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The ‘popular’ view of the world of financial advisors these days is that we’re all in a collective race for size and economies of scale, because only the largest can survive and everyone else is doomed to a world of declining profit margins as the overhead costs of running an advisory firm grind their income down to nothing.

Yet the latest industry benchmarking research for RIAs, including both the 2015 FA Insight “People And Pay” and the 2015 Investment News “Compensation And Staffing” studies, found that just the opposite may be occurring – by operating with lean staff overhead and leveraging technology, standout solo financial advisors supported by just 1-3 staff members are actually some of the most financially successful and profitable advisory firms out there, taking home more in owner income than any advisors but the partners of the largest super ensemble firms!

And perhaps most notable is that not only is the typical successful solo advisor practice doing exceptionally well financially, but it is succeeding not by serving an exclusive set of high-net-worth clients with $1M+ minimums, but by serving a mass affluent clientele often claimed (incorrectly!?) to be ignored by the RIA community! In fact, the latest benchmarking data reveals that the common stereotype that RIAs serve "only" the high-net-worth is entirely wrong, as it's really only a small subset of the largest (albeit also the most visible) advisory firms who are focused on those clientele, while the mass of solo financial advisors serve the broader mass affluent!

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Monday, October 5th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Practice Management | 9 Comments

Enjoy the current installment of "weekend reading for financial planners" - this week’s edition kicks off with the announcement of a new advisor leadership succession training program from Philip Palaveev of the Ensemble Practice, called G2 Leadership Summit, that will train advisors in groups of 50 to handle the real-world challenges of advisory firm ownership and management with a series of mock management scenarios. When viewed alongside a 'similar' training program launched by Schwab last year, the new program underscores a positive broader trend of leadership development efforts in the advisory world.

From there, we have a couple of practice management articles, including: a look at the lessons financial advisors can learn from how TurboTax did and did not impact CPAs (where self-service tax preparation software still only serves about 30% of households!); an interview with Dr. Brad Klontz about the rise of "financial therapy" and advisors incorporating behavior change management into their skillsets in serving clients; how to deal with a "ransomware" virus (and ideally how to avoid it in the first place!); how recent changes to the Facebook API may soon force advisors to adopt Facebook Business Pages instead of using their Personal Profiles for business; and an interview in the Journal of Financial Planning about how advisors can profitably serve Gen X and Gen Y clients but must abandon the AUM model to do so.

There are also a few technical financial planning articles this week, from a recent tax proposal to limit the transfer-for-value rules on life insurance that could create problems for clients transferring life insurance policies in/out/around of their business; a discussion of the common "myths" about bonds, such as the fact that back in the early 1980s bonds had a higher nominal yield but actually produced a lower after-tax after-inflation yield than they do today; and the recent Zahner court case that may help clear the way for short-term Medicaid-compliant annuity strategies.

We wrap up with three interesting articles: the first looks at how not all clients who ask "What do you think I should do?" to their advisor actually want advice about what to do (many are just looking for the advisor to validate their pre-existing idea, or to help them figure out their own solution); the second is a discussion of "The Experience Economy" and how advisors can avoid the commoditization of various parts of financial services by not just giving better service but crafting an experience around the process; and the last is an article by referral marketing expert Steve Wershing about how advisors calling their firms "boutique" may actually be inhibiting referrals, and that if the goal is to convey that the firm provides deep personalized service the best way to convey it is with examples of what the firm actually does, not by using the limiting "boutique" label!

Enjoy the reading!

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Friday, October 2nd, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Weekend Reading | 0 Comments

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New IRS Change Will Require Estates To Request An Estate Closing Letter

For those who are subject to Federal estate taxes, the estate closing letter is a small but essential step in the process of administering an estate. It affirms that the IRS has reviewed and agreed on the Form 706 estate tax return as filed, and is often the last step for an executor to actually close an estate with the probate court.

However, in recent years the IRS has been forced to issue a rapidly growing number of estate closing letters, not to close out the estates of those who actually have an estate tax liability, but nontaxable estate tax returns that were filed solely for the purpose of claiming portability of a deceased spouse’s unused exemption.

To relieve its own administrative burden, the IRS informally “announced” in a recent update to its Estate Tax FAQ that it will no longer automatically issue an estate tax closing letter at all, and instead will require estate administrators to proactively request the closing letter instead.

For those who merely filed the Form 706 estate tax return to claim portability, this change isn’t necessarily a problem, as few in such situations would have requested (or had any need) for a closing letter anyway. However, for those who do face an estate tax, the new process adds yet another step for the estate administrator to manage. And because the estate closing letter can’t even be requested until four months after the Form 706 is filed, the new rules may force taxable estates to remain open even longer – delaying distributions for beneficiaries and racking up administrative costs – before the estate can finally be closed!

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Wednesday, September 30th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Estate Planning | 10 Comments

As a very active user of social media, I’m often asked what business results it actually produces. Do people really do business with other people over social media? Is it really possible to get a prospective client to give you $1,000,000 to manage by sending out the “right” tweet?

Well after more than 60,000 tweets, I will confess that I still haven’t figured out how to master the “1-tweet close”, and find the magic 140 character message that gets a client to turn over their life savings. But expecting that such a result could be possible actually misses the point; social media is no more likely to get an instant client than it would be to show up at a networking meeting, and expect someone to sign your new account paperwork on the spot.

Instead, the reality is that social media really does function more like a networking meeting or referral marketing – where the goal is not to “close” clients on the spot, but to begin to cultivate a relationship with them, so that eventually they will know, like, and trust you, and then you can have the opportunity to do business with them. In other words, social media is not about “doing business” and selling, it’s about prospecting and finding those people you might someday do business with!

Except when it comes to social media, there is a potential to scale your prospecting efforts far beyond what can be accomplished by traditional networking and even a ‘successful’ referral marketing campaign. While the effort early on to produce online content that demonstrates your expertise can feel time-consuming, in the long run as a following builds the time to produce content remains the same, but the results become exponentially better!

Which means in the end, social media is simply an alternative to traditional networking and referral marketing, designed to accomplish the same kind of know-like-trust marketing effort to generate prospective clients, but with far more potential return-on-effort!

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Monday, September 28th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Practice Management | 35 Comments

Enjoy the current installment of "weekend reading for financial planners" - this week's edition kicks off with some notable industry news, including a proposal from the SEC to institute "swing pricing" for mutual funds in times of market stress, to a new series of cybersecurity exams as regulators continue to eye new rules for advisors to protect client data, to the latest series of studies on advisor adoption of social media finding that advisors, finally, are starting to see real business results from their persistent social media efforts.

From there, we have several articles about the ongoing debate of whether advisors should be switching to retainer fees from the currently popular AUM business model, which collectively raise the question of whether the AUM model is too conflicted and it's time to move on, or whether the reality is that advisors are simply succumbing to competitive pressures as the AUM model is no longer the differentiator it once was and too few advisors have really crafted a specialization or niche around which they can demonstrate a unique value proposition for clients.

We also have a couple of technical planning articles this week, including: a reminder of the issues to consider given the likelihood that many mutual funds will be making big capital gains distributions in December for the first time in years; a discussion of the recent proposal from one Fed governor that the Fed may use negative interest rates as a policy tool to stimulate the economy, and how the strategy would work; and a look at how one advisor aims to create alpha for clients not just by trying to pick the best investment managers but considering ways that combinations of investment managers can be more valuable than any one individually.

We wrap up with three interesting articles: the first is a new study from the Center for Retirement Research suggesting that our shift from Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution plans in recent decades may not have been nearly as damaging to retirement savers as previously believed, once accounting for the fact that savers into DC plans actually get the direct benefit of the market returns that grow the account balance over time; the second is another notable study, finding that when it comes to retirement savings, showing people how much their peers are saving can actually backfire, making them feel so far behind that they're actually discouraged and less likely to save; and the last is a fascinating discussion of how success as an advisor can create more problems than it solves as the burdens of the business increase, and how the best solution is to keep raising your fees, to the point that if you're not turning away at least 1/3rd of your new clients and 1/5th of your existing clients every year, you may not be charging enough.

And be certain to check out Bill Winterberg's "Bits & Bytes" video on the latest in advisor tech news at the end, including a fresh push on cybersecurity from the SEC (including a $75k fine against an RIA for not creating a cybersecurity policy), how advisors should handle a "ransomware" demand if their own computers are hacked, and the launch of a new financial planning software provider RightCapital.

Enjoy the reading!

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Friday, September 25th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Weekend Reading | 28 Comments

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Why A QLAC In An IRA Is A Terrible Way To Defer The Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) Obligation

The longevity annuity has become increasingly popular in recent years as a potential new vehicle for retirement income, as its ability to delay payments to an advanced age like 85 allows for a significant accumulation of mortality credits. And since the introduction of last year’s Treasury Regulations, a so-called “Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract” (QLAC) can even be purchased inside of an IRA or other retirement account, allowing a portion of a retiree’s RMDs to be deferred from 70 ½ to as late as age 85!

However, as it turns out the unique nature of a longevity annuity’s payment structure is not very hospitable as an RMD deferral strategy. The fact that it can take until a retiree’s late 80s just to break even and recover principal means the retiree risks significant foregone growth by trying to merely defer RMDs through the use of a QLAC. And of course, the RMDs will still eventually happen anyway, as the QLAC merely defers when payments begin. In fact, ironically, if the retiree does live, the accelerated payments of a QLAC in the later years can actually deplete an IRA even faster than normal IRA RMDs would have anyway!

Ultimately, this doesn’t mean that the longevity annuity (or a QLAC inside an IRA) is a bad deal. The ability to accumulate mortality credits still means it can be very effective as a fixed income alternative for those who fear they may not have enough money to fund a retirement well beyond their life expectancy. And if retiree intends to spend all of his/her assets anyway, and the only available dollars for retirement are held in an IRA or other retirement account, the QLAC is an effective means to engage in such a strategy. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that while a QLAC may be a valid way to use a retirement account to hedge against longevity – and defer RMDs along the way – it’s still not very effective as an RMD avoidance or deferral strategy! Just because you can buy a longevity annuity inside a retirement account as a QLAC doesn't mean you should!

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Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Retirement Planning | 29 Comments

Whether due to fears of the next bear market, a struggle to differentiate in an increasingly crowded AUM-fee landscape, or the pressure of competition from robo-advisors, a growing number of financial planners are talking about changing from the assets under management (AUM) model to adopting some form of (typically annual) retainer fees instead.

While the AUM model has challenges, though, from revenue volatility to potentially misaligned pricing for clients to non-trivial conflicts of interest, the ongoing rise of the AUM model suggests that it still has more benefits than drawbacks. And in fact, its biggest strength from the business model perspective – the ability to have revenue per client grow over time as the market grows – may be a key factor that allows it to continue to dominate the more-salient retainer fee alternative, which may struggle to keep pace with rising employee advisor costs given the industry’s demographic shortages.

Yet the reality is that the greatest potential for retainer fees may have nothing to do with competing head-to-head with the AUM business model, but instead to reach out to clients that the AUM model can’t serve in the first place – as many as perhaps 80% of all households, that simply don’t have available assets to manage (or sufficient assets to be managed in the first place). In fact, the untapped market potential for using retainer fees to expand the reach of financial planning is so large that, in the long run, while the AUM model may still survive, it could become a niche for high-net-worth clients, while most consumers access financial planning through various retainer or fee-for-service alternatives!

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Monday, September 21st, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Practice Management | 49 Comments

Enjoy the current installment of "weekend reading for financial planners" - this week’s edition kicks off with the recent news that robo-advisor Betterment is now expanding into the world of 401(k) plans, an environment that some argue is especially ripe for technology disruption but due to deeply entrenched players may be especially challenging for Betterment to penetrate at all.

From there, we have a couple of practice management articles, including: a discussion of how advisors can build client loyalty; why asking for referrals is a poor strategy to actually get more referrals; how some advisors are working to build proactive relationships with attorneys to generate referrals; and the importance of hiring people with complementary skillsets to really build a successful advisory firm.

There are also a number of more technical financial planning and investment articles this week, from a look at the rise of DFA funds (now the #10 mutual fund family with almost $300B of AUM!), to a look at some of the recent research on active management suggesting that the search for good active managers may not be as impossible as critics suggest, to a discussion of how some advisors are beginning to do more planning around cash flow for clients, and a research article on how to cut through the wide range of various retirement research studies to figure out which approach is most appropriate for a particular client.

We wrap up with three interesting articles: the first looks at how curiosity is becoming one of the key traits for successful leadership (as it drives leaders to always be seeking new opportunities in today’s ever-changing world); the second raises the question of whether the brokerage industry’s objections to the DoL fiduciary rule are really because they can’t serve small investors, or whether they may be struggling to do so simply because they are operating outdated business models using outdated technology and have failed to stay current; and the last makes the good point that if financial planners really believe that the value of financial planning is more than just delivering technical information and involves providing clients with an outside and objective perspective to reach their goals, that perhaps more advisors should be hiring advisors for themselves, too.

Enjoy the reading!

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Friday, September 18th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Weekend Reading | 14 Comments

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CE reported directly on your behalf to the CFP Board
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New Change To FAFSA Rules Will Allow Prior-Prior Year (PPY) Income Data When Qualifying For Financial Aid

Qualifying for Federal financial aid requires filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), based on your income from the preceding year. Except historically, this FAFSA process has been challenging, because schools are already issuing acceptance letters about attendance before most families have even finished filing their tax return to know what income to report on the FAFSA!

To make the process easier, this week President Obama signed an executive order that will change the FAFSA rules beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, allowing students to complete the FAFSA based on the “prior-prior year” (PPY) income, and shifting the entire application process back to October of the preceding year (a full 11 months before the student will matriculate!).

The new rules should make it much easier for students to file the FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid (especially since it will now be feasible to use the IRS’ automated Data Retrieval Tool). But notably, it means that the current 2015 tax year will now count twice for financial aid purposes (2016-2017 under the current prior-year rules, and again in 2017-2018 under the new PPY rules!). And in the future, the new prior-prior year rules mean the “key” years of income for college financial aid now start as early as the student’s rising sophomore year of high school… but notable end mid-way through the student’s sophomore year of college!

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Wednesday, September 16th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in General Planning | 15 Comments

The reality of starting out as a financial advisor is that it's hard to know what type of advisory firm structure will be best in advance; often, the best strategy is just to dive in, get job at any reasonable firm that will allow you to launch your career, and after you get some experience, decide whether it's really the right fit for the future. Of course, the caveat to this approach is that if it turns out you do need to make a change later, that change can be scary - so frightening, in fact, that many advisors never make the subsequent changes they should, fearing the unknown and finding comfort in an (admittedly not ideal) current firm or environment.

In this guest post, financial advisor Noah Morgan shares his own transition process in making the leap, first from his original advisory firm to an independent broker-dealer, and then subsequently to an independent RIA. Accordingly, Noah gained a wide range of experience and perspective about what it's like to make these transitions, from vetting RIA custodian platforms to navigating the Broker Protocol and compliance concerns, to selecting the entire suite of technology necessary to sustain the new advisory firm.

So if you're an advisor who's currently unhappy at your current firm, and considering the process of transitioning to something new, hopefully this will be helpful to you in gaining an awareness of the issues that you need to consider if you're really going to make a switch in the future!

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2015 Posted by Michael Kitces in Practice Management | 16 Comments

Michael E. Kitces

I write about financial planning strategies and practice management ideas, and have created several businesses to help people implement them.

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Out and About

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

*Understanding Longevity Annuities and their Potential Role in Retirement *Generating Tax Alpha with Effective Asset Location @ FPA Southern Wisconsin

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

*Future of Financial Planning in the Digital Age *Cutting Edge Tax Planning Developments & Opportunities @ FPA Mid-Tennessee

Monday, October 19th, 2015

*Cutting Edge Tax Planning Developments & Opportunities @ IMCA Advanced Wealth Management Conference