford.

After a political debate, the various support teams race into the breach in order to “spin” the event in their favor. Each respective “good guy” is deemed to have done better than expected while the “bad guy” is said to have been disappointing. Of course my candidate won.

When The New York Times asks someone already on record attacking what she sees as Duke University’s poisonous athletic entitlement culture to review a new book on the Duke lacrosse case that tries to make that very case, it is hardly surprising that she finds it “a masterwork of reporting and a devastating critique of a university that has lost its way.” When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But if you ask a real professional for professional advice, you rightly expect a different sort of answer, one that doesn’t differ based upon whom you ask. If you were to visit 10 doctors for a broken leg, you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) expect their treatment protocols to vary very much. You rightly expect advice that is real and true, advice we can rightly describe as “unbiased.”

That’s why it’s so disappointing that so many financial services clients routinely get nailed when they seek financial advice from an industry that badly wants to be seen as professional. We do not have even a rough outline of what our best practices should be in a wide variety of common situations.

If you were to ask 10 financial advisors (broadly defined) for help in any number of given situations, their advice and recommendations would almost surely differ wildly.

As always, I encourage you toi read the full piece and the entire issue.

The Advice Business Needs a Serious Fix

Top Ten Benefits Of Financial Advisors, Besides Investment Returns

Thank YouAs I have noted here many times, I am a big fan of Michael Kitces and his blog, Nerd’s Eye View.  If you aren’t a regular reader of it, you should be.  Michael is my “go to” guy for financial planning issues and concerns.  He is as talented and knowledgeable as they come.  That’s why I was so pleased that he asked me (unlike yesterday) to allow him to use my Financial Advice: A Top Ten List as a guest blog post.  I was honored and (of course) agreed.  The link is below.  Thank you Michael.

Top Ten Benefits Of Financial Advisors, Besides Investment Returns

Math Suckage and Dave Ramsey

Dave RamseyDave Ramsey has added further evidence to the pile already in place attesting to how bad we are generally at math and probability.  Sadly, he’s no better than the mass of us.

Let me hasten to emphasize up-front that Dave has done some fabulous work by helping many, many people to get out of debt, stay out of debt, budget effectively, live frugally and save aggressively.  But when it comes to investing and to doing math, he is simply out of his depth.  Let’s start with the backstory. Continue reading

Senior Protection

Al DavisAs part of my Financial Advice: A Top Ten List yesterday, I emphasized the value that an advisor can provide by protecting seniors from making mistakes or being defrauded.  That (summary) point deserves some additional commentary.

As I noted, research confirms what most of us have seen among our families and friends.  Simply put, the ability to make effective financial decisions declines with age, often rapidly.  Continue reading

Financial Advice: A Top Ten List

Dilbert - Index FundsYesterday, while I was otherwise engaged, Josh Brown threw some fuel on the active v. passive fire:

“Active investors, in the meantime, really can’t say anything. There isn’t a single empirical datapoint backing up the idea that an investor is financially better off paying someone to pick their stocks for them. There are other considerations in favor of active managers – mostly emotional ones involving elbow-rubbing, fancy lunches and alerts – but we’ll leave those aside for now.”

Putting aside the actual substantive argument (my views, including why I advocate some active management, are here and here), advisors routinely tell me that if they used index funds, their clients wouldn’t need their services, consistent with the Dilbert cartoon above.  I disagree vehemently.  Here’s my top ten list of reasons why. Continue reading

Unintended Consequence

Unintended ConsequenceLIMRA recently surveyed 2,000 Americans to gauge their knowledge of basic financial and retirement topics.  Not surprisingly, the respondents didn’t do very well.

However, the study did disclose that those who work with a financial professional were more likely to have a higher level of financial literacy. More specifically, consumers who use advisors are more likely to save for retirement (78 percent versus 43 percent), are likely to save at a higher rate (61 percent versus 38 percent) and feel more confident that their savings will last throughout their retirement years (71 percent versus 43 percent).  Even so, 8 out of 10 respondents say they only would pay $100 or less for financial advice. Continue reading

Sunday Sermon

do well do goodI’m going to preach today.  Don’t say you weren’t warned.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…. (1 Timothy 6:10)

Most of us are aware of this text, at least conceptually.For those of us in the money business, its warning is particularly poignant.  Is money your motivator or merely a tool?  Why do so many corporate executives pay themselves obscene amounts of money, often to the great detriment of their firms?  Because money is how they keep score.  I suggest keeping score in other ways.  What do your spouse and kids think of you?  What do your employees think of you?  What does your community think of you? Doing good is the best way to do well. Continue reading