MONEY

Keeping Calm When the Market Goes South

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A financial adviser shares tips for easing anxiety in a rollercoaster market.

“It’s been too good for too long,” my client said.

She had every right to feel suspicious. With the markets appearing to be at an all-time high, she was justified in having that waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop instinct. I understood her desire to tread cautiously.

The majority of baby boomers are at a crossroad in their lives: They want to retire, they should retire, and it’s time to retire. But they are extremely nervous nowadays about the markets’ record-breaking levels.

Over my many years of experience working with clients in this situation — they’re ready to retire, but they can’t quite pull the trigger — I’ve seen how scary it can be to make that potentially irrevocable decision. What if markets go down? Should they have waited? What if this, what if that?

It is human nature to question ourselves at times like these, but then again, times are always a bit uncertain.

I have found that the most important step in keeping clients calm in a volatile market is to have an investment education meeting regarding their risk level and market volatility at the start of our working relationship and routinely thereafter. Our clients are actively involved in assessing their own risk tolerance and choosing a portfolio objective that suits their long-term goals.

We also want to set the right expectation of our management so our clients know that we never sell out of the market just because things are starting to go bad. Market timing has not proven to be a successful growth strategy, which is why we work with our clients upfront to establish a portfolio and game plan they can live with.

Unfortunately, the inevitable will happen: The markets will go south, and clients will panic. How can financial planners ease clients’ anxiety? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Discuss defensive tactics. Show clients the dollar amounts they have in bonds and other fixed income. Translate that into the number of years’ worth of personal spending that is not in the stock market. Have an honest conversation about if that number will be enough over the long-term.
  • Leave emotion out of it. Talk to them about the danger of selling at the wrong time and illustrate how emotional decisions tend to do more harm than good. Remind them of how quickly markets can turn around after a big drop. It’s been known to happen on more than one occasion, so share your knowledge of these experiences. Let them know that you don’t want them to miss the upside.
  • Look at the positives. Reinvesting dividends and capital gains? Are clients making monthly contributions to a 401(k) or other investment accounts? Remind your clients that when markets are down they are buying at lower prices, which can work well for their strategy over the longer term. A down market also often makes investing easier and less frightening to buy, so that might be the time to purchase any equities they once worried were too expensive.

The markets will always have some level of volatility. As an adviser providing regular guidance and support, you want to do everything you can to help clients not overreact to the daily news, hard as it might be. Urge them to continue to think long-term. It may not always be easy to see, but today’s bad news may just be a client’s big buy opportunity, and they won’t want to miss that!

———-

Marilyn Plum, CFP, is director of portfolio management and co-owner of Ballou Plum Wealth Advisors, a registered investment adviser in Lafayette, Calif. She is also a registered representative with LPL Financial. With over 30 years of experience in the financial advisory business, Plum is well-known for financial planning expertise and client education on wealth preservation, retirement, and portfolio management.

MONEY Aging

Handling Family Finances When Dad Is Losing His Grip

family of piggy banks
Sean McDermid/Getty Images

When the person in charge of family finances has dementia or Alzheimer's disease, a difficult transition is required.

A client’s daughter told me recently that she was beginning to notice her father having difficulties with memory and comprehension.

I had known that her father’s health had deteriorated somewhat, but he still seemed relatively sharp mentally up until the last conversation I’d had with him, around Christmas time.

The client’s wife has never been very involved in the family finances, and his son lives out of town. The daughter has been playing caretaker for some time. Now it seemed we needed to have a more in-depth conversation with everyone involved regarding family finances, longevity and what happens after the patriarch has passed away or can’t function as financial head of the household.

The loss of a loved one is unbearable, but far worse is losing a loved one to cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. These decisions may cause personality changes. In some cases, a client may become belligerent or paranoid, especially when dealing with financial issues.

It is always preferable to have a client himself or herself acknowledge that something is wrong, but this may not always be the case. For this reason, financial advisers need to have a plan in place to address situations such as this one.

The first step is to get the family involved. Most of the time, the spouse or children will already be aware of the issue.

In this particular case, I could not discuss financial details with the daughter without a financial power of attorney. Fortunately, we were able to schedule a time for father, mother and daughter to meet and discuss family finances.

What if someone refuses to admit that he is losing his mental acuity? We dealt with this a few years back with another client. He was going through a divorce at the time — a process which may have either contributed to, or resulted from, his mental decline. We ended up being a part of an intervention involving the client, his children, his business partner and his pastor. The pastor referred him to a psychiatrist; luckily, the client pursued treatment that helped.

The key to handling many of these situations is having a ready stable of referable professionals in all aspects of life. In addition to the colleagues we deal with on a regular basis, such as lawyers and accountants, it is helpful to have contacts in the arenas of medicine and psychology.

Solid and consistent documentation is a standard in our industry, but it becomes absolutely imperative when dealing with cognitively questionable clients. Keeping communication records protects everyone involved and can go a long way to explaining client actions to family members if they are unaware of the problem.

Things don’t always go so smoothly. In some situations, you must fire the client. We have had to have these tough conversations in the past. It would be nice to say that we are always able to help facilitate a changing of the guard, but many of these personality issues are beyond our control. When cutting ties, it is important to do it with an in-person meeting. We’re honor-bound to do what’s best for the client, but it is also important to protect our practice. If we are unable to make progress, it may be best for clients to find someone who can better help them.

I’m very thankful the daughter came to me, rather than my having to reach out and have what could have been an unpleasant conversation. At this point we have now gathered financial powers of attorney and reviewed updated wills and trusts, coordinating with the family attorney. The mother and daughter are much more aware of the family financial situation and are not nearly as fearful about the future. I expect the daughter will take a more active role in the management of the family’s finances. We want to make sure that everyone involved is aware of, and on board with, the transition.

———-

Joe Franklin, CFP, is founder and president of Franklin Wealth Management, a registered investment advisory firm in Hixson, Tenn. A 20-year industry veteran, he also writes the Franklin Backstage Pass blog. Franklin Wealth Management provides innovative advice for business-minded professionals, with a focus on intergenerational planning.

MONEY Financial Planning

Financial Advice Is Good, but Emotional Well-Being Is Better

On the surface, good financial planners help you manage your money. Dig down deeper, though, and they're improving your emotional life.

On the surface, comprehensive financial planners provide advice and services in areas such as investments, retirement, cash flow, and asset protection.

We need to drill deeper, however, to get at a planning firm’s core purpose. After exploring this question over recent months, my staff and I have agreed that our core purpose is to transform the financial and emotional well-being of people. That’s the part of our work that gets us out of bed in the morning.

Here’s a closer look at the three key words of that purpose:

  • Transform: To achieve long-term financial health, people often need to transform their relationship with money by making permanent changes in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. An example of transformation might be someone learning to reframe a money script that has blocked their ability to save for the future.
  • Well-being: This is a multidimensional word that includes financial, emotional, and physical aspects of people’s lives. Our purpose focuses on both the financial and emotional aspects. Since some 90% of all financial decisions are made emotionally, separating financial and emotional well-being is almost impossible.
  • People: By referring to “people” rather than “clients,” we acknowledge that, in order to foster transformation and well-being for our clients, we also need to be concerned about the well-being of all the members of our staff.

Once a firm has defined its core purpose — the “what” — the next step is to create a framework of principles to accomplish that purpose. This is the “how” that guides the operations of the company. The principles might be something like the following:

We…

  • Put clients first.
  • Guide people to reach a destination in an unfamiliar area.
  • Give sound advice and creative solutions.
  • Constantly educate ourselves.
  • Practice what we preach.
  • Are serial innovators.

Finally, behind the “what” and “how” of what a firm does is the “why.” These are the core values, the touchstone that brings everyone in the company together and forms the basis of the company’s culture. These values are non-negotiable. Even though a company’s purpose or principles may change over time, the values will stay the same. Core values might include:

  • Trust. Our work and personal interactions are based on real, unquestionable evidence, reliability, and trustworthiness.
  • Unbiased Advocacy. We are defenders, supporters, and interceders on behalf of our clients and one another.
  • Well-Being. Everything we do is in support of achieving and maintaining, for our clients and one another, a state of being happy, healthy, and prosperous.
  • Continuous Improvement. We focus on improving our processes, our client experience, and ourselves.

In defining the core purpose for a comprehensive financial planning firm, it’s essential to appreciate the importance of both financial health and the well-being it supports. One can’t have well-being without the financial means to support physical health and emotional happiness.

This is why our firm defines its purpose as transforming people’s financial and emotional well-being. This core purpose is based on the belief that comprehensive financial planning goes beyond building financial independence. It also helps clients and staff members change destructive money behaviors, clarify goals, and achieve the dreams that represent happiness to them. In the broadest sense, real financial planning offers investment advice that supports people’s investment in their own well-being.

———-

Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the former president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY financial advice

Even a “Fiduciary” Financial Adviser Can Rip You Off If You Don’t Know These 3 Things

man in suit with briefcase stuffed with bills
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

After years of fits and starts, the move to require brokers and other financial advisers to act as fiduciaries—essentially making them put their clients’ interests first—seems to be gaining traction again. Witness President Obama’s recent speech at AARP on the topic. Whether a fiduciary mandate eventually comes to pass or not, here are three things you should know if you’re working with—or thinking of hiring—an adviser bound by the fiduciary standard.

1. Fiduciary status doesn’t guarantee honesty, or competence. The idea behind compelling financial advisers to act in their client’s best interest is that doing so will help eliminate a variety of dubious practices and outright abuses, such as pushing high-cost or otherwise inappropriate investments that do more to boost the adviser’s income than the size of an investor’s nest egg. And perhaps a rule or law requiring advisers to act as fiduciaries when dispensing advice or counseling consumers about investments will achieve that noble aim.

But you would be foolish to count on it. Fact is, no rule or standard can prevent an adviser from taking advantage of clients or, for that matter, prevent an unscrupulous one from using the mantle of fiduciary status to lull clients into a false sense of security. As a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff had a fiduciary duty to his clients. Clearly, that didn’t stop him from ripping them off.

Fiduciary or no, you should thoroughly vet any adviser before signing on. You should also assure that any money the adviser is investing or overseeing is held by an independent trustee, and stipulate that the adviser himself should not have unrestricted access to your funds.

2. Your interests and an adviser’s never completely align. There’s no way to eliminate all conflicts of interest between you and a financial adviser, even if he’s a fiduciary. If an adviser is compensated through sales commissions, for example, he may be tempted to recommend investments that pay him the most or frequently move your money to generate more commissions. An adviser who eschews commissions in favor of an annual fee—say, 1% or 1.5% of assets under management—might be prone to avoid investments that can reduce the value of assets under his charge, such as immediate annuities. Or, the adviser might charge the same 1% a year as assets increase even if his workload doesn’t.

My advice: Ask the adviser outright how your interests and his may deviate, as well as how he intends to handle conflicts so you’ll be treated fairly. If the adviser says he has no conflicts, move on to one with a more discerning mind.

3. Even with fiduciaries high fees can be an issue. Much of the rationale over the fiduciary mandate centers around protecting investors from bloated investments costs. But don’t assume that just because an adviser is a fiduciary that his fees are a bargain, or that you can’t do better. Advisers can and do charge a wide range of fees for very similar services, and fiduciaries are no exception. So ask for the details—in writing—of the services you’ll receive and exactly what you’ll pay for them. And don’t be shy about negotiating for a lower rate, or taking a proposal to another adviser to see if you can save on fees and expenses.

A fiduciary may have a duty to put your interests first. But that duty doesn’t extend to helping you find a competitor who may offer a better deal. That’s on you.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Should You Claim Social Security Early and Invest It—Or Claim Later For A Higher Benefit?

How To Protect Your Nest Egg From Shifting Government Policies

Your 3 Most Pressing Social Security Questions Answered

MONEY financial advisers

Proposed Retiree Safeguard Is Long Overdue

businessman putting money into his suit jacket pocket
Jan Stromme—Getty Images

The financial-advice regulations pushed by the Obama administration will save retirees, on average, an estimated $12,000.

When you are planning for retirement and ask for advice, whose interest should come first — yours or the financial expert you ask for help?

That is the question at the heart of a Washington debate over the unsexy-sounding term “fiduciary standard.” Simply put, it is a legal responsibility requiring an adviser to put the best interest of a client ahead of all else.

The issue has been kicking around Washington ever since the financial crisis, and it took a dramatic turn on Monday when President Barack Obama gave a very public embrace to an expanded set of fiduciary rules. In a speech at AARP, the president endorsed rules proposed by the Department of Labor that would require everyone giving retirement investment advice to adhere to a fiduciary standard.

The president’s decision to embrace and elevate fiduciary reform into a major policy move is huge.

“The White House knows that this is the most significant action it can take to promote retirement security without legislation,” said Cristina Martin Firvida, director of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP, which has been pushing for adoption of the new fiduciary rules.

Today, financial planning advice comes in two flavors. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) are required to meet a fiduciary standard. Most everyone else you would encounter in this sphere — stockbrokers, broker-dealer representatives and people who sell financial products for banks or insurance companies — adhere to a weaker standard where they are allowed to put themselves first.

“Most people don’t know the difference,” said Christopher Jones, chief investment officer of Financial Engines, a large RIA firm that provides fiduciary financial advice to workers in 401(k) plans.

The difference can be huge for your retirement outcome. A report issued this month by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers found that retirement savers receiving conflicted advice earn about 1 percentage point less in returns, with an aggregate loss of $17 billion annually.

The report pays special attention to the huge market of rollovers from workplace 401(k)s to individual retirement accounts — transfers which often occur when workers retire. Nine of 10 new IRAs are rollovers, according to the Investment Company Institute mutual fund trade group. The CEA report estimates that $300 billion is rolled over annually, and the figures are accelerating along with baby-boom-generation retirements.

The CEA report estimates a worker receiving conflicted advice would lose about 12% of the account’s value over a 30-year period of drawdowns. Since the average IRA rollover for near-retirees is just over $100,000, that translates into a $12,000 loss.

What constitutes conflicted advice? Plan sponsors — employers — have a fiduciary responsibility to act in participants’ best interest. But many small 401(k) plans hire plan recordkeepers and advisers who are not fiduciaries. They are free to pitch expensive mutual funds and annuity products, and industry data consistently shows that small plans have higher cost and lower rates of return than big, well-managed plans.

The rollover market also is rife with abuse, often starting with the advice to roll over in the first place. Participants in well-constructed, low-fee 401(k)s most often would do better leaving their money where it is at retirement; IRA expenses run 0.25 to 0.30 percentage points higher than 401(k)s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Yet the big mutual fund companies blitz savers with cash come-ons, and, as I wrote recently, very few of their “advisers” ask customers the basic questions that would determine whether a rollover is in order.

The industry makes the Orwellian argument that a fiduciary standard will make it impossible for the industry to offer cost-effective assistance to the middle class. But that argument ignores the innovations in technology and business practices that already are shaking up the industry with low-cost advice options.

How effective will the new rules be? The devil will be in the details. Any changes are still a little far off: TheDepartment of Labor is expected to publish the new rules in a few months — a timetable that already is under attack by industry opponents as lacking a duly deliberative process.

Enough, already. This debate has been kicking around since the financial crisis, and an expanded fiduciary is long overdue.

MONEY Savings

Retirement Savers, Don’t Count on Washington to Protect You

Regulations that would protect the interests of retirement savers are finally gaining traction in Washington. But don't pop the champagne corks just yet.

After years of talk about how to protect retirement savers, the White House has gotten behind a Labor Department proposal that would require financial advisers to put clients’ interests ahead of their own.

Consumer champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who says she is not running for president, is doing wall-to-wall media on her view that the government should do more to regulate providers of 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and individual retirement accounts.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case challenging high 401(k) fees.

But savers should not pop champagne corks yet. It takes forever and a day to legislate and regulate in Washington. Even if it ends up on a fast track, the Labor Department’s draft rule is expected to leave a loophole big enough to drive the brokerage industry through.

Labor Department officials have said it would allow retirement advisers to continue selling investments on commission, as long as they disclosed that to clients.

There are several issues involved in regulating retirement investment advice. A primary one is the quality of 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Employers, who have a fiduciary responsibility to provide good plans to their employees, often hand over program management to consultants, who can keep program costs to employers low and jack up investment fees that workers pay when they buy funds in their plans.

A second issue involves the quality of advice investors get on their individual retirement accounts. If the advice is from brokers, there is a possibility investors are being put into mutual funds that carry higher fees than are optimal for them or are in other ways being put into funds that are not right for them. Higher fees may compensate brokers who are paid by commission or may compensate fund companies that spend the extra cash in ways that benefit the brokerage firms that offer their funds. That can result in investment advice that is conflicted.

After years of lobbying by the brokerage industry, the Labor Department is leaning toward a rule that would allow conflicts, such as commissions and fund company payments to brokerages, as long as they were disclosed. So investors take note: you are eventually going to have to read all the small print, so you might as well start now.

Here’s how to protect your retirement savings:

Check your 401(k) plan. Numerous large employers have spent big bucks to settle class action lawsuits focused on mutual fund fees in retirement plans, and fees have fallen. Average annual management fees of 401(k) funds are below 0.5 percent at large companies and below 1 percent at small companies. If your company’s fund choices are out of line, talk to your human resources department. If your only choices are substandard funds and high fees, put only enough in your 401(k) to get the employer matching contributions, and then invest additional funds in a personal IRA or Roth IRA.

Choose inexpensive mutual funds. Investing in low cost index funds instead of costlier actively managed funds will put you ahead. A person earning $75,000 a year who starts saving at age 25 would spend $104,033 in fees over a lifetime if fees were capped at 0.25 percent of assets annually. At 1.3 percent, that same worker would spend $409,202, according to the Center for American Progress. That extra $305,169 could support roughly $1,000 a month for life in extra retirement income.

Separate advice from your investments. If you want help figuring out which funds to invest in, pay a fee-only financial adviser, do not depend on “free” advice from a commissioned broker. You can get inexpensive advice from big fund companies like Vanguard, Fidelity Investments, and T Rowe Price, or from so-called “robo advisers” like Wealthfront or Betterment.

Be especially careful about rollovers. When you leave a job, you typically have the right to keep your money invested in your 401(k), an excellent choice if you work for a company that provides good funds within the plan. Or you can roll it over into a so-called “Rollover IRA” at any brokerage or fund company. Choose a low-fee fund company or discount brokerage that will enable you to choose your own investments from a large pool of individual stocks and inexpensive funds, and buy only the advice you need.

MONEY financial advice

The Investing Danger That Smart People Face

man sitting in front of a wall of certificates
C.J. Burton—Corbis

You may be brilliant and a giant in your profession, but that can get you into a lot of trouble.

While returning from a business flight last year, I experienced a queasy stomach sensation. Later than night I woke up with searing pain across my abdomen. At my internist the next morning, I asked, “Do I have food poisoning?”

“I would say something more serious,” the doctor replied. “We need to get you a CAT scan.”

Off to the imaging center. The radiologist came out: “You have appendicitis,” he said. “You cannot pass Go, you cannot collect $200. You have to go straight to the emergency room. Take this copy of your images.”

I checked in at the hospital and was triaged. I slumped in a corner, clearing my email and calling the office. Eventually a doctor came out and asked why I was there.

“I have appendicitis,” I replied.

“Really?” he said. “Did you self-diagnose on WebMD?”

“No,” I said. “I went to a radiologist. I have slides! Look at my slides.”

He did, and then he operated on me.

In recovery later that day, I realized my surgeon has the exact same problem I have: “Yeah, doc, I know you have a medical degree and 30 years of experience, but I’ve been reading WebMD and I think…”

Or in my case: “Yeah, Dave, I know you have an MBA and 30 years of investing experience, but I’ve been reading [pick one] Motley Fool/Zero Hedge/CNBC/TheStreet.com, and I think…”

What do I say when clients think they know more than I do?

At my firm, we work with executive families. Our clients are brilliant; many have advanced degrees from top universities. These clients have ascended to the pinnacles of their careers and are accustomed to being the smartest person in the room.

Trouble starts, though, when the clients confuse brilliance with experience. For the most part, the clients let us do our job, but every once in a while, we’ll get an order along the lines of:

  • “Buy Shake Shack in my account.”
  • “Put 50% of my assets in emerging markets.”
  • “Put 100% of my assets in cash! So-and-so says the sky is falling!”
  • “My 14-year-old has ideas for restructuring the portfolio.”

We could say, “That is a stupid idea. We are totally not going to do that.” But that approach leads to resentful clients who may take their resentment, and their account, to another adviser.

I prefer to use these requests as opportunities for education, laced with humor. Several clients asked us about the Shake Shack IPO in January. We showed them a simple metric: stock market capitalization divided by store count. We asked, “If Shake Shack is valued at $26 million per store and McDonald’s is valued at $2.6 million per store, do you think that the Shake Shack burger is ten times better than the McDonald’s burger?” That reality check then led us into a discussion of the risks and rewards of emerging growth stocks versus value stocks.

Clients have told me that picking stocks must be easy.

“Really?” I say. “Do you like to play poker?”

“Love playing poker,” comes the reply. “Every Saturday with my buddies.”

“Really? Do you ever go to Atlantic City and play with the pros?”

“Gosh, no! I’d get my eyeballs ripped out.”

“Really? You don’t have an edge in poker, but you think you do have an edge in stock picking, which is 10,000 times more complicated than poker? Really?”

I started investing at 17, so it’s not out of the question that a 14-year-old might have good ideas (though the same parents who think their child could manage their portfolio never allow that kid to drive their car). If a parent wants to involve a child, we’ll send that child several books on investing and instructions on how to “paper trade.” If the child is willing to paper trade for a year and show me the results, I’m willing to take his or her input. (That conversation hasn’t happened yet, but one day!)

Ultimately, there has to be a line we won’t cross. If a client starts sending daily orders, or even worse, jumping into his or her accounts and making trades without us, we have to fire the client. That is a no-win situation for us: Anything that goes well in the portfolio is because of the client’s brilliance, while anything that goes badly is our stupidity. We’ll set that client free to make room for clients who do respect our expertise.

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David Edwards is president of Heron Financial Group | Wealth Advisors, which works closely with individuals and families to provide investment management and financial planning services. Edwards is a graduate of Hamilton College and holds an MBA in General Management from Darden Graduate School of Business-University of Virginia.

MONEY fiduciary

Obama to Wall Street: Stop Acting Like Car Salesmen

Obama at the podium giving a talk
Alex Wong—Getty Images

President Obama will push for a "fiduciary standard," which would require financial advisers to act in clients' best interests.

It’s an issue that’s pitted Main Street against Wall Street for years. Now President Obama is wading into the murky question of what ethical duties financial advisers owe their clients when they recommend products like mutual funds and annuities.

On Monday, President Obama plans to use an AARP event to tout something known as the “fiduciary standard,” which would require financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients, much as a lawyer must do.

That may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, investment pros who call themselves “financial advisers” currently are not required to give clients the best advice or products that they can offer. They never have been. In the eyes of the law, financial advisers—once more commonly known as stockbrokers—are like car salesmen or the guys selling TVs at the local big box store: They can and do tout products that offer the heftiest profits and commissions.

To be sure, investment advisers have never been allowed to recommend just any investment. Current law requires they sell investments that are “suitable” for their clients based on factors like age or risk tolerance. In practice, however, that often means actively managed mutual funds with hefty sales loads or annuities with complex and expensive guarantees. Compared to low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds, these investments can end up costing savers tens of thousands of dollars over the years it takes to build a retirement nest egg.

Raising the legal standard to a fiduciary one might stop that practice. That’s a big reason that consumer advocates, including the AARP and the Consumer Federation of America, have been calling for years to require all advisers to act as fiduciaries.

Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Labor, which has jurisdiction over 401(k) plans, have taken stabs at requiring advisers to become fiduciaries. The issue was a key point of contention in the debate of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. While the bill ultimately included language that appeared to authorize the SEC to implement the financial standard, five years later the proposal is still stalled. One key point of contention: Financial advisers that work on commission tend to take on less wealthy clients. That has allowed Wall Street firms—and especially big insurance companies whose agents sell annuities—to argue that tougher rules would deprive middle class investors of advice.

Of course, it may seem strange that members of Congress would listen to what big business thinks is best for middle class investors while ignoring AARP and the Consumer Federation of America. But that only speaks to the strange ways of Washington—and, of course, to the ingenuity and determination of the financial services lobby.

The White House push appears to focus on advice doled out to investors in retirement plans. While that’s a huge group of investors, it’s not clear what effect, if any, the proposal would have on advice regarding taxable investment accounts. Any new rules could also be crafted to permit brokers to continue to earn commissions, something that many investors advocates are likely to see as a potentially fatal loophole.

MONEY Love and Money

A 3-Step Plan for Avoiding Money Arguments

black and white chess pieces on top of stack of money on chessboard
Hitoshi Michael—iStock

It's normal for couples to have disagreements about money. Here's a guide to overcoming them.

The last really big money fight my wife and I had was about a vacation. Yes, after 23 years of marriage, the very thing that was meant to bring joy to our lives was causing each of us to seriously question whether we had married the right person.

Since I’ve spent my entire career helping people with their finances, you might think that I would be a good person to talk to about money. Unfortunately, this wasn’t true for my wife.

But is it any surprise that a big decision with significant financial implications can lead to a heated conversation? After all, how you spend money is deeply personal, because it is an expression of what you value.

So how can people make the best decisions together when they come to those decisions with different values?

This question is more complex than it seems, because seldom are big decisions simply economic and intellectual. They usually have emotional implications. And three major obstacles get in the way of making sound money choices: One, we are all biased in our perspective about money. Two, we feel like we are right even if the facts disagree with us. And three, deferring a discussion about money with a loved one can frustrate us, leading to an explosion over a seemingly small issue.

Here’s a three-step plan to help you the next time you and someone close to you have to make a big money decision:

1. Know your biases.

I am a protector. I grew up in Zimbabwe, Africa, in an environment of scarcity and need. I worked from age 11 to have money. My wife grew up in Los Angeles with a very different life, one with financial stability. She is a giver and a pleasure seeker. I want money to give me security; she wants money to share with family and to enjoy life. I concentrate on the cost of things; she thinks more about the enjoyment something can bring. There’s no right or wrong way to view money, but it definitely affects how we think and feel about financial choices. When it came to our vacation, she wanted it to be longer than I felt was prudent. We both felt strongly about our perspectives. Knowing what biases we each bring to a financial decision helps us to take a more balanced approach. My firm’s Money Mind Analyzer tool can help you and your partner understand your money personalities.

2. Look for a compromise rather than a choice.

When it comes to money conversations, we often decide a firm choice has to be made. What we are really making, however, is a tradeoff between different preferences. Emotions are natural when it comes to big decisions, but they can lead to real lasting frustration. Why? Because they often end with one person convincing the other to “see it my way.” But the best answer is often a compromise of perspectives. I tend to be the more outspoken person, and that simply wasn’t fair to my wife. She was rightly frustrated at not having her voice or opinions heard. So look for the middle ground where you can both win a little.

3. Have a disciplined process.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is to have scheduled meetings with my spouse to discuss life and our choices. Having the right mindset can change everything. We have a weekly meeting now with a list of things we need to jointly decide. We have rules, like staying calm and hearing each other’s perspective. We also use a checklist whenever we have a big decision to make. Ready to start holding regular meetings to discuss important financial matters? You can use a checklist our firm has developed to help people come to an agreement about a big decision.

There is no magic to living a great financial life. It’s all about your choices and how you make them. If you are on the voyage with someone else, then finding a positive way to decide together will make your life meaningfully better.

After that big fight about that family vacation, my wife and I decided that we had to find a different way. We still have different perspectives and passionate disagreements, but we usually find a middle ground where we each feel heard and both our needs are considered. One of the side benefits is that our three daughters get to see how we make financial choices — something neither of us got to see our parents do.

By the way, the vacation to Italy was great, and a little longer than I would have planned. I am eternally grateful to my wife for those extra few days I had fought against staying for.

———-

Joe Duran, CFA, is CEO and founder of United Capital. He believes that the only way to improve people’s lives is to design a disciplined process that offers investors a true understanding about how the choices they make affect their financial lives. Duran is a three-time author; his latest book is The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.

MONEY stocks

How I Plan for the Stock Market Freakout…I Mean Selloff

150217_ADV_StockFreakout
Mike Segar—REUTERS A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

Advising people not to dump their stocks in downturn is easy. Actually persuading them not to do so is harder.

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.”

Hmmmm.

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.

Also available are easy-to-understand primers explaining why it’s such a bad idea to get out of the market.

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:

Anxiety Level Low Medium High
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.

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