Financial history is peppered with stock market crashes, property market booms and busts and a vast array of stories of individuals who have either made or lost fortunes, or even both. Irrespective of the past, a financial adviser deals with the here and now as well as the future, keeping one eye on clients’ possible expenditure requirements. In doing this, giving the right advice is a subjective process in terms of possible investment portfolio construction and asset mix or promoting beneficial financial habits. Irrespective of the type of client or their individual requirements, the adviser’s methodology in giving financial advice needs to be robust, easily understood and capable of consistent application.
In the investment arena, many clients find stock markets and matters such as asset allocation and volatility complex or even scary. A common experience of most investment advisers is that even when the client confirms verbally that they understood an investment concept that has just been explained to them, true understanding usually requires the explanation to be repeated several times before the issue is grasped.
In order to simplify matters, many investment advisers have, by and large, focused historically on fund selection and objective matching. While this is understandable to a certain extent, it is also dilutes the skill necessary to advise clients and risks falling into the trap of letting investment advice be led by the most convenient product or “off the shelf” fund being marketed by an investment manager. Hindsight is wonderful, but replicating the investment choices that have performed best in the recent past does not guarantee future success. This lemming-like behaviour has led to housing bubbles and the dot.com crash, to name but two. Simplification can also lead to oversights such as a failure to recognise the impact of inflation or the effect of taxation on investment growth.
Any document dealing with investment risk needs to acknowledge the trade off between investment return and the possibility of loss together with ongoing volatility, especially with asset classes that experience wide variations in pricing. While the concept of the Efficient Frontier is a familiar one with experienced investment advisers, many clients interpret the drawing of such a graph as almost a guaranteed level of performance without realising that losses can and do occur.
Risk profiling is possibly the single most important regulatory issue facing investment advisers and financial institutions at this time, as the consequences of getting it wrong or even not doing it can be severe for both investor and adviser. Getting it right confers major benefits, for example, by allowing diversification to dilute risk or identifying when to stretch investors to go beyond their usual comfort zone and take slightly more risk needed to meet goals.
In recent years, especially in the UK, there has been a steady growth in advisers’ use of investor risk profiling tools provided by investment companies. These alone, however, are not silver bullets for defining risk, despite the encouragement by such companies who have a vested interest in providing the shortest possible route to a client selecting their investment funds. All of this assumes, of course, that these profiling systems have been constructed correctly and are properly validated.
The traditional understanding of risk is, however, only half the picture. By solely focusing on investment return, investors and their advisers ignore the reason for investment return, namely the satisfying of a need for capital growth. Such a need is based around a future requirement for expenses to be met, especially those that are based in the reality of current needs. This also means that a client’s current financial behaviour needs to be addressed. Such behaviours include blind purchasing by clients of financial products other than investments as well as overreaching in borrowings. Similarly, spendthrift behaviour merely because cashflow is available is not a sustainable long term financial behaviour. Nevertheless, not only can clients lose the run of themselves but advisers who fail to advise these clients otherwise could lead to such behaviour being interpreted as acceptable and in some way a part of their future financial planning approach.
The spectre of financial risk is also present in the need to purchase life assurance, income protection or specified illness cover. Maintaining these safeguards requires that a person remain solvent and have access to cash, both of which can be influenced by arbitrary decisions on the part of the individual, many of which are emotionally driven.
The acknowledgement of risks other than the traditional views of investment risk is key to good financial planning. Even more important is the education of clients in such regard. Individuals can, and do, become blinded to the possibility of future financial loss due to steep rises in interest rates on large loan portfolios in periods of economic success. Similarly, a lifestyle that has been funded by the existence of easy credit through credit cards, overdrafts or interest-only borrowings has led, post-Lehmans and other similar circumstances, to personal financial destruction. If financial education is only acquired through personal losses in the troughs of economic cycles rather than through an understanding of these cycles and a long-term perspective, the possibility of financial recovery may be rather slim.
What financial planners need to recognise is that they are primarily investor managers as opposed to investment managers and client leaders rather than product sellers. Such leadership has been severely lacking as, in many instances in the past, advisers sought to take shortcuts to generate business income without necessarily examining the true emotional makeup of their clients and the financial impact of such clients’ natural preferences in dealing with money. This misdirected advice has, in turn, had serious consequences on the long-term relationship with the clients.
In fairness, the financial services industry has historically veered towards defining and managing risk as being investment related. Such an approach was easy to rationalise, and led to the design of easily marketable products which suited those businesses that relied on earnings from annual management charges from investment funds.
The realms of individual financial planning do not, unfortunately, fit easily into systemised investment marketing and, traditionally, what does not fit is usually ignored for the sake of profitable expediency. To be an excellent financial planner not only requires product knowledge and an ability to analyse but also a willingness to spend more time getting to know the client, which leads to an understanding of and empathy for the client, rather than focussing on the quick sale.
While “knowing the client” is a prerequisite by any financial regulatory code, too few advisers take the trouble to know the client from the inside out since to do so takes time and may create additional workload. Rather than looking at such “work” as a negative, it should be viewed as a key building block in not only providing the right understanding of the clients’ needs, financial and emotional, but also in establishing long term successful business relationships for the adviser. By understanding clients on a personal level rather than just viewing them in terms of a financial factfind or an investment profile, the relationship strengthens as does the likelihood that the client will respond positively to any advice given. This can only help to ensure that a long term business relationship will develop and thrive beyond any short term product sale.
This article is an extract from a White Paper on financial risk: “Dealing with Financial Planning Risk – Directing Porfolio Decisions or Navigating Behavior?”