Enjoy the current installment of “Weekend Reading For Financial Planners” - this week’s edition kicks off with the news that Vanguard is partnering with American Express to offer its Personal Advisor Services human CFP offering to AmEx cardholders, giving Vanguard access to a significant new base of potential clients (and combining low investment minimums with credit card perks to entice clients to hire Vanguard as their first – and perhaps only – financial advisor).
Also in industry news this week:
- The SEC has issued guidance discouraging RIAs from using the term “fiduciary” to describe their standards of conduct on Form CRS, irking fiduciary advocates who believe RIAs should be allowed to highlight the differences between the standards that apply to them and those that apply to broker-dealers
- The growth in RIA valuations may soon slow or even begin to decline, as Canadian financial conglomerate CI Financial is selling off 20% of its U.S. wealth management business in an initial public offering, which could raise newfound scrutiny of the prices they’ve been offering for RIA acquisitions and slow their demand.
From there, we have several articles on investments:
- How I Bonds’ new interest rate will make them even more valuable for advisors and their clients in a world of high inflation
- Why the rising interest rate environment is bringing a newfound focus on cash management for clients (from money market mutual funds to shopping banks for yield)
- While bonds are often seen as a diversifier for equities in client portfolios, Treasuries have performed this function better than other types of bonds in recent years
We also have a number of articles on how advisors can communicate their value to prospective clients:
- Why positioning financial advice as expert coaching to achieve a higher level of success – as a good athlete can use a good coach to reach an elite level – can help prospective clients better visualize the value of financial advice
- Why justifying an advisor’s fees requires first understanding what a prospective client actually values in the first place, so the advisor can describe what they can do for the prospect in terms of what really matters to them
- How advisors can create a brief and compelling value proposition that is consistent across multiple marketing channels (and can be expanded upon in conversations with prospects)
We wrap up with three final articles, all about email management techniques:
- While instant messaging tools are often superior to email in the workplace, email can be a useful tool for personal correspondence and checking in with clients
- How advisors can reduce the stress of dealing with emails that require complicated responses
- Several methods advisors can use to spend less time dealing with email each day
Enjoy the ‘light’ reading!
(Kenneth Corbin | Barron’s)
In recent years, Vanguard has been aggressively growing the reach of its “insourced” financial advice model, which automated investment management plus basic financial planning with phone or virtual access to a human CFP professional. Since the launch of its Personal Advisor Service in 2015, Vanguard has amassed around $200 billion in assets under management, in what has been dubbed the largest “robo-advisor” but in reality, being staffed with humans with CFP certification, is actually among the largest of any RIA firms altogether. But one caveat to the success of Vanguard’s model was that many of its clients were likely customers who already owned Vanguard products through Vanguard’s brokerage service, meaning that if the business goal of Personal Advisor Services was to bring even more assets under the $7+ trillion Vanguard umbrella, they would need to find a way to attract investors who were not existing Vanguard customers.
This week, Vanguard and American Express announced a partnership that has the potential to bring far more outside dollars under Vanguard’s management. The firms will offer a new service to AmEx cardholders that includes Vanguard’s digital investment management and access to human advice. And, whereas clients investing directly with Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services need at least $50,000 to have access to a human advisor, the investment minimum for the new service when clients are introduced via AmEx is only $10,000 – though the catch is that AmEx’s service offers only a one-time phone “consultation”, rather than ongoing access to a human advisor as Personal Advisor Services offers. Still, by offering low investment minimums, and partnering with a credit card company with no asset management arm of its own, the deal gives Vanguard access to a huge number of potential customers who are unlikely to already have a financial advisor. And their hope is likely that, after the introduction to Vanguard and the limited taste of the full Personal Advisor Services experience, clients of the new service will never feel the need to seek out another (non-Vanguard) advisor in the future.
Also of note is that the new service will cost 50bps of assets under management for new customers, which is more expensive than the 30bps that it costs to invest directly with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (and the 20bps for Vanguard’s actual robo-only Digital Advisor). The idea may be that the perks AmEx offers to clients who sign up (including rewards points for cardholders and cash bonuses for savings account holders) will be enough of an incentive for clients to sign up for a service that they could receive cheaper directly. And according to reports, Vanguard and AmEx are evenly splitting the 50bps fee – meaning that in effect, Vanguard will be receiving 25bps for a slightly scaled-down version of what it offers directly to clients for 30bps and receive the instant marketing scale of having access to so many AmEx customers, while AmEx receives 25bps for the AmEx perks it’s offering for cardholders who use Vanguard (and simply monetizes its own lead generation value with what is effectively a 25bps solicitor fee from Vanguard). Though arguably, the real significance of the deal for the advisor community is that AmEx is already a popular credit card amongst the higher-income households that were more likely to hire a financial advisor someday… which means if Vanguard can capture them as clients via its AmEx partnership today, it will reduce the opportunities for other advisors who might have worked with those upwardly-mobile clients in the future as they built additional wealth?
(Mark Schoeff | InvestmentNews)
Prior to the implementation of the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest Rule in 2020, there was a clear distinction between the standards of care required for broker-dealer firms and those required of RIAs: In general, broker-dealers were required only to sell investment products that were “suitable” for their clients, while RIAs had (and still have) a fiduciary duty to their clients, requiring them to make recommendations in the clients’ best interests at all times. RIA firms have often highlighted this distinction in their marketing materials, differentiating themselves from broker-dealer competitors by citing the fiduciary duty to which they are held.
Regulation Best Interest, however, has somewhat muddied the waters around the “fiduciary” distinction. The SEC’s rule (partially) raised the standards of conduct for broker-dealers, requiring them to act in clients’ best interests when giving investment advice. But because the “best-interests” part of Reg BI doesn’t apply to broker-dealers at all times – only when they are giving advice – and because the rule itself doesn’t use the term “fiduciary” to describe broker-dealers’ duties, some RIAs still use the term as a marketing differentiator – even though the “best interests” and “fiduciary” terminology mean essentially the same thing in the context of giving advice.
The SEC sought to address this issue recently by issuing guidance that essentially prohibits investment advisors from using the terms “fiduciary” or “fiduciary duty” on form CRS, the regulatory brochure required for both broker-dealers and RIAs under Reg BI. And though the idea may have been to create more consistent language around the idea of best interests for the benefit of consumers, the fact that the SEC wants broker-dealers and RIAs to use the same language, even though Reg BI does not fully equalize the standards of conduct between the two (since broker-dealers are still free to follow the lesser suitability standards when selling products rather than giving advice), has irked many in the RIA industry and received blowback from RIA owners and fiduciary advocates alike.
In one sense, it is reasonable for the SEC to want to limit firms from using “fiduciary” in a marketing sense, since it was never meant to be a marketing term at all but rather a description of the standard of care RIAs were held required to follow. Implying that an RIA’s version of the client’s best interests is more stringent than a broker-dealer’s when they are both giving advice has the potential to be misleading, since both are essentially held to the same standard at that time. But by creating a rule that only holds broker-dealers to a fiduciary-like standard some (but not all) of the time, the SEC has brought on much of this confusion itself. And if advisors, broker-dealers, and the SEC itself cannot even come to an agreement on when the standards of conduct are the same or different for broker-dealers and RIAs, it is unlikely that the general public will be able to grasp the distinction either.
(Diana Britton | Wealth Management)
In early 2020, the Canadian financial conglomerate CI Financial entered the U.S. wealth management business for the first time. The U.S. arm grew rapidly over the next two years, fueled by debt-financed purchases of American RIA firms, and after a two-year acquisition spree of independent RIAs that has driven up valuations across the entire industry, has accumulated more than $130 billion in assets under management and become one of the largest RIAs (or at least, RIA aggregators) in the country.
Recently, CI announced its intention to sell up to 20% of its U.S. business via an IPO in order to pay down some of the debt it has accumulated (at least partly as a result of all the acquisitions it has made in the last two years). This would make CI among the largest publicly traded U.S. wealth management platforms, standing alongside firms like Focus Financial and SilverCrest.
But becoming a standalone publicly traded company might force some significant changes to the new firm’s business operations. After the IPO, CI will be required to publicly disclose details about the acquisitions it makes, which in the scrutiny of the public eye may mean it cannot be as aggressive with its dealmaking as it was as a subsidiary of its parent corporation, since the multiples it pays for target firms – as well as the debt it takes on to do so – will be public information after the IPO (which could put pressure on the firm’s management if investors decide it pays too much, or overleverages itself, to make acquisitions).
Additionally, the U.S. firm may need to do more to convince shareholders that it is creating value for them with its continued acquisitions. Unlike other “aggregator” platforms, CI has not thus far required target firms to change their names or otherwise integrate their operations with the parent group, meaning that despite its size, CI has not yet developed a strong unified brand in the U.S., nor scaled its operations in a way that can create value for the firm above and beyond the assets it acquires. Which may be a concern for (public) investors who question whether the whole is really worth more than just the sum of its acquired parts.
The reason this ultimately matters for the advisor community (and especially independent advisors) is that the acquisition demand of CI Financial has been so strong, that it’s bid up valuations across the entire industry over the past two years. Yet the experience of other publicly traded wealth management firms like Focus Financial suggests that CI’s U.S. business could see pressure to slow its pace of acquisitions (and/or at least purchase at lower valuations, or require more integration of acquired firms that will make some future sellers unwilling to sell). Which in turn could slow or even begin to reverse the expansion of valuation multiples that RIA firms have seen in recent years.
(Eric Reiner | Financial Advisor)
Amid continued high levels of inflation, consumers (and their advisors) are looking for ways for their assets to keep up with rising prices. And in a world of sub-1% interest rates on many deposit accounts, it can be challenging to find a place to park cash without having a negative real return. However, I Bonds have recently been made far more attractive as rising inflation is lifting I Bond yields, and an upcoming rate change signals that the I Bond appeal isn’t ending anytime soon.
The reason is that the interest rate of an I Bond is made up of two components: the “Fixed Rate” (which applies for the 30-year life of the bond) and an “Inflation Rate” that is reset every six months during the life of the bond. Together, these make up the “Composite Rate”, which is the actual rate of interest that an I Bond will earn over a six-month period. And while the Treasury Department will announce the official rates for the next six months on May 2, estimates based on current inflation readings suggest the Composite Rate could be approximately 9.62%. Which means the Composite Rate for I Bonds purchased by April 28 will earn 7.12% (the current rate) for the first six months and (the estimated) 9.62% for the next six months, an 8.54% return for the first year (which matches March’s annualized inflation figure). While I Bonds purchased after that date will earn 9.62% (estimated) for the subsequent 6 months, plus whatever the next rate reset turns out to be (which could be lower or even higher depending on the direction of inflation in the months to come).
Notably, though, while I Bonds can be a useful tool for combating inflation (or more generally, for getting an appealing nominal yield on fixed income), they come with a few requirements. First, I Bonds must be held for a year, and any bonds redeemed within the first five years of issue come with a penalty equaling the last three months of interest (though the principal remains secure). In addition, individuals are typically limited to $10,000 of I Bonds purchased in electronic form through the TreasuryDirect website each calendar year. However, there are ways to increase the amount purchased, including buying up to $5,000 in paper I Bonds using a tax refund, buying I Bonds for entities (e.g., trusts, estates, corporations, and partnerships), and buying I Bonds across for family members so each person uses their individual $10,000 cap.
The key point is that I Bonds can be a valuable tool for clients to allow some of their cash (or a portion of their fixed income allocation) to earn enough to keep pace with inflation, and their current and pending interest rates are higher than they have been in many years. And while there are limits to I Bond purchases, planners can help clients explore the different ways to maximize their purchases and protect their cash against continued rising prices!
(Ashish Shah | ThinkAdvisor)
Cash management can be a tricky part of the financial planning process. On the one hand, a client’s cash that is sitting in a checking or savings account cannot be deployed to potentially more profitable investments (and in the current inflationary environment can lose significant purchasing power), and is generally only held aside for emergency savings or a concrete short-term savings goal. On the other hand, having cash on hand has been shown to improve feelings of financial well-being and life satisfaction. And clients ultimately need some level of cash on hand simply to handle their ongoing household cash flow of monthly bills (which for affluent individuals, can be a non-trivial amount of dollars sitting in a bank account). Which means even for clients who are otherwise trying to stay “fully invested”, there often is an opportunity to help clients figure out where to best park their cash.
One potential tool for advisors to maximize yield on cash for client accounts is stable net asset value money market funds, which can provide price stability and liquidity while offering the potential for greater returns than bank deposit accounts. And while the rate of return on money market funds has been depressed in recent years amid the low-interest-rate environment, they have the potential to offer a greater return than alternatives going forward if interest rates continue to rise. Especially since money market funds invest in assets such as short-term Treasuries and securities issued by U.S. government agencies, which means yields on money market funds could increase relatively quickly if the yields on the other instruments rise in response to Fed rate increases.
On the other hand, while bank interest rates can be affected by broader interest rates, they are also affected by the bank’s funding needs, so banks that have sufficient capital on hand might not raise interest rates on deposits (which would increase the bank’s costs). Which means there is a growing likelihood of a gap in yields between banks, where some offer significantly higher (or lower) yields than others. Increasingly the opportunity for advisors to show value by helping clients ‘shop for yield’ (and/or using third-party services that help move clients’ dollars across multiple banks to find the best yields).
So while advisors have had to choose from several low-yielding options for client cash during the past few years – often so low that it didn’t even make sense to shop for alternatives because they were all so low – rising interest rates in the face of inflation means that money market funds could emerge as a higher-yielding option if interest rates and bond yields continue to rise (and/or there may be new opportunities to shop amongst online banks to get better yields for clients as well).
(Christine Benz | Morningstar)
Portfolio diversification is an important consideration for many investment advisors. By investing in a range of asset classes with negative correlations to each other, investors can reduce the downside risk that comes from having investments concentrated in similarly performing asset classes (because as one asset goes down in value, its negatively correlated assets are expected to perform better). And for many investors, this diversification is often expressed as the ratio of stocks and bonds in a portfolio. But it turns out that not all bonds are created equal with regard to their diversification benefits, so it is important for advisors to consider which types of bonds provide the most value when added to a portfolio of equities.
Looking at the last six months of 2021, only cash and short-term Treasuries exhibited a decent negative correlation with equities, while longer- and intermediate-term government bonds were less effective as diversifiers. Extending the time period to three years, Treasury bonds were the best diversifiers for equities, with a solid negative correlation, but corporate bonds (particularly high-yielding bonds) exhibited positive correlations with stocks (potentially due to their increased default risk at times when equities are struggling). Municipal bonds also showed a positive correlation with equities, suggesting that they too were not the best choice for diversification (possibly because of liquidity risk during periods of economic and equity market strain). And going back 20 years, Treasuries across the duration spectrum provided the best diversification of any bond type for investors with equity exposure, while cash and high-quality corporate bonds also delivered a negative correlation with equities.
Ultimately, the key point is that the asset class mix is not the only consideration for advisors creating diversified client portfolios, but also which components of an asset class make the best diversifiers. And in the case of using bonds as a diversifier for stocks, short- and long-term returns show that Treasuries typically are more effective diversifiers than their corporate and municipal bond counterparts!
When clients hire a financial advisor, they often expect to be told what to do. Or to put it another way, they may think that there is a right and a wrong way to manage their finances, and they expect the advisor to tell them the right way. And in some sense, that is part of the advisor’s job: the technical knowledge to see planning opportunities and avoid costly errors is part of the foundation of skills that make a good financial advisor. But simply knowing the answers, and directing the client on which way to go, isn’t necessarily how a financial advisor creates the most value.
Because realistically, many clients of financial advisors were going to achieve a certain degree of success with or without an advisor. Having the “talent” to earn and save money is often enough for a reasonable baseline of success, and save for some of the worst-case scenarios, people with that talent can often bounce back from challenges and mistakes. And so simply advising clients on what is right versus wrong may not actually be very valuable, because, for a person with marketable skills and good opportunities, the outcome of “wrong” choices may still not be all that bad!
Where financial advice’s greatest value comes from, writes Vidler, is “coaching clients to win what they want”. In the same way that good coaching can help a talented athlete reach the next level by pushing them to create higher expectations for themselves and motivating them to reach those goals, a financial advisor can help clients re-imagine what they can achieve and unlock their potential for success. That achievement – enabling a client to realize potential they may not have known they had to begin with – is what can set a great advisor apart.
So when talking to a prospective client, visualizing (to the point of physically drawing it on a notepad or whiteboard) the levels of success that are possible with or without planning and expert coaching can be a powerful way to help them understand the full value of advice. Advisors can articulate their value by showing prospects the difference between what they were likely to achieve with or without an advisor, and what they can achieve with the planning and coaching to reach a higher tier of success.
(Dan Solin | Advisor Perspectives)
For financial advisors, one of the most challenging parts of prospect meetings can be justifying the advisor’s fees. Often, after explaining how they add value, advisors are unsure whether or not the prospect will decide the advisor’s value is worth the fees they charge. Because with little or no prior knowledge of the prospect, the advisor might not yet know what is valuable to them – and without knowing what the prospect actually values, the advisor can only guess as to whether their value proposition will be acceptable to the prospect.
However, it isn’t necessarily true that an advisor even needs to justify their fees in the first meeting – at least not before learning what the prospect values. Because often, fees aren’t what the prospect wants to talk about right away – they want to talk about the problem that caused them to reach out to the advisor to begin with. Simply by letting the prospect talk about what is on their mind, asking open-ended follow-up questions, and avoiding any hint of a sales pitch, it is possible to learn exactly what the prospect values just by listening to what they have to say. Then, when the time does come for the advisor to justify their fees, they can do so in a way that is tailored to what really matters to the prospect.
Though the advisor profiled in this article had a sales method involving two meetings and a sample financial plan to demonstrate his value, the process can be streamlined even further into a single meeting where the value is demonstrated by focusing on the prospect’s immediate problem. In either case, justifying the advisor’s fees in a way that resonates with the prospect relies on letting them say what they value, not the advisor presuming or imposing their own views on the prospect.
(BB Webb | XY Planning Network)
Advisors have multiple ways available to articulate their value proposition. It’s common to focus on the one-on-one conversation with a prospective client where the advisor explains the value they can provide, but in reality, every other marketing channel (including the advisor’s website, social media posts, and email campaigns) can create an opportunity for the advisor to state how what they do impacts their clients’ lives.
But with all the various ways of being able to describe their value, it’s important for advisors to be consistent across all of the channels they use in order to create a coherent and resonating impression of their firm’s values. Accordingly, it can be worth taking the time to craft a written value proposition that can be expanded upon in conversation and adapted into other forms of media – and yet always retains the core values that make the firm uniquely suited to serve its clients.
Starting with a succinct list of the general values their firm provides, advisors can create a core statement of values that explains, in plain English and with no industry jargon, what the financial advisor does. From that statement, advisors can develop their value proposition further as it relates to the specific types of clients they serve, keeping in mind:
- Who the advisor works with,
- Why the advisor is passionate about serving that type of client,
- What challenges that particular clientele faces, and
- What expertise the advisor brings to serving that group.
In addition to the four concise statements above, it can be useful to have two more talking points to expand upon the firm’s value in conversation with a prospect:
- What results the advisor aims to achieve with their clients, and finally,
- A story of someone the advisor helped to successfully reach their goals.
It can be challenging to articulate a value proposition, and even more so to re-articulate it every time the subject comes up. By crafting a set of core values and a few brief talking points around each, advisors can ensure they always have the right words at hand to describe their value proposition – and that those words are consistent with the messaging, values, and personality that prospective clients see across all of the firm’s marketing materials.
(Jay Caspian Kang | The New York Times)
Email has been a constant in work and personal life for almost three decades. At the same time, new innovations in workplace communication have taken over some of its functions. For example, instant messaging programs like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow coworkers to send short messages to each other without having to take the time to write a formal email.
But while these applications allow for quick communication among teams (sometimes to the detriment of work that requires concentration), email remains valuable for other functions. For example, email can be an excellent way to communicate with friends. Because a response is not required immediately, the recipient of a personal email can wait a day or two to respond when they have more free time. And unlike instant messages or texting, which prioritize short messages, the lack of length constraints on email can allow for more thoughtful responses. In addition, the sender of a personal email might forget that they sent it, leading to a pleasant surprise when they receive a response from their friend. In Kang’s case, he set up a separate email address for only his personal correspondences that he checks every few days; in this way, the personal emails are separated from his work emails and the barrage of commercial emails that come into his regular personal email account.
The key point is that in a world where short-form messaging is ubiquitous, email can still play a positive role in our lives. For advisors, this can include using email for personal correspondence, but also to send regular trust-building messages to clients, which could include market commentary or even a collection of curated articles. Because just as an advisor might enjoy getting a thoughtful email from a friend or colleague, many clients will appreciate hearing from the person to whom they have given responsibility for their life savings!
(Dorie Clark | The Wall Street Journal)
Checking email can be a stressful activity. Whether it is seeing tens or hundreds of messages waiting to be read or reviewing a message that requires a challenging reply, it can be tempting to delay checking or responding to emails to avoid the stress it can cause. But because doing so only kicks the can further down the road, taking advantage of strategies to address email challenges can not only promote greater productivity, but also reduce stress.
The first step when reading an email is to get clear on the decision or action that each message requires. And while some messages can be addressed with a simple reply, other tasks require multiple steps to complete. In these latter cases, it can help to identify and complete the first step that needs to be tackled to get the task moving; in this way, you can build momentum toward completing what might otherwise seem like a daunting project.
Some messages that arrive are challenging to deal with because they have opaque requests. In these cases, it can save time to reply to the sender with a direct request to clarify what they want from you. Instead of spending minutes (or hours) trying to decipher the message, asking for clarification can allow you to move on to other responsibilities while you wait for a better-defined request from the email sender.
It's also important to recognize that delaying a response to an email can compound your stress, as you now also must remember to reply at some point in the future. One solution to this problem is to set aside time for emotional or high-stakes email responses. While it can be challenging to respond to important emails while filtering through a long list of unread messages, creating dedicated time for more responses can also both allow for a more thoughtful reply and keep you accountable for actually replying.
Of course, email is a two-way street, so those sending emails can help their correspondents by setting clear expectations and using the appropriate tone in their emails (and other digital messages). In the end, good email hygiene can not only save you time processing emails but also ensure that replies are made in a thoughtful and timely manner!
(Matt Plummer | Harvard Business Review)
Reading and responding to emails can take up a significant portion of an individual’s workday. In fact, an analysis by consulting firm McKinsey found that the average professional spends 28% of the workday reading and answering email, amounting to 2.6 hours and 120 messages received per day! Amid this backdrop, individuals can take advantage of several strategies to reduce the amount of time spent dealing with email each day.
One strategy is to check email less often. While you might think an individual wants a response immediately, they often do not expect a response until later in the day, or even further in the future. By only checking email each hour (and eliminating distracting notifications in the interim), you can address time-sensitive emails while being able to work on other tasks with fewer distractions. And when you do check email, a good habit is to either archive or delete emails after reading them the first time. In this way, emails will not linger in your inbox and tempt you to read them again.
Another way to reduce email clutter is to reduce the number of folders used to file emails. Using many folders to categorize emails can often be less efficient than using only a few folders (perhaps one for emails that need to be responded to and one for emails that you might want to read at a later time) and using the email program’s search feature to find emails when needed.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to spend less time dealing with email is to receive fewer emails in your inbox in the first place. In addition to unsubscribing from email lists that you no longer use, automatic rules and filters can be used to route emails to the appropriate folder (e.g., newsletters could be routed to the “read at a later time” folder).
Ultimately, there are many ways to handle a high volume of email, and the ‘best’ solution is likely to be dependent on an individual’s particular situation. The key is to actually take action to reduce inbox clutter and the time spent dealing with email, which can not only reduce stress, but also result in more time to work on more important tasks!
We hope you enjoyed the reading! Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts, or make a suggestion of any articles you think we should highlight in a future column!
In the meantime, if you're interested in more news and information regarding advisor technology, we'd highly recommend checking out Craig Iskowitz's "Wealth Management Today" blog, as well as Gavin Spitzner's "Wealth Management Weekly" blog.