As financial advisors, we see the positive impact of our work with clients. From helping them accomplish their life goals, to keeping them from the behavioral mistakes that could derail their plan, we are often in the best position to see the value of what we do. But with the rise of financial planning academics, there has also been an attempt to scientifically quantify the true impact that financial advisors have on client outcomes. Which as it turns out, is remarkably difficult to measure.
In this guest post, Derek Tharp – our Research Associate at Kitces.com, and a Ph.D. candidate in the financial planning program at Kansas State University – explores some of the research available on the use and benefits of financial advisors, and why advisors should still apply a healthy degree of skepticism when evaluating such research.
Broadly speaking, there are two branches of research on the use and benefits of financial advisors. The first includes studies like Morningstar’s Gamma and Vanguard’s Advisor Alpha which have aimed to quantify how much value advisors truly provide to their clients, which helps to both substantiate the advisor’s value to clients, and helps advisors justify how their benefits can exceed their costs. The second branch of research on the use of advisors stems from studies done within universities, often utilizing large national-survey datasets to examine questions such as who uses financial advisors, what impact advisors seem to have, and how public policy may be able to improve outcomes for consumers.
However, as it turns out, each branch of research is not without its own limitations. While industry studies have done an admirable job trying to estimate and quantify the value advisors provide, the reality is that this exercise is much harder to do than it may seem at first glance. In some cases, the “best” advice may require sacrificing financial gains for other ends (e.g., psychological comfort), which means the “best” advice could be wealth-reducing! And in any case, it is difficult to identify the appropriate benchmark that it is best to compare against in the first place (since we don’t necessarily know how the client would have acted in the absence of an advisor). Further, in some cases, such as the value that is assumed to be provided by advisors recommending low-cost investments, the reality is that not all advisors actually advise clients consistent with the assumptions of the models.
From the academic perspective, researchers often have to rely on either large data sets which may have less than ideal questions (at least to address their particular research questions). Yet in a unique study in the Financial Services Review, Heckman et al. (2017) evaluate how well questions about whether someone has used a financial planner actually measure “financial planning” as its defined by CFP Practice Standards. Unfortunately, the researchers conclude that all of the commonly used datasets have significant limitations. And while the alternative for academic researchers, which is to gather their own primary data, can help ensure that the ideal questions are utilized… these methods end up constrained to smaller-than-ideal (and potentially not representative) sample sizes.
Ultimately, the point isn’t that advisors shouldn’t follow the studies on the use and benefits of financial planning, but simply that it’s still necessary to apply a healthy degree of skepticism when reviewing and applying research. Although with the ongoing rise of financial planning academics, more and better opportunities are coming for advisors and academics to collaborate, bringing together best practices in research from academia with the practitioner’s real-world understanding of financial planning and how it is delivered to clients!