Envestnet Expands Its TAMP Empire With FolioDynamix Acquisition

Envestnet Expands Its TAMP Empire With FolioDynamix Acquisition

The big news in advisor technology this month was the announcement that Envestnet was acquiring multi-TAMP platform provider (and competitor)FolioDynamix for $195M. The deal turns Envestnet into even more of a behemoth, with nearly $2 trillion in assets and 10 million client accounts. And what makes the deal particularly lucrative for Envestnet is its strategic value, given that FolioDynamix has far deeper penetration in commission-based independent broker-dealers than Envestnet – which gives Envestnet a new list of firms and advisors to grow within the industry’s ongoing transition from commission-based to fee-based accounts. In addition,FolioDynamix’s more modular approach to its software will give Envestnet a new flexibility to compete for firms that don’t necessarily want to go “all-in” to the fully-integrated ENV 2 platform. Notwithstanding the strategic value, though, some were surprised that Envestnet was willing to pay what is rumored to be almost 5X FolioDynamix’s $40M of net revenue, althoughEnvestnet CEO Jud Bergman indicated that the deal was expected to be about 7X post-integration EBITDA… suggesting that with synergistic cost savings, Bergman anticipates a whopping 70% margins from the FolioDynamix business! For advisors using FolioDynamix, it remains to be seen whether or how much of the FDx technology will be folded into Envestnet or not, although it seems likely that Envestnet actually wants the more modular FDx tools and may even build on them further, while FolioDynamix advisors may get access to the even wider range of Envestnet managers… although the FDX Advisors team (which is FolioDynamix’s own RIA advisory solutions) may end out being folded into Envestnet’s PMC.

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Risk Composure: The Real Predictor Of Who Can Stick To Their Investment Plan

Risk Composure: The Real Predictor Of Who Can Stick To Their Investment Plan

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Regulators around the world require financial advisors to assess their clients’ risk tolerance to determine if an investment is suitable for them before recommending it. For the obvious reason that taking more risk than one can tolerate will potentially lead to untenable losses. And even if the investment bounces back, an investor who loses more money than he/she can tolerate in the near term may sell in a panic at the market bottom, and miss out on that subsequent recovery.

Yet the reality is that many investors end up owning portfolios that are inconsistent with their risk tolerance, and it’s only in bear markets that they seem to “realize” the problem (which unfortunately leads to problem-selling). Which raises the question: why is it that investors don’t mind owning mis-aligned and overly risky portfolios until the moment of market decline?

The key is to recognize that investors do not always properly perceive the risks of their own investments. And it’s not until the investor’s perceived risk exceeds his/her risk tolerance that there’s a compulsion to make a (potentially ill-timed) investment change.

Yet the fact that investors may dissociate their perceptions of risk from the portfolio’s actual risk also means there’s a danger than the investor will misperceive the portfolio risk and want to sell (or buy more) even ifthe portfolio is appropriately aligned to his/her risk tolerance. In other words, it’s not enough to just ensure that the investors have portfolios consistent with their risk tolerance (and risk capacity); it’s also necessary to determine whether they’re properly perceiving the amount of risk they’re taking.

And as any experienced advisor has likely noticed, not all investors are equally good at understanding and properly perceiving the risks they’re taking. Some are quite good at perceiving risk and maintaining their composure through market ups and downs. But others have poor “risk composure”, and are highly prone to misperceiving risks (and thus tend to make frequently-ill-timed portfolio changes!).

Which means in the end, it’s necessary to not only assess a client’s risk tolerance, but also to determine their risk composure. Unfortunately, at this point no tools exist to measure risk composure – beyond recognizing that clients whose risk perceptions vary wildly over time will likely experience challenges staying the course in the future. But perhaps it’s time to broaden our understanding – and assessment – of risk composure, as in the end it’s the investor’s ability to maintain their composure that really determines whether they are able to effectively stay the course!

Risk Perception And Portfolio Changes

It is a requirement of financial advisors around the world to assess a client’s risk tolerance before investing their assets, based on the fundamental recognition that not everyone wants to take the same level of risk with their investments. Which is important, because a mismatch – where the investor takes more risk than he/she is willing to take – creates the danger that the investor will lose more money than they are willing to lose in the event of a bear market. And even if the market recovers, there’s a risk that the investor will sell at the market bottom in a panic along the way.

Of course, if all investors were always astutely aware of their own risk tolerance, and the amount of risk being taken in the portfolio, the need to assess risk tolerance would be a moot point, as investors could simply “self-regulate” their own portfolio and behaviors. The caveat, though, is that not all investors are necessarily cognizant of their own risk tolerance comfort level, and/or face the risk that they will misjudge the amount of risk in their portfolio, and not realize the problem until it is too late.

Thus why the key problem is that investors often sell at the market bottom. Because it’s the moment the investor realizes that they were taking more risk than they were comfortable with, and decides to bail out. Not during the bull market that may have preceded it, because when markets are going up, investors don’t necessarily perceive the risks along the way. In other words, it often takes a bear market (or at least a severe “market correction”) to align perception with reality (as until that moment, ignorance is bliss).

The reason why this matters is that it really means it’s not the mere fact that an investor is allocated “too aggressively” that creates behavioral problems like selling out at the market bottom. Instead, the problem occurs at the moment the investor perceives that reality – e.g., during a bear market decline – and then feels compelled to act. Which is unfortunate, because in practice that’s usually the worst time to do something.

Nonetheless, the key point remains that it’s not actually “investing too risky” that creates the problem for the conservative client. It’s the moment of perceiving and realizing that the portfolio is too risky that actually causes a behavioral response (to sell at a potentially-ill-timed moment).

The Risk Of Misperceiving Risk

The fact that conservative investors don’t sell risky portfolios until they actually perceive the risk they’re taking to be beyond their comfort level is important for two reasons.

The first is that it reveals the key issue isn’t actually gaps between the investor’s portfolio and his/her risk tolerance, per se, but the gap between the perceived risk of the investor’s portfolio and his/her risk tolerance. Again, it’s not merely “investing too aggressively” that’s the problem, but the moment of realizing that you’re invested too aggressively that triggers a behavioral (and often problematic) response.

The second is that it also implies investors could make bad investment decisions even with appropriate portfolios, if they misperceive the risk they’re taking!

For instance, imagine a client who is very, very conservative, and doesn’t like to take much investment risk at all. But it’s 1999, and he’s just seen tech stocks go up, and up, and up. Every year, tech stocks beat cash and bonds like clockwork, to a very large degree. And it’s happened so many months and years in a row, that the client is convinced there’s “no risk” to investing in tech stocks – since as he’s seen, they only ever go up, and never go down!

In this context, if you were a very conservative (bond) investor, and became convinced that tech stocks were going to beat cash every year and it was a “sure bet”, what would you do as a very conservative investor? You’d put all your money in tech stocks!

Of course, once tech stocks finally crash the following year, and it becomes clear they’re not a superior-guaranteed-return-alternative to cash, the conservative investor will likely sell, and potentially for a substantial loss.

But the key point is that the investor didn’t suddenly become more tolerant of risk in 1999, and intolerant a year later when the tech crash began. It’s because the investor misperceived the risk in 1999 (causing him to buy), and then adjusted his perceptions to reality when the bear market showed up in 2000 (causing him to sell). It’s the same pattern that played out with housing in 2006, and tulips in 1636. In other words, it’s not risk tolerance that’s unstable, but risk (mis)perceptions.

Similarly, imagine a client who is extremely tolerant of risk. She’s a successful serial entrepreneur, who has repeatedly taken calculated high risks, and profited from them. Her portfolio is (appropriate to her tolerance) invested 90% in equities.

But suddenly, a major market event occurs, akin to the 2008 financial crisis, and she becomes convinced that the whole financial system is going to collapse.

As a highly risk-tolerant investor, what would the appropriate action be if you were very tolerant of risk, but convinced the market was going to zero in a financial collapse? You’d sell all your stocks. Even as a highly risk tolerant investor.

Not because you aren’t comfortable with the risk of all those stocks. But because even if you’re tolerant of risk, no risk-tolerant investor wants to own an investment they’re convinced is going to zero!

But the key point again is that the investor’s risk tolerance isn’t changing in bull and bear markets. She remains highly tolerant of risk. The problem is that her perceptions are changing… and that it’s her mis-perception that a bear market decline means stocks are going to zero (not just declining before a recovery) that actually causes the “problem behavior”. Because it leads the client to want to sell out of a portfolio that was actually appropriately aligned to her risk tolerance in the first place!

Risk Composure – The Stability Of Risk Perception

Every experienced advisor is aware of a small subset of his/her clients who are especially prone to making rash investment decisions. They’re the ones who send emails asking whether they should be buying more stocks every time the market has a multi-month bull market streak. And they’re the ones who call and want to sell stocks whenever there’s a market pullback and the scary headlines hit CNBC and the newspapers.

In other words, some clients have especially unstable perceptions of risk. The cycles of fear and greed mean that most investors swing back and forth in their views of risk at least to some degree. But while the risk perception of some clients swings like a slow metronome, for others it’s more like a seismograph.

Or viewed another way, it’s those latter clients who seem to be especially prone to the kinds of behavioral biases that cause us to misperceive risk. They are especially impacted by the recency bias, where we tend to extrapolate the near-term past into the indefinite future (i.e., what went up recently will go up forever, and what went down recently is going all the way to zero!). They may also be prone to confirmation bias, which leads us to selectively “see” and focus on information that reaffirms our existing (recency) bias. And for many, there’s also an overconfidence bias that leads us to think we will know what the outcome will be, and therefore want to take action in the portfolio to “control” the result.

In essence, some clients appear to be far more likely to be influenced by various behavioral biases. Others are better at maintaining their “risk composure”, and not having their perceptions constantly fluctuate with the latest news nor becoming flustered by external events and stimuli.

Which is important, because means that it’s the clients with low risk composure who are actually most prone to exhibit problem behaviors…regardless of whether they’re conservative or aggressive investors!

After all, an aggressive client with good risk composure may see a market decline as just a temporary setback likely to recover (given market history), while an aggressive client with bad risk composure may see a market decline and suddenly expect it’s just going to keep declining all the way to zero.

In this case, both are aggressive. For both, the “right” portfolio is an aggressive one, given their risk tolerance (and presuming it aligns with their risk capacity). But the client with bad risk composure will need extra hand-holding to stay the course, because he/she is especially prone to misperceiving risk based on recent events, and thinking the portfolio is no longer appropriate (even if it is).

How Low Risk Composure Makes Tolerable Portfolios Seem Scary

Similarly, if two clients are very conservative but have different risk composures, the one with high risk composure should be able to easily stay the course with a conservative portfolio and not chase returns, recognizing that even if the market is going up now, it may well experience market declines and volatility later. While the conservative client with bad risk composure is the one most likely to misperceive risk, leading to rapid buying and selling behavior, as he/she becomes convinced that a bull market in stocks must be a “permanent” phenomenon of guaranteed-higher-returns and overinvests in risk… only to come crashing back to reality (and selling) when the market declines.

The key point here is that both conservative and aggressive clients can have challenges staying the course in bull and bear markets. Even if their risk tolerance remains stable. Because some people have more of an ability to maintain their risk composure through market cycles, while others do not. And it’s those low risk composure investors, who are more likely to misperceive risks – to the upside or the downside – that tend to trigger potentially ill-timed buying and selling activity. As they’re the ones most like to perceive that their portfolio is misaligned with what they can comfortably tolerate (due to that tendency to rapidly misperceive risk in either direction!).

Can We Measure Risk Perception And Risk Composure?

From the proactive perspective, the reason that all of this matters is that if we can figure out how to accurately measure risk perception and risk composure, we can identify which investors are most likely to experience challenges in sticking to their investment plan in the future.

Recognizing that it’s not merely about the investor’s risk tolerance and whether he/she is conservative or aggressive with a properly aligned portfolio in the first place… but how likely he/she is to recognize the risks in the portfolio, and that that portfolio is the properly aligned one! And the potential that the investor will misperceive the risk in their portfolio and think they need to buy more or sell out, even if the portfolio is the right one, because the investor has low risk composure and is constantly misperceiving the risk in the portfolio!

Notably, this is also why it’s so crucial to start out by using a psychometrically validated risk tolerance assessment tools in the first place (though unfortunately, few of today’s risk tolerance questionnaires are even suited for the task!).

For instance, imagine two prospective clients come into your office. Both have aggressive portfolios, and say they’re very comfortable with the risk they’re taking. How do you know if the investors are truly risk tolerant, or if they’re actually conservative investors who have misjudged the risk in their portfolios?

The answer: give them both a high-quality risk tolerance questionnaire, and see if their portfolios actually do align with their risk tolerance.

The key here is not to just ask them about what kinds of investment risks they want to take. Because we already know that if they’re misperceivinginvestment risk, their answers will be biased towards taking more risk, not because they want to, but because they’ve become blind to it!

In this context, the more “pure” the risk tolerance questionnaire (RTQ), and not connected to investment decisions and market trade-offs, the easier it will be to identify who is actually tolerant of risk, and who might simply be misperceiving (and underestimating) investment risks.

Thus, if the RTQ process is completed, and investor A scores very aggressive, and investor B scores very conservative, it becomes clear that investor A is accurately assessing risk and has the appropriate portfolio, while investor B has become risk-blind and needs a different portfolio (and an education on how much risk he/she is actually taking!)

Of course, the caveat is that a gap between a new client’s risk tolerance and their current portfolio provides an indicator of a current misperception, and helps to determine whether the new client should actually have that aggressive portfolio, or not. And the client who so significantly misperceived risk in the first place ostensibly has poor risk composure – after all, if he/she could misperceive risk so much the first time, there’s clearly an elevated risk it may happen again.

But that doesn’t necessarily provide any indicator of who is most likely to be prone to risk misperceptions and have poor risk composure in the future, if they weren’t already exhibiting those problems.

Accordingly, perhaps it’s time for not only a tool to measure risk tolerance, but also one that either measures risk composure, or at least provides anongoing measure of risk perception. (As a client where the measured risk perception varies wildly over time is by definition one with poor risk composure, and most likely to need hand-holding in future bull and bear markets to keep their portfolio on target.)

For instance, clients might be regularly asked what their expectations are for market returns. The expected return itself (and especially an inappropriately high or low return) is an express sign of risk misperception, and those whose expected returns for stocks and bonds fluctuate wildly over time would be scored as having low risk composure as well.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a way to ask clients more generally questions that assess ongoing risk perceptions, or simply assess risk composure up front. This might include a biodata approach of asking them whether historically they’ve tended to make portfolio adjustments in bull and bear markets (which at least would work for experienced investors), or whether they like to take in current news and information to make portfolio changes, or other similar behavior patterns that suggest they are more actively changing risk perceptions with new information and therefore have low composure.

The bottom line, though, is simply to recognize and understand that in times of market volatility, what’s fluctuating is not risk tolerance itself but risk perception, and moreover that risk tolerance alone may actually be a poor indicator of who will likely need hand-holding in times of market volatility. After all, if it was “just” about risk tolerance, then any investor whose portfolio was in fact aligned with their tolerance should be “fine” in staying the course. But in reality many clients aren’t, not because their portfolio is inappropriate for their tolerance, but because they misperceive the risk they’re taking, causing them to either want to buy more (in a bull market that seems like a sure bet), or sell in a bear market (because who wants to own an investment you believe is going to zero, regardless of your risk tolerance).

Of course, a portfolio that is not aligned to the investor’s risk tolerance will clearly be a problem. But the missing link is that even for those with proper allocations, those with low risk composure will still struggle with their investment decisions and behaviors! And to the extent we can figure out how to identify clients who risk perceptions are misaligned with reality, and who have low risk composure and are prone to such misperceptions, the better we can identify who will actually be most likely to need help (via a financial advisor, or other interventions) to stay the course!

So what do you think? Is the real problem that some investors are risk tolerant and others are not? Or that some investors are better at maintaining their risk composure, while others are more likely to have their risk perceptions swing wildly with the volatility of the markets? Would it be helpful to have a tool that measures not just risk tolerance, but risk composure? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Winners And Losers Under The Trump Tax Plan

Winners And Losers Under The Trump Tax Plan

This week, President Trump and the GOP released the latest “unified” version of their tax reform framework (bridging the gaps between the prior GOP proposals and what President Trump advocated during his campaign). The highlights are similar to prior proposals, including a simplification down to just three tax brackets (12%, 25%, and 35%), an elimination of the AMT, and a drastic reduction in itemized deductions (keeping only the mortgage interest and charitable deductions) paired with an expansion of the standard deduction (to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for married couples) along with eliminating personal exemptions. Other notable proposals include repealing the estate tax (and generation-skipping tax), reducing the corporate tax rate to 20%, and reducing the tax rate on pass-through business income to 25% (e.g., for sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations) from its current ordinary income rate. Ultimately, the changes are expected to increase the Federal deficit (albeit potentially offset by increased growth), which means by definition tax burdens would decline. However, clearly with so many changes, not everyone would be impacted evenly. The primary “winners” in the reform proposal would include those who don’t itemize deductions (who will benefit from the larger standard deduction), high-net-worth clients (who would no longer face an estate tax), and owners of pass-through business entities (including many financial advisors!) who would likely see at least a portion of their pass-through income taxed at “only” 25% (instead of the current maximum of 39.6%, although proposals are expected to separate “wages” from “pass-through” income even under the new rules). On the other hand, the “losers” of the tax reform proposals include: those who live in high-tax states (e.g., California, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, etc.) who would no longer receive the state income tax deduction; those with large homes and mortgages (as the mortgage interest deduction might be curtailed to a lower maximum loan balance of $500,000) and who make modest charitable contributions (which might be eclipsed by the higher standard deduction); high-wage employees (who won’t necessarily be harmed, but will benefit far less than those who own pass-through businesses); and people with large medical or disaster deductions (which would also be lost if itemized deductions beyond mortgage and charitable are eliminated).

Why Is it So Hard to Ask For Referrals As A Financial Advisor?

Why Is it So Hard to Ask For Referrals As A Financial Advisor?

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Growing a client base and acquiring more ideal clients is a challenge all advisors face, regardless of how successful they currently are. And although almost everyone in the industry has heard that asking for referrals is an important way to grow a business, many advisors struggle with this. Which raises the question, as recently posed by Ron Carson at a recent keynote presentation: “Why don’t more advisors ask for referrals? Are advisors afraid to ask for referrals because they’re not proud of their own services?”

In this week’s discussion, we talk about why it is so hard to ask for referrals as a financial advisor, and how the many barriers – including our pride (or lack thereof) in the company or products we represent, our confidence in our own value, or even shame about the industry we are in – can make it hard to ask for referrals.

Of course, when financial advisors get started, it isn’t feasible to ask for referrals, because you don’t have any clients yet to refer you; instead, the only choice is cold calling, “cold knocking” (walking the streets and knocking on the doors of small businesses), or some other cold prospecting strategy. In fact, arguably for newer advisors, the whole appeal of being able to ask for referrals to generate new business is the opportunity to get away from cold calling and other types of prospecting!

Yet the caveat is that it’s difficult to ask for referrals, if you’re not actually proud of your company and its products. Because if you know, deep down, that your solutions aren’t really the best for your clients, you’ll likely self-sabotage your own behavior – as I experienced myself when starting out as a life insurance agent, struggling to prospect and ask for referrals because I was embarrassed about the sales tactics my company was using at the time!

Of course, ultimately becoming a real financial advisor is not about getting paid for your company’s products, but getting paid for your own advice, knowledge, and wisdom. But that still means it’s hard to ask for referrals until you’re actually confident in yourself, and your own knowledge. And here, too, many struggle, because if we don’t actually know anything about financial planning, and we know that we don’t, then we can’t confidently convey our value. Which is why professional designations like the CFP marks are so helpful… because often it’s only after completing a designation that many will really start to feel confident that they can bring value to the table, and ask for referrals.

Although even once advisors have expertise and can truly add value as a financial advisor, it can still be hard to have confidence to ask for referrals, when telling people “I’m a financial advisor” risks making you a social pariah because so many consumers have had bad prior experiences with advisors! That’s the challenge of trying to do business in a low trust industry. When metrics like the Edelman Trust Barometer finds that fewer than 50% of all consumers trust financial services companies, it’s literally an odds-on bet that if you say “I’m a financial advisor” and ask for referrals, that the person’s first and immediate impression of you will be negative!

The bottom line, though, is just to recognize that there really are a lot of barriers that make it hard for us to ask for referrals, all of which are built around our own fears and discomfort in what we do, the value we provide, or the company/industry we represent. Our fears hold us back. And often our fears are quite well-founded. It really is uncomfortable asking for referrals when you’re not proud of the company and products you represent. Or you’re not confident in your own value. Or you’re ashamed of the industry you’re in. So, if you find yourself at one of these blocking points, figure what do you have to do to grow past it – whether it’s leaving your company, reinvesting in yourself and your education, or differentiating yourself from the rest of the industry – or you won’t have the confidence you need to ask for referrals!

Asking For Referrals To Sell Investment And Insurance Products

As most of you know, I started my career in financial services, working in a life insurance company, straight out of college, into a life insurance agency. It was the year 2000, so the hot product at the time was variable universal life insurance. Buy life insurance. Invest the cash value in the stock market.

Now, back then, the only way you could get started was you had to go out and prospect. You could do cold-calling, or you could walk the streets and cold-knock on the doors of small businesses. There were some long-term career life insurance agents in that office who built their whole careers knocking on the doors of people’s homes, like, literally selling insurance door-to-door, cold-knocking, back in the 1960s and 1970s.

But ideally the goal for most advisors is to get away from that as quickly as possible, by getting some clients and then asking those clients for referrals to new clients and prospecting your way forward from there. It’s basically the…Asking for referrals was the pathway from cold-calling and cold-knocking.

Frankly, compared to cold-calling and cold-knocking, proactively asking for referrals seems like a pretty good deal. But here was the thing. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask clients and prospects I was talking to if they knew anyone else who might benefit from our company’s products and services. It was what I was trained to say, and I couldn’t do it.

Deep down, I think the reason why is exactly what Ron said. I wasn’t proud of the company and the products that I represented. Because at the time at least, it really felt like the company was solely focused on one product, a variable universal life, at least in our branch, where it was all the managing partner wanted us to talk about with every prospect we met.

Even as a novice agent at the time, I knew deep down that not everybody on the planet needed a VUL policy. What’s worse I knew we didn’t even have the best VUL policy on the market, because we got trained in how to overcome objections, including the objection of outselling competing products that illustrated better than ours.

So I was in a position where the company was pushing me to sell a knowingly inferior product to a wide range of people, who often didn’t even need the product. Lo and behold, I didn’t want to ask for referrals. I just couldn’t do it.

To be honest, it…Well, I guess as Ron’s question suggested, it wasn’t that I was afraid, per se. It was frankly that I was kind of ashamed of what I was selling, what I was doing. Ultimately there’s only one good way you ever really deal with that. You have to leave, and that’s what I ended up doing. It basically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wasn’t proud of my company’s tactics and the product I represented. So I didn’t ask for referrals, and I didn’t get much business, which meant I couldn’t qualify my contract, which means the discomfort with the company and its products eventually meant that I no longer had a job selling that company’s products. Funny how these things work out.

But I think it’s a good reminder for all of us that you can’t stay at a company where you aren’t proud of what they do and their solutions that they provide. As Ron had put it, if you wouldn’t knowingly, willingly, and happily recommend your mother and your grandmother to the company that you’re working for, you need to find a different company. You need to go somewhere else because, otherwise, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You won’t be comfortable asking people to do business. You won’t be comfortable asking for referrals, which means you will self-sabotage your own success, and it’s not going to work out anyways.

So save yourself some time and extended, but inevitable, demise. If you aren’t able to ask for referrals because deep down you’re ashamed of the company or products you represent, find a new company to represent, and get over this hurdle.

Asking For Referrals Requires Confidence In Your Own Value [Time – 4:50]

Now that being said, the truth is that even if you want to ultimately become a financial advisor, where your primary job is actually not selling the company’s products, but selling your own advice and knowledge and wisdom, then what you really need to become proud of, so that you can represent confidently, is yourself and your knowledge.

Here too, I’ll admit that this was actually a huge struggle for me in the early years, even after I left the insurance company. I switched to working in a much more financial planning-oriented independent broker-dealer, but I still had to struggle. I didn’t really know anything about financial planning. I was about 23 years old, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and I knew I didn’t know much of anything about financial planning. It’s hard to confidently ask people to work with you and pay you for your advice, when you know you don’t actually bring much value to the table and give very good advice.

For me, that was the primary motivator to go out and get my CFP marks and ultimately continue on with a lot of additional post-CFP designationsfrom there, because I couldn’t confidently convey my value and ask for their business until I knew, for me personally, that I had the knowledge and value to convey in the first place.

So for me, it was only after completing some of those designations that I felt confident enough that I knew my stuff and felt I really brought value to the table, that I finally started to get comfortable asking prospects for their business, asking for referrals and introductions, and actually started doing business development. And that was a good 8 to 10 years into my career, because it’s a lot easier to ask for referrals when you’re truly confident you actually add value and help people. I mean why would you not ask for referrals at that point? You have the knowledge. It helps people. Why do you not want to help more people by telling them what you do?

In fact, I find that’s one of the key differences between advisors, not product salespeople, but actual advisors who are good at business development and asking for referrals, versus those that aren’t, is that the ones who are good at it mostly just comes from their confidence in their own value. They feel it’s only natural to share their expertise with more people, to help more people. Why wouldn’t you if you have the expertise?

Asking For Referrals In A Low Trust Industry [Time – 6:59]

Now, really, there actually is one reason why you probably wouldn’t, even if you have the expertise. It’s because even if you have the expertise to add value as a financial advisor, it’s still hard to actually tell people you’re a financial advisor, because so many consumers have had bad experiences with advisors. I’m sure all of you who are advisors listening to this, you have experienced this. Right? You’re at a social event, and someone asks you what you do, and you say, “I’m a financial advisor,” and they say, “Oh, yeah. I have a financial advisor. He helped us with our life insurance a few years ago,” because they think comprehensive financial planning is getting a life insurance policy.

Or you say, “I’m a financial advisor,” and they take a step back and start looking for someone else across the room to talk to, “Oh, hey, Johnny,” because they’ve clearly had some bad experience with a financial advisor or salesperson in the past, and now they’re assuming that when you say, “financial advisor,” you’re just there to sell them something, and they didn’t feel like buying anything today. It makes it really hard to ask for people’s business and ask for referrals as a financial advisor, when so many people have been stung by a bad financial advisor in the past. It feels like you’re not telling people about this great service you deliver. You’re confessing you’re a financial advisor and hoping it doesn’t make you a social pariah.

This is the challenge of doing business in a low-trust industry, with low barriers to entry. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which is kind of the leading global survey that measures consumer trust, finds the financial service industry as the least trusted industry there is. We are dead last. Fewer than 50% of all consumers actually trust financial service companies, which means it’s literally an odds-on bet that when you say, “I’m a financial advisor,” and ask for referrals, that the person’s immediate first response of you will be negative, because fewer than 50% of consumers trust financial services in the first place.

Like it or not, as financial advisors, even as we try to become our own profession, we’re still representatives of the financial services industry. I think that makes it harder for all of us to ask for referrals. When you know the odds are that bad, it’s hard to want to be productive. It’s easy to be afraid that the reaction when you’re going to ask for referrals will be negative. So you just don’t want to do it at all.

Frankly, I think this is one of the main reasons, as financial advisors in the past couple of years, we’ve been evolving our titles and labels. You know? Financial advisor is associated with financial services industry, but wealth manager feels more aspirational, as though we’re trying to separate ourselves out. I’ll admit it at least, I’m often ashamed of the industry I represent, even as someone that’s trying to help improve it, because I also know the bad stuff that happens in our industry.

Asking For Referrals When Clients Don’t Know Who To Refer [Time – 9:29]

Of course, even when you do actually ask for a referral, there’s still the awkward reality that, often, when you ask someone for referrals, the person responds, “Um. Can’t think of anyone offhand.” Now it feels even worse to ask for referrals. What are you supposed to do at this point? Drill deeper? “Are you really sure you don’t know anyone who might want to work with me?” Because that doesn’t sound desperate.

Indirectly, I think this is one of the many reasons why having some kind of niche or specialization is so important. Think of it in the context of another profession. Imagine you’re an orthopedic surgeon. Most doctors get their business by referrals. They get business from patients who refer them. They get business from other doctors who refer them, but you don’t see a lot of orthopedic surgeons going to networking meetings saying, “Do you know anyone who’s blown out their knee lately?” because they don’t have to. They’re an orthopedic surgeon. If you have knee problems, you already know you need an orthopedic surgeon. If I have a friend who has a knee injury, then I refer him to an orthopedic surgeon I saw a couple years ago, because I’m trying to be helpful.

In other words, when you have a niche or a specialization, you don’t have to go out and ask for referrals. You establish your expertise and become known for what you do, and people refer the business to you. Think about it from the other end. If you had a friend who was having knee problems, and you knew a great orthopedic surgeon, why wouldn’t you make the referral to help your friend? It doesn’t matter whether the surgeon asks for referrals or gives me a pen and paper to write down the names of three knee-injury people I know. Frankly, it wouldn’t even help, because if none of my friends just had a knee injury, I wouldn’t know anyone to refer.

I’m not going to make that referral until I actually connect with the friend who just had a knee injury, and then I’m going to make the referral, which means what really matters isn’t that the surgeon asked me for referrals at all. It’s that I know his specialization is orthopedic surgery and that he fixes knee injuries. Then he just has to wait because the next time I meet someone with a knee injury, my brain is probably instantly going to make the connection because that’s what our brains do all by themselves. Oh, you tore your ACL? I know a surgeon who does great work on ACL injuries. Let me introduce you.

What Does It Take For You To Ask For Referrals?

But the bottom line here is just to recognize that I think there are a lot of barriers that make it hard for us to ask for referrals, as financial advisors. I think Ron Carson was right here. It’s our fears that hold us back, but they’re well-founded fears a lot of the time. It really is uncomfortable asking for referrals when you’re not proud of the company and the products you represent, or you’re not really confident in your own business value, or you’re ashamed of the industry that you’re in, or your clients never seem to come up with a name when you do ask for referrals. So what’s the point? You just stop asking.
So if one of these are your blocking point, what do you have to do to grow past it? Do you need to change the company you’re representing, to one where you’re actually proud to ask for referrals because you believe you bring a good solution to the table? Do you need to reinvest in yourself with CFP certification or some other post-CFP designation? So that you’re confident enough in your own value to proudly ask for referrals, because you just want to help more people with the expertise you have.

Do you need to find a way to market and position yourself so the value is unique enough that you’re clearly differentiated from the rest of the bad people in the industry? Or do you need to refine your specialization or niche some way, to make you so referable that you don’t need to ask for referralsbecause people naturally think of you when they’ve got a particular problem or challenge, where you have the niche expertise to solve it, and they say, “Oh, I know a person that can help you.” So what’s holding you back from asking for referrals?

So what do you think? Why is it so hard to ask for referrals as a financial advisor? Is it due to the companies we work for? The industry? Our lack of confidence in ourselves? How have you overcome the barrier to asking for referrals? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Risk Composure: The Real Predictor Of Who Can Stick To Their Investment Plan

Risk Composure: The Real Predictor Of Who Can Stick To Their Investment Plan

Executive Summary

Regulators around the world require financial advisors to assess their clients’ risk tolerance to determine if an investment is suitable for them before recommending it. For the obvious reason that taking more risk than one can tolerant will potentially lead to untenable losses. And even if the investment bounces back, an investor who loses more money than he/she can tolerate in the near term may sell in a panic at the market bottom, and miss out on that subsequent recovery.

Yet the reality is that many investors end out owning portfolios that are inconsistent with their risk tolerance, and it’s only in bear markets that they seem to “realize” the problem (which unfortunately leads to problem-selling). Which raises the question: why is it that investors don’t mind owning mis-aligned and overly risky portfolios until the moment of market decline?

The key is to recognize that investors do not always properly perceive the risks of their own investments. And it’s not until the investor’s perceived risk exceeds his/her risk tolerance that there’s a compulsion to make a (potentially ill-timed) investment change.

Yet the fact that investors may dissociate their perceptions of risk from the portfolio’s actual risk also means there’s a danger than the investor will misperceive the portfolio risk and want to sell (or buy more) even if the portfolio is appropriately aligned to his/her risk tolerance. In other words, it’s not enough to just ensure that the investors have portfolios consistent with their risk tolerance (and risk capacity); it’s also necessary to determine whether they’re properly perceiving the amount of risk they’re taking.

And as any experienced advisor has likely noticed, not all investors are equally good at understanding and properly perceiving the risks they’re taking. Some are quite good at perceiving risk and maintaining their composure through market ups and downs. But others have poor “risk composure”, and are highly prone to misperceiving risks (and thus tend to make frequently-ill-timed portfolio changes!).

Which means in the end, it’s necessary to not only assess a client’s risk tolerance, but also to determine their risk composure. Unfortunately, at this point no tools exist to measure risk composure – beyond recognizing that clients whose risk perceptions vary wildly over time will likely experience challenges staying the course in the future. But perhaps it’s time to broaden our understanding – and assessment – of risk composure, as in the end it’s the investor’s ability to maintain their composure that really determines whether they are able to effectively stay the course!

Risk Perception And Portfolio Changes

It is a requirement of financial advisors around the world to assess a client’s risk tolerance before investing their assets, based on the fundamental recognition that not everyone wants to take the same level of risk with their investments. Which is important, because a mismatch – where the investor takes more risk than he/she is willing to take – creates the danger that the investor will lose more money than they are willing to lose in the event of a bear market. And even if the market recovers, there’s a risk that the investor will sell at the market bottom in a panic along the way.

Of course, if all investors were always astutely aware of their own risk tolerance, and the amount of risk being taken in the portfolio, the need to assess risk tolerance would be a moot point, as investors could simply “self-regulate” their own portfolio and behaviors. The caveat, though, is that not all investors are necessarily cognizant of their own risk tolerance comfort level, and/or face the risk that they will misjudge the amount of risk in their portfolio, and not realize the problem until it is too late.

Thus why the key problem is that investors often sell at the market bottom. Because it’s the moment the investor realizes that they were taking more risk than they were comfortable with, and decides to bail out. Not during the bull market that may have preceded it, because when markets are going up, investors don’t necessarily perceive the risks along the way. In other words, it often takes a bear market (or at least a severe “market correction”) to align perception with reality (as until that moment, ignorance is bliss).

The reason why this matters is that it really means it’s not the mere fact that an investor is allocated “too aggressively” that creates behavioral problems like selling out at the market bottom. Instead, the problem occurs at the moment the investor perceives that reality – e.g., during a bear market decline – and then feels compelled to act. Which is unfortunate, because in practice that’s usually the worst time to do something.

Nonetheless, the key point remains that it’s not actually “investing too risky” that creates the problem for the conservative client. It’s the moment of perceiving and realizing that the portfolio is too risky that actually causes a behavioral response (to sell at a potentially-ill-timed moment).

The Risk Of Misperceiving Risk

The fact that conservative investors don’t sell risky portfolios until they actually perceive the risk they’re taking to be beyond their comfort level is important for two reasons.

The first is that it reveals the key issue isn’t actually gaps between the investor’s portfolio and his/her risk tolerance, per se, but the gap between the perceived risk of the investor’s portfolio and his/her risk tolerance. Again, it’s not merely “investing too aggressively” that’s the problem, but the moment of realizing that you’re invested too aggressively that triggers a behavioral (and often problematic) response.

The second is that it also implies investors could make bad investment decisions even with appropriate portfolios, if they misperceive the risk they’re taking!

For instance, imagine a client who is very, very conservative, and doesn’t like to take much investment risk at all. But it’s 1999, and he’s just seen tech stocks go up, and up, and up. Every year, tech stocks beat cash and bonds like clockwork, to a very large degree. And it’s happened so many months and years in a row, that the client is convinced there’s “no risk” to investing in tech stocks – since as he’s seen, they only ever go up, and never go down!

In this context, if you were a very conservative (bond) investor, and became convinced that tech stocks were going to beat cash every year and it was a “sure bet”, what would you do as a very conservative investor? You’d put all your money in tech stocks!

Of course, once tech stocks finally crash the following year, and it becomes clear they’re not a superior-guaranteed-return-alternative to cash, the conservative investor will likely sell, and potentially for a substantial loss.

But the key point is that the investor didn’t suddenly become more tolerant of risk in 1999, and intolerant a year later when the tech crash began. It’s because the investor misperceived the risk in 1999 (causing him to buy), and then adjusted his perceptions to reality when the bear market showed up in 2000 (causing him to sell). It’s the same pattern that played out with housing in 2006, and tulips in 1636. In other words, it’s not risk tolerance that’s unstable, but risk (mis)perceptions.

Similarly, imagine a client who is extremely tolerant of risk. She’s a successful serial entrepreneur, who has repeatedly taken calculated high risks, and profited from them. Her portfolio is (appropriate to her tolerance) invested 90% in equities.

But suddenly, a major market event occurs, akin to the 2008 financial crisis, and she becomes convinced that the whole financial system is going to collapse.

As a highly risk-tolerant investor, what would the appropriate action be if you were very tolerant of risk, but convinced the market was going to zero in a financial collapse? You’d sell all your stocks. Even as a highly risk tolerant investor.

Not because you aren’t comfortable with the risk of all those stocks. But because even if you’re tolerant of risk, no risk-tolerant investor wants to own an investment they’re convinced is going to zero!

But the key point again is that the investor’s risk tolerance isn’t changing in bull and bear markets. She remains highly tolerant of risk. The problem is that her perceptions are changing… and that it’s her mis-perception that a bear market decline means stocks are going to zero (not just declining before a recovery) that actually causes the “problem behavior”. Because it leads the client to want to sell out of a portfolio that was actually appropriately aligned to her risk tolerance in the first place!

Risk Composure – The Stability Of Risk Perception

Every experienced advisor is aware of a small subset of his/her clients who are especially prone to making rash investment decisions. They’re the ones who send emails asking whether they should be buying more stocks every time the market has a multi-month bull market streak. And they’re the ones who call and want to sell stocks whenever there’s a market pullback and the scary headlines hit CNBC and the newspapers.

In other words, some clients have especially unstable perceptions of risk. The cycles of fear and greed mean that most investors swing back and forth in their views of risk at least to some degree. But while the risk perception of some clients swings like a slow metronome, for others it’s more like a seismograph.

Or viewed another way, it’s those latter clients who seem to be especially prone to the kinds of behavioral biases that cause us to misperceive risk. They are especially impacted by the recency bias, where we tend to extrapolate the near-term past into the indefinite future (i.e., what went up recently will go up forever, and what went down recently is going all the way to zero!). They may also be prone to confirmation bias, which leads us to selectively “see” and focus on information that reaffirms our existing (recency) bias. And for many, there’s also an overconfidence bias that leads us to think we will know what the outcome will be, and therefore want to take action in the portfolio to “control” the result.

In essence, some clients appear to be far more likely to be influenced by various behavioral biases. Others are better at maintaining their “risk composure”, and not having their perceptions constantly fluctuate with the latest news nor becoming flustered by external events and stimuli.

Which is important, because means that it’s the clients with low risk composure who are actually most prone to exhibit problem behaviors… regardless of whether they’re conservative or aggressive investors!

After all, an aggressive client with good risk composure may see a market decline as just a temporary setback likely to recover (given market history), while an aggressive client with bad risk composure may see a market decline and suddenly expect it’s just going to keep declining all the way to zero.

In this case, both are aggressive. For both, the “right” portfolio is an aggressive one, given their risk tolerance (and presuming it aligns with their risk capacity). But the client with bad risk composure will need extra hand-holding to stay the course, because he/she is especially prone to misperceiving risk based on recent events, and thinking the portfolio is no longer appropriate (even if it is).

How Low Risk Composure Makes Tolerable Portfolios Seem Scary

Similarly, if two clients are very conservative but have different risk composures, the one with high risk composure should be able to easily stay the course with a conservative portfolio and not chase returns, recognizing that even if the market is going up now, it may well experience market declines and volatility later. While the conservative client with bad risk composure is the one most likely to misperceive risk, leading to rapid buying and selling behavior, as he/she becomes convinced that a bull market in stocks must be a “permanent” phenomenon of guaranteed-higher-returns and overinvests in risk… only to come crashing back to reality (and selling) when the market declines.

The key point here is that both conservative and aggressive clients can have challenges staying the course in bull and bear markets. Even if their risk tolerance remains stable. Because some people have more of an ability to maintain their risk composure through market cycles, while others do not. And it’s those low risk composure investors, who are more likely to misperceive risks – to the upside or the downside – that tend to trigger potentially ill-timed buying and selling activity. As they’re the ones most like to perceive that their portfolio is misaligned with what they can comfortably tolerate (due to that tendency to rapidly misperceive risk in either direction!).

Can We Measure Risk Perception And Risk Composure?

From the proactive perspective, the reason that all of this matters is that if we can figure out how to accurately measure risk perception and risk composure, we can identify which investors are most likely to experience challenges in sticking to their investment plan in the future.

Recognizing that it’s not merely about the investor’s risk tolerance and whether he/she is conservative or aggressive with a properly aligned portfolio in the first place… but how likely he/she is to recognize the risks in the portfolio, and that that portfolio is the properly aligned one! And the potential that the investor will misperceive the risk in their portfolio and think they need to buy more or sell out, even if the portfolio is the right one, because the investor has low risk composure and is constantly misperceiving the risk in the portfolio!

Notably, this is also why it’s so crucial to start out by using a psychometrically validated risk tolerance assessment tools in the first place (though unfortunately, few of today’s risk tolerance questionnaires are even suited for the task!).

For instance, imagine two prospective clients come into your office. Both have aggressive portfolios, and say they’re very comfortable with the risk they’re taking. How do you know if the investors are truly risk tolerant, or if they’re actually conservative investors who have misjudged the risk in their portfolios?

The answer: give them both a high-quality risk tolerance questionnaire, and see if their portfolios actually do align with their risk tolerance.

The key here is not to just ask them about what kinds of investment risks they want to take. Because we already know that if they’re misperceiving investment risk, their answers will be biased towards taking more risk, not because they want to, but because they’ve become blind to it!

In this context, the more “pure” the risk tolerance questionnaire (RTQ), and not connected to investment decisions and market trade-offs, the easier it will be to identify who is actually tolerant of risk, and who might simply be misperceiving (and underestimating) investment risks.

Thus, if the RTQ process is completed, and investor A scores very aggressive, and investor B scores very conservative, it becomes clear that investor A is accurately assessing risk and has the appropriate portfolio, while investor B has become risk-blind and needs a different portfolio (and an education on how much risk he/she is actually taking!)

Of course, the caveat is that a gap between a new client’s risk tolerance and their current portfolio provides an indicator of a current misperception, and helps to determine whether the new client should actually have that aggressive portfolio, or not. And the client who so significantly misperceived risk in the first place ostensibly has poor risk composure – after all, if he/she could misperceive risk so much the first time, there’s clearly an elevated risk it may happen again.

But that doesn’t necessarily provide any indicator of who is most likely to be prone to risk misperceptions and have poor risk composure in the future, if they weren’t already exhibiting those problems.

Accordingly, perhaps it’s time for not only a tool to measure risk tolerance, but also one that either measures risk composure, or at least provides an ongoing measure of risk perception. (As a client where the measured risk perception varies wildly over time is by definition one with poor risk composure, and most likely to need hand-holding in future bull and bear markets to keep their portfolio on target.)

For instance, clients might be regularly asked what their expectations are for market returns. The expected return itself (and especially an inappropriately high or low return) is an express sign of risk misperception, and those whose expected returns for stocks and bonds fluctuate wildly over time would be scored as having low risk composure as well.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a way to ask clients more generally questions that assess ongoing risk perceptions, or simply assess risk composure up front. This might include a biodata approach of asking them whether historically they’ve tended to make portfolio adjustments in bull and bear markets (which at least would work for experienced investors), or whether they like to take in current news and information to make portfolio changes, or other similar behavior patterns that suggest they are more actively changing risk perceptions with new information and therefore have low composure.

The bottom line, though, is simply to recognize and understand that in times of market volatility, what’s fluctuating is not risk tolerance itself but risk perception, and moreover that risk tolerance alone may actually be a poor indicator of who will likely need hand-holding in times of market volatility. After all, if it was “just” about risk tolerance, then any investor whose portfolio was in fact aligned with their tolerance should be “fine” in staying the course. But in reality many clients aren’t, not because their portfolio is inappropriate for their tolerance, but because they misperceive the risk they’re taking, causing them to either want to buy more (in a bull market that seems like a sure bet), or sell in a bear market (because who wants to own an investment you believe is going to zero, regardless of your risk tolerance).

Of course, a portfolio that is not aligned to the investor’s risk tolerance will clearly be a problem. But the missing link is that even for those with proper allocations, those with low risk composure will still struggle with their investment decisions and behaviors! And to the extent we can figure out how to identify clients who risk perceptions are misaligned with reality, and who have low risk composure and are prone to such misperceptions, the better we can identify who will actually be most likely to need help (via a financial advisor, or other interventions) to stay the course!

So what do you think? Is the real problem that some investors are risk tolerant and others are not? Or that some investors are better at maintaining their risk composure, while others are more likely to have their risk perceptions swing wildly with the volatility of the markets? Would it be helpful to have a tool that measures not just risk tolerance, but risk composure? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Social Security COLA Could Get Wiped Out By Rising Medicare Costs

Social Security COLA Could Get Wiped Out By Rising Medicare Costs

With the latest CPI release for August now available, analysts project that the annual Social Security Cost-Of-Living Adjustment, or COLA (which is calculated annually from the beginning of September from the prior year to the end of August of the current year), should be approximately 1.8% in 2018, which would actually make it the largest COLA since 2012 (when it was 1.7%), and up substantially from 0% in 2016 and just 0.3% in 2017. However, because the past two years have had especially low inflation and small COLAs, most Social Security recipients have benefitted from the so-called “Hold Harmless” provisions that cap their Medicare Part B premiums at the dollar amount increase in annual Social Security payments – which meant with near-zero inflation for two years, the $104/month Medicare Part B premium from 2015 has risen to “just” $109/month (while the roughly 30% of Medicare enrollees not protected by Hold Harmless have been paying $134/month, plus any income-related surcharges). Yet with inflation now looming for 2018, the rise in Social Security payments next year will be enough to “unwind” the prior Hold Harmless rules, reverting most Social Security recipients from $109/month to $134/month in Medicare Part B premiums, which ironically will consume most or all of their pending 1.7% COLA increase. On the other hand, higher income individuals, who were not eligible for Hold Harmless in the first place and were already paying the full $134/month in Medicare Part B, will continue to pay the same amount next year (albeit plus income-related surcharges again), but actually will see the 1.7% COLA increase in their Social Security checks!