Despite the billions of dollars being allocated to financial technology or “Fin Tech,” some believe automation will never trump personal interactions. As Carla Dearing, CEO of financial wellness company SUM180, puts it “… money is emotional and there are always intangibles to consider in deciding what to do next, which cannot be captured by robots …” (Read “Why Robo-Advisors Will Not Replace Human Financial Advisors,” The Street, February 28, 2017).

Last month, industry pundit Michael Kitces offered interesting insights in his “Why Broker-Dealers Launching Robo-Advisors Are Missing The #FinTech Point” article. He acknowledges the growth in automation but suggests it won’t be a cure-all to attracting Millennial heirs who expect to inherit their parents’ wealth. What makes more sense is to exploit the “tremendous operational efficiencies” for purposes of “onboarding clients and efficiently managing (model) portfolios” while allocating ample resources to “marketing and business development.”

Whatever your view about the next big thing involving a mobile interface or data analytics, a critical question remains. Will you or your financial advisor soon be made redundant by some version of R2D2 or C-3PO?

Drum roll please! If research by Oxford University academics accurately foretells the future, financial advisors can breathe a sigh of relief – sort of. In their 2013 paper, “The Future of Employment,” Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne quantify low probabilities of replacement for securities, commodities and financial services sales agents. Financial managers, financial examiners, financial analysts and financial specialists similarly fall into the “low probability” category. Personal financial advisors fall into the “medium probability” bucket with an estimated fifty-eight percent chance of being replaced by a computer. Of course, those who specialize in complex areas such as estate planning are logically more a fixture than any digital counterpart.

Like any career, the friction between technological progress and added-value by a particular individual is real. One solution is meaningful continuing education. Another approach is for investment professionals to actively empower their clients by providing them with solutions to specific problems. Consultative selling can be a time-intensive process and not one that is always supported by an organization’s business model. Some investment advisors or asset managers are rewarded for short-term and not longer-term performance. These decision points are seldom simple to parse but nevertheless vital to consider at both the micro and macro levels – for both service providers and their clients.

According to the authors of “A Nurturing Campaign” (Financial Advisor Magazine, August 1, 2017), other investment industry professionals are key to securing leads for your business. Savvy advisors, consultants and money managers know the importance of cultivating relationships with peers, positioning one’s self as a competent technician and being ready to reciprocate as appropriate.

I agree that effective networking is the way to go. Besides the prospect of adding clients, investment professionals benefit when others are willing to candidly exchange information about ways to improve best practices and avoid mistakes.

Not everyone is a believer. It takes time and money to market your skill set to potential clients. Some posit that leaves little time for outreach to others, especially for those whose “to do” lists seem to aggressively expand each day. This kind of thinking is unfortunate. The world is a small place and today’s competitor could be a close ally later on.

To those who do seek referrals (and hopefully give them when you can), I applaud your initiative but would like to respectfully remind you that your request is only a beginning. Be clear with what you want, when you need an introduction and what you expect. Help others help you build your book of business by recognizing their busy schedules and any limitations they might have about being able to provide effusive praise. (Company policy or regulations could prohibit lengthy or detailed referrals.) By asking someone to do the heavy lifting you should be doing, you risk criticism for taking that individual for granted, coming off as impolite or turning a positive connection into one tainted with a hint of annoyance. I know this from firsthand experience.

Just last week, I received two separate requests for recommendations, both of which ended costing time and frustrating everyone involved. The first person asked me to write a recommendation letter and have it sent one day later. Ordinarily I would have said no because of the short turnaround but I like the high-integrity work this person does and his client focus. So I stayed late at work to write something, only to discover that the directions provided to me were incomplete. The net result was that I used up several hours of time and he could not meet the cutoff. Another individual gave me ample time to write a recommendation letter but told me, after I had already spent about ninety minutes drafting text and reviewing her service materials, that I should revise my letter to include passages of her numerous research papers. Of course I would have to take time to read them in depth as it had been awhile since I looked at them. We mutually agreed that she would ask another colleague – someone with the schedule flexibility to review her impressive portfolio of thought leadership items.

A few of my takeaways from these recent experiences are as follows:

  • It’s gratifying to be able to recommend high integrity, knowledgeable colleagues but important to set boundaries in terms of time and realistic expectations.
  • Arrange for a call to ask for a recommendation or referral. Email seems impersonal to me for this purpose and increases the likelihood that the referral source will waste time because instructions were unclear or incomplete or both.
  • During the call, catch someone up on what you’ve been doing and your professional value-add so everyone is clear on your achievements, business philosophy and goals. Let the recommending party ask you questions. Be specific about how the referral will be used and by whom.
  • Afterwards, send a handwritten note to acknowledge that person’s gift to you of their time, energy and belief in the positive way you handle clients.

Small courtesies can grow into large payoffs. It’s hard enough to stand out from the competition. Why not shine by demonstrating courtesy and respect for other people’s time?

Illustration depicting a green roadsign with a optimistic concept. White background.

Most of us are disciplined enough to put together a financial plan or seek the help of an advisor. While true that retirement planning is important, the future should not give way to living life in the present. If you agree that every day is a gift, check out a new movie called The Hero.

Starring Sam Elliott, the recipe is straightforward. Take one aging actor who learns he has a serious illness. Add a younger love interest, a friend with a questionable work ethic, a caring ex-wife and a disappointed daughter. The result is a tale of redemption and a story about hope. The audience sees a man who is sympathetic because he wants a second chance to make a difference in the lives of those around him.

The Hero is a quiet film and likely too slow-paced for some. However, for those who crave solid character development and a ride towards grace, grab some popcorn and head to the theater without delay. Your reward is a chance to watch someone grow by recognizing his limitations and then being willing to ask for help. Lucky for him, he gets it aplenty.

There are flashbacks to the hero’s glory days as a celluloid cowboy, motivating viewers to distinguish good deeds from bad ones and understand that reality and make-believe can collide.  The scenes of this lanky “everyman” eating, sleeping and appreciating the nearby ocean are far from mundane. They reflect the “extraordinary ordinary” moments, something I describe in my book The Big Squeeze.

Sam Elliott refers to this gem of a movie by Brett Haley as a career brass ring in his June 2017 interview with Variety. I concur. The film is an enjoyable wake-up call for anyone in the doldrums. We root for the main character to live a rich and fulfilling life among friends, family and business associates for whatever time he has left. May we all be so lucky to renew and refresh, even when it seems like life hands us more lemons than we can squeeze into sweet lemonade.

 

This article entitled “Investment Fraud and the Role of Trust” by Dr. Susan Mangiero was originally published on April 19, 2017 in The Fraud Examiner, a publication of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners that is distributed to some 65,000 fraud professionals.

+ + + + + +

Investment fraud can happen to anyone, and unfortunately, there is no shortage of investment fraud possibilities. Affinity fraud, pyramid schemes, pump-and-dump security trading, high-return or risk-free investments, and pre-IPO scams are only a few of a long-list of schemes that could separate investors from their hard-earned money. 

Investors can find themselves the victims of fraud when they don’t do enough due diligence or put too much faith in the people selling or managing a fund. Investors around the world would be wise to grasp fundamentals of the financial services industry, especially since results from a 2016 survey conducted by the National Association of Retirement Plan Participants show that only one in 10 persons express confidence in financial institutions. Financial advisers are similarly viewed with doubt. This is problematic.

Due in part to these concerns, very few people are adequately saving for retirement and those with money frequently invest in riskier assets in hopes of high returns. Following the 2008 credit crisis, people are changing the kinds of assets allocated in their pension plans and foundation portfolios. Taking more risks isn’t necessarily bad as long as investors sufficiently understand what is being offered to them and have assurances that sufficient safeguards are in place. Moreover, savers urgently need reliable help. Fragile confidence in the intentions of financial service providers creates a friction that can discourage investors from getting the input they need.

But investment fraud isn’t just a problem for individuals. When it occurs, it taints the financial services industry and the professionals who operate with high integrity and put customers first. Low trust of an entire industry can invite additional regulation. The net effect can be unfair penalties that diligent investment stewards must pay for the trespasses of fraudsters.

Increasing Investor Confidence

Although there is no such thing as a risk-free investment, investors can take action to detect red flags and hopefully avoid problems. With the Madoff Ponzi scheme, there were some who seriously questioned whether the touted strategy was legitimate, let alone viable, and did not invest. Regarding Enron, some investors looked askance at the energy company’s reliance on a complex web of special purpose vehicles. One lesson learned from the Bayou hedge fund scandal is to verify whether auditors are independent and well respected.

In its guide for seniors, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission urges the use of publicly available databases to check the disciplinary history of brokers and advisors, warning that investors should “never judge a person’s integrity by how he or she sounds.” The guide also says to avoid those who use fear tactics and to thoroughly review documents. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority cautions investors not to be pressured or to believe that a “once in a lifetime” opportunity will be lost without immediate action.

To help combat investment fraud, the North American Securities Administrators Association teamed up with the Canadian Securities Administrators to create an online quiz that anyone can take to enhance awareness of what to avoid.

Although there are organizations that formally grade companies on their trustworthiness, investors should not rely on a single metric alone. Instead they should study whether a financial service provider has a good reputation in the marketplace and what the company is doing to manage its economic and operational risks.

Financial service companies likewise have responsibilities to be trustworthy and ensure that adequate protections are put in place. Some of these critical action steps include:

  • Setting up controls to prevent rogue trading
  • Appropriately compensating salespersons to minimize conflicts
  • Providing existing and potential customers with clear and understandable investment documents
  • Regularly communicating what the organization does well to lower risks for its customers
  • Calling out questionable activities of its competitors and working with industry organizations to improve risk management and fraud prevention techniques.

Disclaimer: The information provided by this article should not be construed as financial or legal advice. The reader should consult with his or her own advisors.

As I understand, the term "consultative selling" was first used by author and sales expert Mack Hanan. The concept is simple. Know what your customer needs and offer them solutions to their problems. The process is a two-way street. Both buyer and provider are actively involved and should communicate clearly and with respect. While lots of advisors and their firms find themselves on the A list, there is a continuing flurry of lawsuits being filed that allege self-dealing, opacity of disclosures and reasonableness of fees. Visit the 401k Help Center website section regarding court decisions and legal activity to read for yourself.

As with any industry, the investment community is constantly self-examining its practices in order to improve. This is a positive thing. As I point out in "Fake News, Plagiarism and Business Ethics," good players have a vested interest in self-policing since they can be tainted, reputation-wise, as the result of bad actions of others. I’ve spoken to hundreds of buyers of financial services who question the checks and balances of those who manage their money or otherwise influence their retirement planning decisions. Frequent and clear communications with their respective advisor, consultant or portfolio executive can go a long way in assuring the doubting Thomas. There is no shortage of inspiration about how to effectively interact.

Over the holidays, I observed a back and forth between sellers and buyers at a national jewelry store. While waiting my turn, I watched shop clerks attend to customers who seemed thoroughly prepared with questions about quality and price. I’m not a big purveyor of charms but was certainly impressed with the breadth of knowledge on both sides of the cash register. I can relate. As my friends know, I have a penchant for perfume and like to treat myself to a new scent now and then. I do my research in advance, visiting sites like Fragrantica.com. Wine connoisseurs are similarly motivated to gather information and sellers are wise to help educate them.

Whenever the product or service is personal, sellers must respond accordingly. Empower potential or existing customers with straightforward information. Be prepared to answer questions. Treat each client with respect as if they really count. For some organizations, the cost of selling could be too high unless the transaction is "large enough." Size is a perfectly fine business model to adapt but make it known in a courteous way that minimums apply. A small investor today could be your large investor tomorrow.

Most selling involves humans and that means that behaviors can’t be ignored. Before he passed away, famed sales guru Zig Ziglar said "You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want."

Kudos to Chris Carosa for his continued efforts as publisher of Fiduciary News. I share his mission to educate and provide independent insights. That is why I was delighted to be one of the contributors to his recent article, "These Five Developments Dramatically Changed the Retirement Fiduciary World in 2016."

My view is that it is hard to pinpoint standalone issues. So many areas overlap. For example, a discussion about fiduciary litigation frequently involves questions about the reasonableness of fees. A conversation about fees often means talking about asset allocation as well. An analysis of asset allocation trends is commonly linked to investment performance realizations. When one talks about returns, it is usually in the context of economic forecasts. Overlay regulatory mandates, including the imminent U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule, and it becomes apparent that retirement plan governance is complex territory. Nevertheless, Chris did a noble job of listing significant and distinct trends with his readers. His list includes the following:

  • Capital Markets – Low interest rates continue to challenge both institutional and individual investors. The pension risk transfer market is experiencing unprecedented growth as sponsors seek to focus less on retirement plan management and more on operating their core businesses. Post-election, the U.S. market seems poised for better returns in 2017 although it is thought that low-cost index funds will remain popular.
  • Excessive Fee Litigation – The attention paid to fee levels and the process of assessing reasonableness continues to grow. Some believe that the proliferation of lawsuits has resulted in improved governance regarding the selection and review of various funds. I am quoted as saying that "…investors in search of turbo-charged performance struggled with the reality that the costs of alternatives, derivatives and structured products are generally higher than passive funds."
  • Fiduciary Rule – Uncertainty is the watchword with multiple plan sponsors unsure about what they might want to delegate to a third party. Consulting firms that offer independent fiduciary services have an opportunity to help their clients solve real compliance problems.
  • State Sponsored Private Employee Retirement Plans – Deemed controversial by some, these arrangements to help small business employees are being rolled out by states throughout the nation. The goal is to encourage savings over the long-term although I have doubts about accountability and redress for disgruntled participants. Click to read "State Retirement Arrangements for Small Business Employees" (June 9, 2016) and "Public-Private Retirement Plans and Possible Fiduciary Gaps" (June 5, 2016).
  • Presidential Race – Carosa writes "Of all the events of 2016, nothing will have had more of an impact than the presidential election." Perhaps he is correct. Already the yearend markets have been chugging upward and optimism is on the rise. Yet there are questions about whether regulations such as the Fiduciary Rule will be weakened or perhaps eliminated altogether. Should that occur, financial service industry executives will need to respond.

The article lists other developments including restructuring deals. I am quoted as saying "Restructuring deals have made 2016 a notable year in terms of the number of pension risk transfers and the outsourcing of the responsibilities of a Chief Investment Officer to a third party. Bankruptcy has catalyzed the restructuring of multiple plans, much to the dismay of the savers who have been asked to accept lower benefits. Service providers who have been ordered by the courts to take less favorable terms as swap counterparties or consultants are correspondingly glum."

President John F. Kennedy declared "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future." I concur. Where there is disruption, there is always the opportunity to address a problem and win the hearts and wallets of investors.

Here’s to a terrific 2017. Happy holidays!

According to an August 17 press release from Fidelity Investments, "fiduciary responsibility tops plan sponsors’ reasons for hiring advisors." What’s more, this poll of nearly 1,000 defined contribution plan decision-makers makes clear that knowledgeable third parties have an edge in being hired and retained, especially if they can offer input about plan design and investment selection. Cited areas of concern include the following:

  • Increasing employee participation;
  • Properly measuring investment performance; and
  • Making sure that investment risk goals are heeded.

A 2016 Mass Mutual survey reveals similar findings that plan sponsors want help with plan design, discharging fiduciary duties and investment selection. Moreover, about two-thirds of respondents said they want an advisor who works with companies like theirs. 

It’s no surprise then that educational initiatives continue to develop in response to changing regulations and an enhanced focus on fiduciary duties. As announced last month, the American Retirement Association has partnered with Morningstar "to develop a fiduciary education and best practices program for advisors."

April 2017 will be a busy month for many as they seek to comply with large chunks of the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule.

Retirement planning is hard work and requires discipline and care. Few of us can rely on luck or the proverbial leprechaun‘s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, Assessing uncertainty on an ongoing basis is as important as identifying goals. Sadly, I’m not convinced that the topic of risk management is being discussed as often as it should be with workers and retirees alike.

In the last month, I spent copious time reviewing educational materials produced by a handful of financial advisory firms. What I found confirmed my suspicion that coverage of the topic of risk does not often extend beyond an initial assessment of risk tolerance. A prospective client is asked to complete a questionnaire. The financial advisor then reviews the answers and makes a recommendation about what asset allocation mix seems right. When scenario modeling is used, an individual may be given several possible portfolios from which to choose. Ideally, as an individual’s circumstances or goals change, the questionnaire should be completed anew and modifications made accordingly.

Outside of product boilerplate language and short paragraphs about diversification and dollar cost averaging, I did not uncover much information about specific risk management techniques that an individual investor can put to work. This is lamentable. Investment risk management is not just for corporations, financial service companies and governments.

There are lots of techniques that an individual can utilize, starting with the creation of an inventory of what protection is already in place, if any, and a risk map that specifies outcomes that an investor wants to avoid at all costs. In behavioral finance, the desire to avert losses is a well-known psychological bias and should not be ignored. It is important that an individual investor and his financial advisor acknowledge the "worst case" situation as part of setting objectives.

While gauging tolerance for risk is necessary, it is seldom sufficient for several reasons. First, a financial plan may focus only on investments and therefore exclude different kinds of insurance policies that are integral to capturing which risks are already hedged and which ones are not. Second, an investor may realize a target level of return but have a portfolio that is too small to generate sufficient cash flows. Bills are paid with cash, not returns. Third, if securities or funds are selected on the basis of expected return and standard deviation only, material quantitative and qualitative risk factors are likely excluded. As a result, an investor could be assuming "excessive" risk or not enough risk.

As famed author Mark Twain quipped "There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can." One might say he was a risk manager ahead of his time.

No sooner had I written "Financial Technology and the Fiduciary Rule," an invitation to the Future of Finance 2016 appeared in my in-box with the call-out that "Technology is about to revolutionise financial services." (Note the British spelling for this Oxford conference.) Based on session titles, attendees will hear about topics such as how technology can:

  • Be "used to build trusting relationships with clients" and increase transparency;
  • Substitute for "expensive human intermediaries" to lower costs; and
  • Encourage the creation of "simpler and cheaper" insurance and savings products.

Increasingly, angels and venture capitalists are waking up to the fact that the global retirement marketplace is big and ripe for innovation. Earlier today, Goldman Sachs Investment Management Division announced its intent to acquire Honest Dollar. According to CrunchBase, this transaction follows a seed financing last fall to further build a web and mobile platform that allows small businesses to cost-effectively set up retirement plans. Expansive Ventures led that round that includes former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit and will.i.am, founder of The Black Eyed Peas musical group.

Yet another indication that investors see "gold in them thar health care and retirement plan hills" is a $30 million capital raise for a company called Namely. Its February 23, 2016 press release lists Sequoia Capital as the lead venture capital firm for this round, bringing its total funding so far to $107.8 million for this "SaaS HR platform for mid-market companies."

Interestingly, in articles about both Honest Dollar and Namely, the tsunami of complex regulations is cited as a reason why employers need help from financial technology organizations. With mandates growing and becoming more muscular, no one should be surprised if cash-rich backers write big checks to financial technology businesses. As Xconomy reporter Angela Shah points out, multiple start-ups are "trying to compete for the 80-plus percent who don’t offer benefits."

There is no doubt that the competitive landscape is changing and will prompt more strategic soul-searching for vendors and policy-makers alike. I’ve listed a few of the many questions in search of answers as things evolve.

  • Will other large financial service organizations like Goldman Sachs swallow up smaller start-ups? If so, does that change the role of angels and venture capitalists?
  • If enough of these companies pop up to serve small businesses and self-employed persons, is there still a need for the product offered by the U.S. government – myRA?
  • Will the U.S. Department of Labor fiduciary rule, if passed into law, accelerate the formation and growth of financial technology companies? If so, how?
  • Will there be a need for more or fewer financial advisors as the financial technology sector grows?
  • Will individuals buy more insurance and savings products? If not, why not?

Life in financial services land will never be dull.

The fact that some people thrive on stress could be a plus if you want to work in the financial services industry. According to "The most (and least) stressful jobs in banking and finance" (efinancialcareers.com, December 31, 2015), careers that were ranked as most stressful to least stressful are as follows:

  • Investment banker;
  • Trader;
  • Risk management and compliance;
  • Wealth management/private banker;
  • Institutional sales;
  • Management consulting;
  • Private equity;
  • Equity research;
  • Fund manager; and
  • Accounting.

Interviews with recruiters and employees mentioned long hours and a lack of control over issues that create problems and demand solutions. Respondents who work in the risk management and compliance areas talked about their frustration when they call out areas in need of improvement but then "nothing is done." 

Other professionals, such as those who work in wealth management, talked about competition as being a source of stress. Making money only occurs after an advisor expends considerable effort to build a big client base but then more time is needed to prevent an aggressive peer from taking assets away.

Besides job-specific concerns, industry changes can be a source of worry if they are expected to radically transform the way business is conducted. Consider the rise of financial technology ("FinTech") or what Inc. Magazine referred to as "One of the Most Promising Industries of 2015." According to a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled "Can Robo Advisers Replace Human Financial Advisors?", assets managed without human intervention grew from $3.7 billion to $8 billion between July 2014 and July 2015. Although critics counter that robots cannot offer individualized advice about specialties such as estate planning, a reliance on automation, if substantial, will result in winners and losers.

Regulatory changes can raise stress levels too, especially if one has little latitude to adapt to a new rule at the individual level. The U.S. Department of Labor’s proposed fiduciary rule is already showing up in the form of strategic corporate decisions that are moving people from one place to another. This week’s announcement about a sale of MetLife’s U.S. advisor unit to the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. comes on the heels of the American International Group’s decision to sell its broker-dealer unit rather than potentially incur added compliance costs. See "MetLife exits brokerage business as DOL rule looms" (Investment News, February 29, 2016).

Although not specifically mentioned in articles about stressful jobs, ERISA retirement plan fiduciaries are surely aware of their personal and professional liability exposure. Add the complexities of new legislation and economic challenges such as negative interest rates and it’s not a stretch to understand why some fiduciaries might need to take a few deep breaths to relax. No doubt their public pension colleagues may need a zen moment as well.