Monday, November 28, 2011

Loss of Confidence

There’s a striking similarity between the current state of affairs in government and our financial system: Both are paralyzed by gridlock and in desperate need of regaining credibility. Voters and investors are losing confidence.

The Congressional supercommittee’s inability to address government spending is only the latest failing by our nation’s leaders. Likewise, the financial system’s refusal to remake itself after the trust-busting financial crisis is equally disheartening.

On Wall Street, it’s exasperating that it’s still business as usual. Big banks and wirehouses continue to create wealth management programs that place asset gathering and the firm’s profitability ahead of the interests of clients.

They’re still missing the boat on the most fundamental tenent of wealth management: If it is good for your client, it will be good for your business. Meanwhile, Wall Street is trying to actively torpedo any reform by dismantling Dodd-Frank and other protections for taxpayers and investors.

It’s no wonder the Occupy Wall Street movement still has oxygen left.

A Better Way

In the spirit of extricating the industry from a crisis of investor confidence, we’re proposing a modest agenda of reform:

Be honest. The wealth management industry has positioned itself as an omnipotent, all-knowing purveyor of financial security. What has been lacking is honesty. Investors need to be told the truth about risk and reward, even if they don’t want to hear it. The good news is that unconflicted advisors who don’t have to peddle opaque products or be held hostage to their large firm’s profitability targets are beginning to have an honest dialogue with clients.

Acknowledge mistakes. Large institutions attribute the financial mess to a once-in-a-lifetime debacle, as opposed to any systemic defect in their business models. The rationalization is that no one could have seen the crisis coming. If you’re an unconflicted, independent advisor, you still may not have seen the flood coming. However, you could have responded faster in heading for higher ground. You wouldn’t have been locked in by Wall Street’s investment products that stifle flexibility.

Establish new standards. Advisors need to re-educate investors about performance. It’s not simply about high returns, but rather about performance versus established risk parameters. Particularly for high net worth clients who have already hit the home run, wealth preservation and definable risk management are often a higher priority. Using risk as your primary performance benchmark might not be as “marketable” as cocktail party worthy high returns, but taking the easy route rarely works.

Independent wealth advisors should play a particularly valuable role in advancing this agenda. They can be a catalyst because they don’t need to buy into the Wall Street mirage that “we are smarter and have all the answers.” They can tell the truth, and investors will reward them with the biggest prize: their business and their trust.

At the end of the day, voters and investors are actually looking for the same thing – an alternative to sclerotic party politics or an anachronistic financial services business model. Whoever steps up and tells the truth – and delivers a credible solution – will win the hearts and minds of both for the long run.