The big news this week was the “record-breaking” drop (at least in absolute point decline) in the stock market on Monday, the incredible blow-out of the VIX, and the challenge that inevitable comes when market volatility rises: the need to check in with clients, talk them through what’s happening in the markets, evaluate whether it’s necessary to make any portfolio changes, and try to talk them off a ledge if they’re really freaking out. But the reality is that being able to proactive communicate with clients, and have effective client meetings, during times of market volatility, is actually heavily impacted by how you construct your client portfolios in the first place, and the extent to which you customize those portfolios for each client.
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, we examine the problem with financial advisors customizing every client portfolio, particularly once we experience volatile markets, and how financial advisors (and asset managers) should look at “customization” going forward!
In a world where advisors are trying to become less product-centric and add more value to clients, there does appear to be a nascent trend of advisors trying to create more customized portfolios for clients. Though this idea isn’t exactly new (it has occurred for decades in the form of selecting stocks and mutual funds for clients and adapting at every client review meeting), the rise of rebalancing software (or “model management” software tools more broadly), has made it easier to systematize the process of customizing individual client portfolios, while still being able to monitor and manage them centrally.
But I think this week’s market volatility is actually a really good example of the problem that arises with trying to create drastically customized and different portfolios for every client: if every client has their own “customized” portfolio, then it is really hard to keep track of all of your different clients and their portfolios. And so, instead of being able to easily send out broadly applicable communication to your client base, you’ll end up spending an hour to prep for every meeting and write every personalized client email during volatile market times. Simply put, customizing every client portfolio isn’t scalable for the client relationship itself (regardless of the scalable back-office technology to support it).
The challenges of the trend towards customization is notable with respect to asset managers as well. Because asset managers are – justifiably, I think – afraid of their future in a world where advisors are less product-centric, and looking to retool their own businesses. And the discussion I’m hearing more and more from those asset managers is “if advisors don’t want to use standard mutual fund products anymore, then we have to pivot and go the other direction. From products to customization instead!” But here’s the problem: when we look at the advisory firms adopting ETFs and eliminating mutual fund products, they’re not really customizing that much anyway. Even advisory firms that have dropped mutual funds and are building model ETF portfolios, not customized ETF portfolio (allowing them to keep charging their 1% fee while disintermediating the cost of the mutual fund manager, and effectively turning themselves into portfolio managers). So the real shift is that the client buys the investment “product” from the advisor and the advisor’s firm, not from the mutual fund company or other asset managers. The opposite of product isn’t customization. The opposite of product is advisor. When our value proposition is based on what we do, we don’t want to sell a third-party product, of any type. We want to sell ourselves!
So where does all of this leave us? From the advisor’s perspective, and particularly for those of you who are now struggling to figure out how to assess the damage of this week’s market volatility because all of your clients have “customized” portfolios… let this be a call-to-action for you of how not scalable you’re making the client relationship management needs of your business. There are a lot of firms that are growing just fine without customizing every single portfolio differently for every client. There may be times when some customization is still needed, but it is better to customize from a planning perspective (e.g., for tax purposes) rather than an investment perspective.
And for Asset Managers, particularly mutual fund managers, trying to figure out how to reach advisors and stay relevant… I can only caution you that the push towards making more customized solutions is not likely to work out well for you. If you want to stay relevant as financial advisors transition from salespeople to actual advisors, figure out how to make better products that cost less and are truly best in class at what they do. Because as advisors, if you can pass our screens and get to the top of the list, you get all of our money in that fund or category. And if you can’t, you’re never going to get in the door in the first place anymore.
The bottom line, though, is just to recognize that customizing portfolios for every client is simply not a scalable model, not because of technology limitations but in light of the stress and communication challenges that come with trying to help our clients through volatile markets. Which means this may be a great opportunity to begin the process of standardizing your investment process (if you haven’t already) so that you can actually be more proactive with clients, when you’re not spending all that time re-analyzing every client’s portfolio one at a time!