Six months after Research celebrates its 30th anniversary this summer, I’ll be celebrating my 30th anniversary of working in the financial services industry. While many things have changed over three decades, many things of enduring importance and value have become even clearer with historical perspective. So as you read through this retrospective, I invite you to think back upon your own experiences and see if you agree with my ultimate conclusion: Despite all the changes, all the ups and all the downs, our industry will always survive because Americans will always need quality advice from talented and hard-working financial advisors.
It Was Thirty Years Ago…When I became a mutual funds wholesaler in Florida in 1979, the stock market hadn’t yet recovered from the terrible losses of 1973 and 1974. (On November 14, 1972, the Dow broke through 1,000 for the first time, but by December 6, 1974, it had fallen to 577.) Stocks were out of favor, “mutual fund” was a dirty word, the hot investment of the day was Petro-Lewis income funds, and gold was heading way up.
The industry was still redefining itself following the 1975 Mayday deregulation of securities commissions. Those commissions remained relatively high, with a maximum mutual fund load of 8.5 percent and an average mutual fund commission of 6 percent. The settlement period was “T plus 5″ (transaction plus five business days; today, it’s “T plus 1″), and “long term” meant three to five years (today, “long term” means lunchtime).
Working conditions were very different. We had 15-line phones with 15 buttons; when a call came in, you were paged and told which button to push. Sending a fax was complicated, typically took three people, and was reserved for the most urgent of matters. The blaring AM radios on half the desks in my office competed with the voices of brokers trying to move product over the phone. And, of course, most people smoked: picking up the phone to dial and lighting a cigarette was a single action. Navigating the cloud of smoke and the din of radio and human noise was somewhat daunting, but seemed perfectly normal back then.
The 1980s: A Tough Start and Rougher MiddleBy 1980 inflation had skyrocketed, reaching 13.5 percent annually. With inflation and interest rates reaching all-time highs, unit investment trusts were being offered at 16 percent interest and universal life insurance proposals were being run at 12 percent interest for 30 years. (Apparently, no one stopped to consider what would happen to the economy if interests rates actually stayed that high for 30 years.)
Unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent in 1982, and we experienced the crushing effects of a spiraling federal debt, which tripled between 1981 and 1988, along with record trade deficits. But soon enough Reaganomics took hold, and inflation was down to 3.2 percent by 1983. (Unemployment dropped to 5.3 percent by the end of 1989.)
The middle of the decade brought a triple whammy. Now on the broker-dealer side of things, I used to tell people that our business was built on a three-legged stool consisting of alternative investments (mainly limited partnerships at the time), bonds and stocks. Starting with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, within 18 months, all three legs were sawed off:o Tax reform gutted limited partnershipso The bond market crisis of the summer and fall of 1987 brought more fluctuation in a single week than most brokers and traders had previously seen in their entire careerso On October 19, 1987, Black Monday saw the Dow Jones average drop 508 points (22.6 percent)
Once again, after a rough beginning followed by some pretty good years, we were back to “What do we do now?”
The 1990s: A Great RideFrom the early 1990s until the tech bubble burst in March 2000, we had an amazing ride. There was unprecedented growth in the Nasdaq, corresponding gains in the Dow and the S&P 500, and the profusion of discount brokerage houses. Online trading was born with e*Trade’s founding in 1991 — remember the ads about the tow-truck driver who told a flabbergasted businessman that he worked for fun and owned his own tropical island?
But as with all market cycles, greed and overextension set in, expansion led to contraction, and eventually we experienced what statisticians call “regression to the mean.” So when the dot.com bubble burst, when the IPO spigot turned off and the prices of tech companies and nearly everything else plummeted, the market gave back between 50 percent and 75 percent of the previous decade’s growth. The economy worsened in 2001, with the U.S. GDP turning negative in the third quarter. And then, of course, came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The mid-2000s were pretty good for the market, but today, once again, we find ourselves facing a recession and asking ourselves, “What do we do now?” As always, we’ll tighten our belts, find a way to live through the lows, and eventually the magic of another bull market will emerge on the other side.
What’s Changed… and What Hasn’t Much has changed in the last 30 years. For example, the number of women in our industry has substantially increased (although there are still far fewer women in management and decision-making roles than there should be). While we’ve perhaps made less progress in racial diversity, certain firms — to their credit and advantage — are actively recruiting and promoting minorities.
Business models have changed as well. And while the debate about fee-only vs. commissions has raged on, advisors have been successful using a wide variety of business models, because we’re as diverse and different in our needs and preferences as our clients are. There’s room in our industry for generalists and specialists, for fee-based and commission-based, for those who work “old style” and those on the cutting edge.
Another ongoing change has been a significant consolidation of brokerage firms. Ask yourself, “Whatever happened to…” and then fill in the blank with any of these names: Rhodes, Weeks, Noyes, Pierce, Fenner, Smith, Shearson, Hayden, Stone, Bache, Halsey, Shields, Bear, Stearns. But while many firms have morphed or gone away, and while discount houses and online trading services have become ubiquitous, none of this has proven to be the end of our industry.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that regulators simply can’t prevent some of the “bad guys” from entering our industry. Since the dawn of civilization there have always been a small number of those who consciously choose to do ill to and prey on the weak and the helpless. Unfortunately, our industry inevitably attracts some of these bad guys, and they tend to overshadow the good works of the vast majority of decent and dedicated advisors.
The last 30 years have given us many challenges: recessions, high unemployment, ballooning trade deficits and federal deficits, wars and terrorist attacks, bear markets and busts. But none of this has proven insurmountable, because underneath it all there’s been an explosion of affluence fueled by the overall success of the U.S. and world economy. So no matter what the future brings, something else that won’t change is the need for Americans to receive quality investment advice to fund both the American dream and the American retirement. Therefore, there will always be a need for astute financial advisors who have their clients’ best interests at heart.
Patricia J. Abram is a senior managing partner with CEG Worldwide in Florida; see www.cegwordwide.com