I got an email from Nate, a client, linking to a story about the stock market’s climb. “Is it time to sell?” he asked me. “The stock market is way up.”
If I just tell Nate, “Don’t sell now,” I think I might be missing something.
At a recent conference, Vanguard senior investment analyst Colleen Jaconetti presented research quantifying the value advisers can bring to their clients. According to Vanguard’s research, advisers can boost clients’ annual returns three percentage points — 300 basis points in financial planner jargon. So instead of earning, say, 10% if you invest by yourself, you’d earn 13% working with an adviser.
That got my attention.
Jaconetti got more granular about these 300 basis points. Turns out, much of what I do for clients — determining optimal asset allocations, maximizing tax efficiency, rebalancing portfolios — accounts for about 1.5%, or 150 basis points.
The other 150 basis points, or 1.5%, comes from what Jaconetti called “behavioral coaching.” When she introduced the topic, I sat back in my seat and mentally strapped myself in for a good ride. One hundred fifty basis points, I told myself — this is going to be advanced. Bring it on!
Then she detailed “behavioral coaching.” I’m going to paraphrase here:
“Don’t sell low.”
Don’t sell low? Really? The biggest cliché in the world of finance? That’s worth 150 basis points?
But it isn’t just saying, “Don’t sell low.”
It’s actually that I have the potential to earn my 150 basis points if I can get Nate to avoid selling low. That means I need to change his behavior. Wow. Didn’t I give up trying to change other people’s behavior January 1?
Inspired by Nate and the fact that the stock market is high (or maybe it’s low; the problem is we don’t know), I decided to think like a client might think and do a deeper dive into the research. Why not sell now? Why do people sell low? How can I influence, if not change, client behavior? I’ve got nothing to lose and clients have 1.5% to gain.
One interesting thing I learned in my research: Not everybody sells. In another study, Vanguard reported that 27% of IRA account holders made at least one exchange during the 2008-2012 downturn. In other words, 73% of people didn’t sell.
Current research on investing behavior, called neuroeconomics, includes reams of studies on over-confidence, the recency effect, loss aversion, herding instincts, and other biases that cause people to sell low when they know better.
The question remains, “How do I influence Nate’s behavior?” The financial research ends before that gets answered.
Coincidentally, I recently had a tennis accident that landed me in the emergency room. While outwardly I was calm, cracking lame jokes, inwardly I was freaked out.
Despite my appearance, the medical professionals assumed I was in high anxiety mode, treating me appropriately. The emergency room personnel had specific protocols. Quoting research and approaching panicked people with logic weren’t among them.
They answered my questions with simple sentences and gave me some handouts to look at later.
Selling low is an anxiety issue. And anxiety about the stock market runs on a continuum:
|Client behavior||Don’t notice the market||Mindfully monitor it.||“Stop the pain. I have to sell.”|
That brought me to a plan, which I’m implementing now, to earn the 150 basis points for behavioral coaching.
During normal times, when clients are in the first two boxes, I make sure to reiterate the basics of low-drama investment strategy.
When I get a call from clients in high anxiety mode, however, I follow a protocol I’ve adapted from the World Health Organization’s recommendations for emergency personnel. Seriously. Here’s what to do:
- Listen, show empathy, and be calm;
- Take the situation seriously and assess the degree of risk.
- Ask if the client has done this before. How’d it work out?
- Explore other possibilities. If clients wants to sell at a bad time because they need cash, help them think through alternatives.
- Ask clients about the plan. If they sell now, when are they going to get back in? Where are they going to invest the proceeds?
- Buy time. If appropriate, make non-binding agreements that they won’t sell until a specific date.
- Identify people in clients’ lives they can enlist for support.
What not to do:
- Ignore the situation.
- Say that everything will be all right.
- Challenge the person to go ahead.
- Make the problem appear trivial.
- Give false assurances.
Time for some back-testing. How would this have worked in 2008?
In 2008, Jane, who had recently retired, came to me because her portfolio went down 10%. The broader market was down 30-40%, so I doubt her old adviser was concerned about her. Jane, however, didn’t spend much and had no inspiring plans for her estate. She hated her portfolio going down 10%.
Jane didn’t belong in the market. She didn’t care about models showing CD-only portfolios are riskier. She sold her equity positions. She lost $200,000!
The protocol would have worked great because we could have worked through the questions to get to the root of the problem. Her risk tolerance clearly changed when she retired. She and her adviser hadn’t realized it before the downturn.
Then there was Uncle Larry.
Like a lot of relatives, although he may ask my opinion on financial matters, Larry has miraculously gotten along well without acting on much of it.
Larry is in his 80s and mainly invested in individual stocks. This maximizes his dividends, which he likes. The problem was that his dividends were cut. The foibles of a too-big-to-fail bank were waking him up at 3:00 a.m. Should he sell?
When he called, I suggested that Uncle Larry look at the stock market numbers less and turn off the news that was causing him anxiety. I reassured him that he wouldn’t miss anything important. We discussed taking some losses to help him with his tax situation.
Although he listened, I didn’t get the feeling this advice was for him. Actually, the emergency protocol would predict this; the protocol doesn’t include me giving advice!
Uncle Larry and I discussed his plan. He ended up staying in the market because he couldn’t come up with an alternative. He also thought, “If I had invested in a more traditional way, I’d probably have ended up at the same point that I am at now anyway. So this is okay.”
He’s now thrilled he didn’t sell and, at 87, is still 100% in individual stocks.
Bridget Sullivan Mermel helps clients throughout the country with her comprehensive fee-only financial planning firm based in Chicago. She’s the author of the upcoming book More Money, More Meaning. Both a certified public accountant and a certified financial planner, she specializes in helping clients lower their tax burden with tax-smart investing.