Registered representatives. Wealth consultants. Investment advisor representatives. Financial planners. These are all names that describe people who are in the financial services business. They differ in that each has a slightly different tilt, but all have one thing in common: Most Americans have chosen not to work with them.
That is partly due to people not having enough savings to warrant an advisory conversation. For these people, financial literacy is sorely needed before it is too late to fulfill their family obligations and leave a lasting legacy.
Others, however, have the money but have a deep level of mistrust of people in the financial services business. Those issues center around poor client service experiences, an inadequate level of education in the advisor, or fear of being subjected to unethical behavior which is usually inspired by high commission products.
There is no shortage of evidence that each of these experiences could potentially exist depending upon the advisor who is chosen. However, it is very important to note that those who are a fiduciary are accepting a level of responsibility that is to be admired. Those who are a fiduciary promise to act in the best interest of their client with no conflicts of interest (commissions).
There are certainly circumstances where a commission-based product is the only solution to a problem that was identified in the planning process. In these circumstances, it is certainly acceptable for the advisor to explain why the product was chosen and to fully disclose how much the commission will be as a result of choosing that product.
Too often investors judge their success or failure with an advisor on the return on investments that were chosen by the advisor. Often, the “acceptable” level of return is based on a passive benchmark like the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500 indices.
These are unfair and irrelevant in almost every circumstance. Very few investors have the confidence to put their entire life savings into stocks for their entire lives. I am a huge fan of “aging” portfolios which allows the investor to allocate towards equities at a high level when the distribution date is far away.
However, as each year passes and the distribution date nears, the risk is gradually reduced by first moving to income producing asset classes and eventually to highly liquid asset classes so that a market downturn doesn’t negatively impact the money available on that distribution date.
This process requires some planning, some work on the part of the advisor each year, and realistic expectations as it relates to an average rate of return over the whole experience. For retirement assets, the distribution date represents the beginning of a long-term distribution strategy that is generally income focused.
There are risk assets included but the return expectations should be generally lower during these years than in the accumulation phase. So, when inputting return expectations into financial planning software tools, what numbers are realistic? “If I am looking at a 15-year period of time, I can safely assume 5%. If I am looking at a 20-year period of time, I assume a 6% rate of return for planning purposes,” says Certified Financial Planner John Harrington from IFP in Danbury, CT.
“I like to plan for 5% but shoot for 8%. It is my assumption that the value of good advice from a good financial planner should equal an additional 3% per year, but for planning purposes, I like to show 5% per year,” says Jim Moniz of Northeast Wealth Management in Norwell, MA.
So, how big of a difference does three percent make? Should 8% be a realistic expectation? The graphs below are borrowed from the Dynamic Map app, which is a free financial planning calculator that shows both the unique purpose-based assets and liabilities for all of life’s funding needs. These show only retirement planning to make a point.
The assumptions in the “Big Expectations” scenario where a 45-year old person, who has $500,000 invested for retirement, is adding $1,600 per month, assumes a 2% inflation rate, and an 8% rate of return over the life of the funding need. Retirement is assumed to begin at age 65 and income should last until age 95. This person is planning on receiving $10,000 per month (today’s dollars) at retirement age. The calculator generates the future value of those dollars.
Each dot represents a numerical calculation telling you what you have versus what you need. As you can see, the assets continue to rise substantially net of withdrawals in retirement. Since there are only 20 years of accumulation and 30 years of distribution, is it really a reasonable assumption to presume an 8% rate of return could be maintained?
Let’s see what happens if all assumptions remain the same except for the rate of return. We will lower it to 6% over the lifetime.
Suddenly, the graph does not instill a sense of confidence and inspires a strategic dialogue about how to make sure there will be enough money to live comfortably in retirement to age 95. This is a constructive conversation between a financial advisor and the client. However, it should not end here. It could be the beginning of a much deeper level of commitment between the financial advisor and the investor.
Unfortunately, a lot of advisors fall into the trap of discussing returns vs. benchmarks. In many cases advisors spend the bulk of their time negotiating with their clients over this topic rather than directing the discussion to the successful implementation of a full financial plan that includes the family’s purpose, the input of extended family members and their roles in the successful execution of the family purpose, additional family financial obligations (like college tuition planning, wedding savings, etc.) and a deep discussion over tax strategies, property/casualty risk management, and the successful management of risks related to human behavior (outside experts on these topics are part of the team).
What I just described is an essential family office experience and is normally reserved for families who have $50 million or more. These family offices rarely have terse discussions around rates of return vs. passive benchmarks and are often the family’s most prized resources. An essential family office experience is now starting to talk hold in communities around the country with independent financial advisors who serve as fiduciaries.
The experience can be found for families who have as little as $750,000 to invest. You won’t find this experience (at this level) in places like the major warehouses or the major insurance agencies. This group of professionals is usually led by an advisor within the independent broker/dealer community or the Registered Investment Advisor community.
I can’t think of a better way to have a professional relationship with an advisor than this. The concentration of multiple skill sets on all of my family issues would allow me the opportunity to focus all of my time on my profession and my family/friends. This is how an advisory relationship should feel!
Jeff Mount is president of Real Intelligence LLC. Jeff has been active in the financial services business for the last 25 years.
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