If there’s one new asset class that seems to have truly caught the imagination of clients, it’s gold. Technology, real estate, and emerging markets have all caught fire for some period of time in recent years, but gold still seems to stir something emotional in us, above and beyond just the pangs of greed that have characterized the other hot investments of the decade. Perhaps it’s the fact that gold is something that theoretically performs well in times of distress; it can serve as a hedge in times of inflation, help protect against the declining value of our currency, and be a safe harbor when everything else is in trouble. Given so much client anxiety about today’s economic environment, it’s not difficult to understand the appeal. In the end, there is perhaps only one significant problem: gold doesn’t actually have any value; it can only accomplish these financial feats of strength because we believe that it can.
The growth of the financial planning profession over the past 40 years is a testament to the fundamental need that it serves; if financial planners weren’t delivering value, firms wouldn’t be growing the way that they are.
Yet for so many planning firms, there is no process to really evaluate what it is that clients want, and whether they’re receiving it. Instead, we craft an offering that we think clients will like, and then try to convince them to hire us to receive it.
But is that really the best way to build a business’ service offering?
Under classic Modern Portfolio Theory, there is a single portfolio that is considered to have the most efficient risk/return balance for a given target return or target risk level; any portfolio which deviates from the “optimal” allocation must, by definition, either offer lower returns for a comparable level of risk, or result in higher risk for the same level of return. Accordingly, as the theory is extended, advisors should avoid making portfolio shifts that constitute tactical “bets” in particular stocks, sectors, asset classes, etc., as it must by definition result in a portfolio that is not on the efficient frontier; one that will be accepting a lower return for a given level of risk, or higher risk for a comparable return. Unfortunately, though, this perspective on MPT with respect to making tactical portfolio shifts is not accurate, for one simple reason: it is based on an invalid assumption that there is a single answer for the “right” return, volatility, and correlation assumptions that will never change over time, even though Markowitz himself didn’t think that was a good way to apply his theory!
With the financial crisis of 2008-2009, some planners appear to be considering – if not adopting – a somewhat more active approach. Unfortunately, though, for many planners any investment strategy that is not purely passive and strategic must be equated to “market timing” – a pejorative term. Yet the planners who have implemented some form of tactical asset allocation generally do not call themselves market timers; they recoil at the term as much as passive, strategic investors do. So where do you draw the line… what IS the difference between being “tactical” and being a “market timer”? In truth, it seems that once you dig under the hood, the differences are nuanced, but they are many, and significant.
It is viewed as almost common wisdom: the key to success is to set clear goals so that you can achieve them. After all, if you don’t know what your goals are, you can’t determine the path to reach them. Financial planning itself is rooted deeply in this philosophy, given its significant emphasis on goals (whether for retirement, college, legacy, or something else) as a foundational step in the financial planning process. Yet as I reflect on my own financial and business success over the past decade, I am struck by a startling realization: not only did I not set any goals for myself, but I’m quite certain that if I had, I would be less successful today. Because it’s not about goals, really. It’s about habits.
It is a common financial planning challenge: just how much time and effort should be spent trying to make the numbers in your financial planning projections as precise as possible? How much research should you put into refining the growth rate assumption for each asset in the portfolio? And its volatility? And its correlation? What about client spending? Should we build a detailed cash flow for retirement, year by year, or is it sufficient to just provide a rough guesstimate of how much money will go towards retirement outflows? Many planners have a strong tendency to fine-tune these numbers and make them as precise as possible, but that in turn begs the question… in a world where the future itself is so uncertain, are the results really more accurate, or is an effort for greater precision just an exercise in futility?