Enjoy the current installment of "weekend reading for financial planners" – this week's edition kicks off with the industry buzz that TD Ameritrade is increasing the AUM threshold of its AdvisorDirect referral program to affiliated RIAs from a $500,000 minimum to $750,000 instead, while also more fully aligning its branch representative compensation above the threshold to compensate brokers equally for referring to TDA's in-house managed accounts or RIAs in AdvisorDirect, as yet another example of how RIA custodians with a retail presence are moving more and more into the mass affluent space themselves while segmenting off only their most affluent customers to affiliated RIAs... a potential boon to "up-market" independent RIAs that can receive such referrals, but a rising competitive threat and channel conflict for the remaining RIAs that are aiming to serve the mass affluent clientele that retail brokerage firms are increasingly trying to serve themselves with their own managed accounts.
From there, we have several insurance-related articles this week, from a look at how the most comprehensive Medigap supplemental Plan F policies will soon be going away (for new enrollees after 2019) but how the cost savings of almost-similar Medigap Plan G may be more appealing anyway, to the major shift of John Hancock to only sell "interactive" life insurance going forward that will give policyowners the opportunity to obtain premium discounts or other incentives to wear fitness tracking devices (e.g., a Fitbit or Apple Watch) and actually demonstrate they're adopting healthy exercise and lifestyle habits, a look at how popular universal life policies from 30+ years ago are "suddenly" starting to blow up for retirees in their 70s, 80s, and 90s due to the multi-decade decline in interest rates, and an overview of how hybrid long-term care insurance policies are increasingly replacing the use of traditional LTC insurance... but only for the most affluent clients.
We also have a few investment-related articles, including: an overview of the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain as they relate to financial advisors; a look at whether consumer adoption of ESG investing is really sluggish, or if advisors are just failing to communicate the opportunity to clients to draw in their interest; a fascinating discussion about what really matters most (and what doesn't) when it comes to generating long-term investment results; and an evaluation of why individual bonds may not really be any better (and could be worse) than just owning bond funds in the face of a potential rising rate environment.
We wrap up with three interesting articles, all around the theme of how hard it is to change someone's mind (whether it's about politics, or how they spend their money): the first looks at how getting people to change their minds on major issues requires them to not only understand new facts and information, but also change their "tribe" and personal identity (such that if we have to change our mind at the cost of our social ties, we'll often choose factually incorrect information over "loneliness"); the second explores how the best way to win a divisive argument is not to try to prevail on facts and persuasiveness alone but to connect your points to the other person's frame of reference (which, notably, requires having some empathy for them to better understand their situation in the first place); and the last examines a recent study finding that people are much more likely to change their minds and take in new information when it is presented visually as a chart or graphic than just text... ostensibly because it's a lot easier to simply ignore text but incredibly difficult to forget a memorable image once it's seared into our minds?! All of which is again relevant not just in the era of polarized modern politics, but simply getting clients to change their point of view and adopt better money habits, too!
Enjoy the "light" reading!
TD Ameritrade Alerts RIAs All Referrals <$750,000 May Stay In-House But Offers More RIA-Friendly Incentive Structure For The Rest (Lisa Shidler, RIABiz) - This week, TD Ameritrade Institutional announced that it will only be providing RIA referrals through its AdvisorDirect program for clients with more than $750,000 of AUM going forward, up from the current $500,000 threshold, and instead would begin to shift clients between $500,000 to $750,000 to its own in-house wrap account programs instead. However, at the same time, TDA also announced that for accounts above $750,000, it would be eliminating the current incentives that its brokers have to keep assets in-house with their own Selective Portfolios or Personalized Portfolios solutions, and instead would levelize compensation for its reps referring clients to either of those in-house programs or AdvisorDirect going forward. Which means on the one hand, that for advisory firms primarily focused on more affluent clients anyway, those RIAs in AdvisorDirect should see a higher flow of their ideal prospects anyway, especially as TD Ameritrade completes the Scottrade integration that has nearly tripled its number of branch locations and opened up a large swath of new prospects (for both its in-house managed account programs and also its RIAs via AdvisorDirect). At the same time, the change provides an even-clearer signal and affirmation of TD Ameritrade CEO Tim Hockey's prior statements that he sees TDA's branch brokers moving "upmarket" and offering more advice themselves, increasingly competing with their own RIAs in the "mass affluent" space while leaving the RIA community to serve the most affluent clientele (with the most complex needs that TDA's retail system ostensibly doesn't see itself serving as effectively anyway). Which, notably, isn't unique to TD Ameritrade, as Schwab and Fidelity have also increasingly been seeking to "insource" and grow their in-house managed account programs as well. Though arguably, as more and more independent RIAs provide more comprehensive financial planning and wealth management services up and down the spectrum, the question arises as to whether asset levels are the best way to segment consumers between in-house managed accounts or outside RIAs, or if it would be more productive to instead segment consumers as investment-only (to remain with retail custodian managed account programs) versus those seeking comprehensive financial planning services (regardless of asset levels) to be referred out to independent RIAs instead?
Medicare Supplemental Plans Are Changing As Comprehensive Plan F Is Eliminated After 2019 (Gail MarksJarvis, Reuters) - Medigap supplemental insurance policies are offered in a wide range of standardized plans, including Plans A, B, C, D, F, G, K, L, M, and N. Historically, Plan F has been by far the most popular, with the majority of all consumers selecting Plan F over all the others combined, as it is the most comprehensive plan that eliminates almost all retiree healthcare cost surprises by absorbing virtually all deductibles, co-payments, and coinsurance with any service providers that accept Medicare patients in the first place. But as a part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, Medigap Plan F (and also Plan C) options will no longer be available to new enrollees after 2020, as part of an effort under Medicare to shift away from plans that pay "first-dollar" coverage and instead ensure that consumers have at least a little skin in the game. However, most consumers are anticipated to simply shift to Plan G instead, which is identical to Plan F anyway, except for a $183/year deductible that must first be satisfied (which makes it not first-dollar coverage). And in fact, the average Plan G is nearly $30/month cheaper than Plan F anyway, which means consumers save nearly double the $183 deductible to simply pick Plan G and then pay the deductible out of pocket anyway if needed. Accordingly, in the past 3 years, Plan G enrollments have spiked to 37% of all enrollees (vs. 53% still in Plan F) anyway, suggesting that ultimately the elimination of Plan F may simply reflect where consumer preferences are shifting anyway. Notably, consumers who purchase a Plan F plan by the end of 2019 will be permitted to keep their plans in 2020 and beyond anyway (including those who "rush" to retire and apply by the end of 2019). However, the lack of any new enrollees joining Plan F, plus the risk of ongoing adverse selection as healthier individuals shift to the cheaper-but-higher-deductible Plan G option while the rest remain with Plan F poses the risk that existing Medigap Plan F participants will see upward-spiraling premiums through the 2020s... such that within a decade, most or all will eventually end out making the switch to Plan G anyway.
Strap On The Fitbit: John Hancock To Sell Only Interactive Life Insurance (Suzanne Barlyn, Reuters) - This week, 156-year-old mega-insurer John Hancock announced that it will completely stop underwriting traditional life insurance policies, and instead will only sell "interactive" policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices and smartphones. The "interactive life insurance" approach, pioneered in partnership with Vitality Group, has already become well-established in South Africa and Britain, is now gaining traction in the US. The appeal to consumers is that by using their wearable fitness tracking devices (e.g., Fitbit or Apple Watch), they can get premium discounts, gift cards to retail stores, or other perks in exchange for logging and hitting certain exercise targets. In other words, policyholders are incentivized to adopt more healthy habits, and the insurance company can more dynamically and optimally price its premiums (and give better pricing to those who do adopt a healthier lifestyle that reduces the risk of death). On the other hand, privacy and consumer advocates have raised concerns about whether insurers will inappropriately try to compel insurance buyers to participate and share personal data by hiking rates for those who don't, though at least at this point policyowners aren't actually required to fully log their activities to get coverage (instead, participation and access to the discounts is simply an optional choice that buyers can choose to take advantage of). And of course, the reality is that life insurance premiums are already adjusted based on various underwriting questions about health and lifestyle... though the concept of "interactive life insurance" certainly raises questions about where to draw the line between personal and "too personal" underwriting information!
Universal Life Insurance, A 1980s Sensation, Has Backfired (Leslie Scism, Wall Street Journal) - One of the most popular insurance products of the 1980s was universal life, which effectively combined together an interest-bearing cash value savings account and annually renewing one-year term insurance coverage, with the idea that growth on the cash value over time would more than cover future annual term insurance costs, resulting in premiums that at worst would stay level and at best would decline or disappear entirely. At the time, interest rates had just declined from double-digits to what were still the high single digits, which still projected a very compounding growth of cash value that would be more than enough to cover future costs. In reality, though, a nearly 30-year steady and ongoing secular decline in interest rates has caused the cash value to underperform, sometimes dramatically so, even as improving medical advances have increased life expectancy and caused more and more people to live in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. The end result: now, cash values are being depleted fully, requiring policyowners to pay the full cost of insurance out of pocket to keep the coverage afloat, at a potential cost of thousands of dollars per year for a modest policy or tens of thousands for a million dollar policy, or risk "losing" the coverage without any death benefit at all even after decades of premium payments. And many more may be close to the point of depletion, and simply haven't recently run updated projections to discover the dangerous path of declining cash value the policy is already winding down, or have borrowed against the policies and sometimes further accelerated the decline. Of course, universal life policies were always illustrated with a much lower "guaranteed" rate (that many universal life policies have now come down to) and stated that higher projections were "hypothetical," but at the time it wasn't uncommon to project then-still-achievable 10%+ interest rates and heavily discount or entirely ignore the lower-guaranteed-rate scenarios that have now come to bear. Some insurers are at least getting proactive about the situation now, sending policyowners notices if the policy is on track for an explosive premium increase in the coming decade, providing either reminder nudges to increase premiums now to get ahead again or reduce the policy's death benefit to slow the pace of cash value erosion. And of course, financial advisors doing ongoing financial planning for clients have the opportunity to do policy reviews and obtain in-force ledgers and current policy projections. On the other hand, some insurers have found their policies unprofitable even with the reductions in interest rate payouts, because many older policies had a guaranteed floor rate of "just" 4% (which is now higher than going interest rates), driving the insurers to increase their internal cost-of-insurance charges as well. Of course, the irony is that in today's environment, universal life insurance policies have been repriced to account for lower interest rates, and versions of no-lapse-guarantee universal life policies have become popular as well. Though those industry changes unfortunately don't help policyowners from 30+ years ago whose policies were over-illustrated by sales agents and now face hard choices.
Long-Term-Care Insurance Isn't Dead, It's Now An Estate Planning Tool (Leslie Scism, Wall Street Journal) - For 50-something empty nesters whose children are finally graduating college, it's not uncommon to reallocate those children's educational costs towards long-term care insurance premiums to protect their retirement future. However, over the past decade, the nature of what type of long-term care insurance consumers buy has been undergoing a dramatic shift, from "traditional" standalone long-term care insurance where consumers simply pay a premium for coverage and make claims if they need long-term care, to so-called "hybrid" long-term care policies that combine together long-term care insurance and life insurance, which pays long-term care benefits if needed, and a death benefit that can more than recover premiums if the LTC coverage is never used. In fact, over the past decade, the number of traditional LTC insurance policies sold has declined from more than 250,000 to barely more than 60,000, while the number of hybrid policies sold has skyrocketed to nearly 260,000 policies instead. The caveat, however, is that hybrid long-term care insurance coverage can ultimately be more expensive all-in - as it is literally is the combination of, and thus has the costs of, both life insurance and long-term care insurance. But the coverage has been popular in part because the internal long-term care insurance costs are guaranteed, in a world where traditional LTC insurance premiums have experienced eye-popping increases (especially for those who bought in the early days of the coverage 15+ years ago). On the other hand, the reality is that hybrid LTC costs aren't really "guaranteed" in a world where insurers can indirectly increase costs simply by paying lower-than-market interest rates on the policy's cash value, which is often substantial as asset-based hybrid policies often entail a substantial (i.e., $100,000+) lump sum deposit. More generally, though, the fact that hybrid policies typically require substantial lump sum premium payments (though some carriers now offer options to spread the payments out for those still in their 40s and 50s) has caused long-term care insurance to shift even further towards affluent clientele, who can now use the coverage as a combination of long-term care insurance if they need it, and an estate planning bequest tool (in the form of the hybrid policy's death benefit) if the LTC coverage is not fully used.
The Wild, Wild West: Understanding Cryptocurrencies & Their Implications On Financial Planning (Ana Trujillo Limón, Journal of Financial Planning) - The cryptocurrency Bitcoin has been around since 2008, when Satoshi Nakamoto first published a white paper outlining its basic form and structure, although it wasn't until recent years that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies really entered the mainstream, leading to a meteoric price rise through 2017, followed (at least thus far) by a major crash this year. As a result, some have suggested that Bitcoin is little more than a short-term fad or craze like Beanie Babies in the 1990s, while others have suggested that despite the short-term hype and mania, the underlying significance of Bitcoin remains and will ultimately prevail. At a minimum, though, advisors should arguably be aware of and have an understanding of cryptocurrencies as a potential investment, if only because a growing number of clients will likely be asking about it (or may have already, as the latest FPA Trends in Investing study showed 53% of advisors had clients inquire about cryptocurrencies in the past 6 months). At their core, the significance of cryptocurrencies is that they are "mined" by people and organizations, rather than being issued by governments, and rather than being tracked and managed by traditional financial intermediaries (e.g., banks) like other forms of currency, are recorded directly in an open-but-unalterable ledger system (called the "blockchain") that collectively tracks ownership and transactions of every Bitcoin. In essence, it is a currency where there is no need for a trusted third party to manage transactions, which has made it especially appealing in an era of rising distrust of both governments and the financial services system. And while Bitcoin happens to be one of the most popular and high-profile cryptocurrencies, ultimately the blockchain ledger structure can be used to create any type of cryptocurrency, leading to the rise of "ICOs" or Initial Coin Offerings where private parties issue their own currency (from other popular alternatives like Litecoin or Ethereum to ones sponsored or endorsed directly by individual celebrities like Floyd Mayweather and Paris Hilton). Nonetheless, the volatile booms and busts of various cryptocurrencies - with Bitcoin along falling nearly 70% from its 2017 highs - have led most advisors to shy away, with the FPA's recent study finding only 1.4% of advisors are actually currently recommending cryptocurrencies to their clients. In fact, many are ultimately suggesting that, while cryptocurrencies themselves may come and go, the real breakthrough is the underlying blockchain technology, which has a much wider range of potential applications, and itself has led to a number of recent ETF launches specifically to invest in blockchain technology firms (aside from the cryptocurrencies themselves). In the meantime, for advisors who want to learn more, consider Don Tapscott's "Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World."
Do Advisors Stand In The Way Of ESG Investing? (Karen Demasters, Financial Advisor) - Despite a growing buzz around Impact and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing, thus far, the uptake amongst financial advisors has been fairly limited, which most advisors state is simply because their clients aren't actually asking for or expressing interest in ESG strategies anyway. However, advisors who do discuss with clients the opportunity to invest in ways that promote their personal values report that the overwhelming majority of clients are interested once presented with the approach, raising the question of whether consumers don't want ESG investing strategies or simply aren't aware of them enough to know to ask for them. And according to broader consumer research, the approach of aligning investment portfolios with personal values and causes that clients are passionate about appears to be especially resonating amongst women and Millennials, suggesting that as those demographics increasingly accumulate wealth and become more responsible for investment decisions, they will drive an increasing interest in ESG portfolios. And in the meantime, the rising popularity - and rising economies of scale - in the world of ESG investing have reduced the cost differentials that previously existed between ESG and traditional investment portfolios. In addition, Morningstar itself recently launched a series of "Globe" ratings to evaluate most mutual funds and ETFs based on their ESG sustainability, providing advisors the tools to begin to screen the investments that go into client portfolios based on ESG criteria.
A Ranking Of What Really Helps Or Hurts Investment Returns (Barry Ritholtz, Bloomberg) - There are an incredible number of inputs that ultimately go into generating long-term investment returns, from economic factors like the job and wage growth and the general level of interest rates to the tax environment to consumer sentiment and valuation (P/E) trends and both the aggregate level of corporate profits and the (relative) performance of individual companies in their own markets. Which raises the question of which ones are ultimately the most important in driving the actual outcome of investment portfolios. According, Ritholtz proposes a list of the most driving factors, in order of rising importance (where later factors can mostly or completely wipe out any influence of the prior), including: 1) security selection (as no great surprise, picking winning companies is better than picking the losers, and as a result the media tends to focus heavily here); 2) costs and expenses (as over time high costs can still erode the outperformance of even great security selection!); 3) asset allocation (as the variability between asset classes is often even more significant than the variability of investments within each asset class); 4) valuation and year of birth (as some investors just have better luck of aligning their peak investing years during expanding valuations like the 1980s and 1990s, while others happen to get started in harder times like the 2000s); 5) longevity and starting early (as the longer the time horizon, the more time there is to recover from major speed bumps anyway); 6) humility and learning (as investment decision-making can be improved with learning over time); and most importantly, 7) behavior and discipline (as even smart investors with great time horizons and good asset allocations and security selection can still be undone by emotionally panicked investment decisions under duress). And of course, the reality is there's also a good bit of random luck and chance involved, too!
Misconceptions About Individual Bonds Vs. Bond Funds (Ben Carlson, The Big Picture) - The fear of rising interest rates, and the direct adverse impact on bond prices as rates rise, has led to a growing number of advisors to worry about exposure to interest rate risk, and a concomitant shift towards owning individual bonds (in lieu of bond funds) that can be held until maturity to recover from any losses that may occur. Yet as popular investment manager Cliff Asness wrote in the Financial Analysts Journal several years ago, the reality is that bond funds are nothing more than portfolios of bonds marked to market every day, and can't actually be any worse (or better) than owning the underlying individual bonds, as if interest rates rise both bond funds and individual bonds will experience the same losses, and bond funds have the same opportunity to benefit from holding bonds until maturity as individual bond owners do. Of course, bond funds often don't actually hold their bonds to maturity, but only because they tend to roll their bonds over time into new, higher-yielding bonds that become available as interest rates rise, a phenomenon known as "rolling down the yield curve," which can actually increase the return of bond funds in a rising rate environment! And alternatively, if investors really want to recover their losses from a bond fund if/when interest rates rise, they can always just sell the bond fund at that time, and reinvest into what would by then be cheaper individual bonds to hold until maturity anyway! In the meantime, as Carlson points out, there are several often underappreciated challenges of the individual bond strategy as well, including that individual bonds are often more illiquid and investors may actually experience higher costs (in the form of larger bid/ask spreads) trying to buy them directly (including those who don't need the current cash flows and then need to reinvest the interest proceeds as well), and also that for those investing in bonds with any risk greater than just Treasuries alone, it can be difficult to sufficiently diversify the default risk compared to a bond fund. The fundamental point, though, is that for investors who don't specifically need an exact cash flow that comes due (as a bond matures) in a certain number of years, individual bonds don't magically transmute the risk of bond investing to be better or worse than holding bond funds comprised of the same bonds anyway, and if investors are willing to hold individual bonds for several years until maturity while shrugging off short-term losses, they should be willing to hold bond funds that experience similar short-term losses and then ultimately recover (by either holding their bonds to maturity as well, or simply reinvesting into new higher-yielding bonds to recover any losses already experienced).
Why Facts Don't Change Our Minds (James Clear) - It is a challenging reality that it's often easier to teach complex concepts to someone that knows nothing about them, than to teach a simple concept to someone that would require them to change their mind about one of their pre-existing beliefs. The phenomenon that it's so difficult to change someone's mind appears to originate from the simple reality that we need to have a clear and stable understanding of the world in order to survive, but we are also fundamentally "herd" animals and have a strong desire to remain consistent with the rest of our tribe. Which means sometimes our minds can literally be placed in conflict between the information that is most accurate and true (to help us survive) and the information that helps us maintain consistently with our friends and allies (to help us remain same with the herd). Or stated more simply: "We don't always believe things because they are correct. Sometimes we believe things because they make us look good to the people we care about." And in practice, we often show a preference for conclusions that are "factually false, but socially accurate" when the two are in conflict. Which is important, because it means convincing someone to change their minds about a major belief effectively means asking them to run the risk of losing social ties and needing to change their "tribe" as well... which in turn means you have to not only give them the information, but also a place to go or a "new tribe" to join in the process. Or viewed another way, the best way to change people's minds is to become friends with them and to integrate them into your tribe, which then makes them comfortable to change their mind in the relative safety of their new social circle. Similarly, the reality is that arguments with those that we otherwise share little in common with are experienced like a full frontal attack not just on our beliefs, but our personal identity - which, perhaps not surprisingly, is why we are so quick to dismiss those from a diametrically opposite point of view. By contrast, we tend to find the most synergy and connection with those who already share at least most of our beliefs... which means the people most likely to change our minds are the ones we already agree with on 98% of topics, who can then safely persuade us on the last 2%. In the context of financial advisors, though, the key point is simply that sometimes, clients don't change their money behaviors not because they can't understand the problems with what they're doing, but because they're not prepared to handle the social consequences of changing their behaviors!
This Is The Scientific Way To Win Any Argument (And Not Make Enemies) (David Hoffeld, Fast Company) - Arguments often come to a stalemate because neither side manages to grasp the other's point of view... which suggests that rather than trying to be more "persuasive" about the arguments themselves, the real need is to change the "frame" and help the other person see the issue from a different perspective in the first place. At their core, "frames" are simply ways that the human brain filters information, but are important because when we come at an issue with a particular frame, we may not see anything that falls outside the frame. For instance, when evaluating a new car, I might see it from an aesthetic frame (it's a lovely shade of blue), an economic frame (the car costs $30,000), or a historical frame (the car is 2 years old); in turn, this means if I focus on one frame (e.g., the aesthetic color) while my spouse focuses on another (its cost), we may reach an impasse in the argument about whether to buy it or not, because we're evaluating the decision through different frames. And recent research has found that the best way to change someone else's frame is actually to shift and reframe your own position to fit their frame; for instance, one study found that politically liberal participants were more persuaded on the topic of same-sex marriage by connecting the issue to a frame of fairness (treating all couples equally), while conservative-leaning participants were more convinced when it was framed in the context of recognizing the couples were first and foremost loyal patriotic Americans. Or stated more simply, to "win" an argument, the best approach is not to challenge someone's beliefs, but to connect your own position to their beliefs (which, notably, means learning to better empathize with the opposing party in the first place). Which is especially important when trying to convince clients to change their problematic views about money and investing!
Charts Change Hearts And Minds Better Than Words Do (Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post) - There has been a growing concern in recent years of how many people hold rather extreme yet patently inaccurate views, from the majority of voters for President Trump who incorrectly believed that President Obama was born in Kenya, to the majority of Democrats a decade earlier who "wouldn't rule out the possibility that people in the Federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East." Which raises the question of how to combat such misperceptions. In a new political research paper by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, it turns out the answer is surprisingly straightforward: using charts and graphics. Specifically, the researchers found that when people are provided with graphical information, it significantly decreases false or unsupported factual beliefs. The significance appears to not just be the proverbial phenomenon that "a picture is worth 1,000 words," as though graphics more thoroughly explain factual information. Instead, the challenge is that accepting information that challenges our beliefs can be perceived as a threat to our identity, and in such situations, text may simply be easier to ignore than a compelling picture that makes the same point but in a way that is easier to quickly interpret and thus also can't as easily be ignored or forgotten (given our brain's capabilities to remember strong images). Of course, not all points to be made are conducive to charting and graphics, and arguably there's also a risk that graphics themselves can be presented in a distorting or misleading way (potentially further cementing incorrect beliefs). Nonetheless, the point remains that when trying to provide important information, including (and especially) information that may challenge someone's existing beliefs, it's difficult for anyone to argue with a clear graphic or chart that unequivocally and memorably illustrates the data to make the point. Which may be especially helpful when trying to make a key point to clients about their financial situation, and emphasizes the importance of graphics and visuals in a financial plan, and not just delivering a well-written financial plan!
I hope you enjoyed the reading! Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts, or make a suggestion of any articles you think I should highlight in a future column!
In the meantime, if you're interested in more news and information regarding advisor technology, I'd highly recommend checking out Bill Winterberg's "FPPad" blog on technology for advisors as well.