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You Will Fall Down

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I fell down the stairs recently. Actually, I fell down an escalator. Going down. Near the bottom. I didn’t expect to fall. I travel down escalators all the time, lugging a garment bag with my briefcase balanced on top. Like I did this time. The briefcase fell (poorly secured, I admit). When I stooped to retrieve said briefcase, said garment bag fell the other way. I followed. I’m sure I looked silly. I looked around. Nobody saw me. I think.

I didn’t expect to fall, but I should have had. Especially balancing two bags. There’s a reason why building signs suggest you take an elevator if you’re pushing a stroller or lugging luggage. Apparently.

A few hours after my ignominious if anonymous fall, the heels of my hands hurt where I broke my fall. My left hip hurts. My elbow hurt for a while; it doesn’t hurt now. Thanks for your concern.

My escalator bête noire was at a hotel. In Atlantic City. I was there at my company’s national sales conference. I told the salespeople that a correction is coming. I was talking about the markets, especially equities. We’ve been in a bull market — even if it is the most hated — for eight years now. It’s time for a correction.

When it comes, will you be prepared? Will your clients be prepared? Have you educated them about market cycles? Did they pay attention to your lecture?

My guess is that they didn’t really listen. Clients may be great people, but consumers in general — even well-educated, relatively sophisticated consumers — are not as bright as we think they are. Or perhaps more important, as some anti-regulation members of the financial services industry argue they are.

One example. At the national sales meeting, one salesperson cornered me, asking, “Aren’t you the editor of Investment Advisor?” I admitted to being said editor. He then told me he’d come into a sum of money — $300,000 — and wanted my advice as to where to invest it. I hope he was just asking a lot of people who he thought were smart about money and then he’d ask a professional. I said I was not an investment advisor. Then I asked him what his goal was for this windfall.

His answer? “Wow! That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought of that.” Then he said, “I guess retirement.” I told him what I tell anybody who asks me for “investment advice.” “Don’t try to beat the market. Invest most of your money in low-cost index mutual funds or ETFs. Diversify the rest of your holdings. Don’t time the market.” Etc.

Those who denigrate robo-advisors say they won’t survive a market downturn. I don’t believe that’s true. Those who denigrate robo-advisors say they’ll never replace human advisors. I’m not so sure that’s true. I think they will replace many human advisors. For one thing, robos can learn. And as they attract more people, they will learn faster.

For me, advisors are best at educating and motivating clients to act in their best interests. I think if you’re not doing that, if you aren’t well-versed in the “psychographics” of your clients, as Anil Arora of Envestnet | Yodleee put it in an interview for this month’s cover story, then maybe you should be replaced. Providing education and motivation, and seeing the connection between disparate parts of clients’ financial lives and making them work together to meet their goals, is what good human advisors do. It will also allow them to charge the fees that are much higher than robos. (I also think you should move away from charging an AUM fee, since you don’t control the direction of the markets. As Jud Bergman of Envestnet mentioned in an interview for the cover story, the most successful RIAs are charging some kind of flat fee for their services.)

Some day you will fall, if you haven’t already. I hope you aren’t hurt too badly. I hope you’re not too embarrassed. You can take all sorts of precautions against falling, but you will fall. The question is not how you keep yourself from falling again. The question is how you prepare in advance for that fall — good planning — and for how you’ll recover after falling. Good luck. I’m making an icepack for that hip.


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