Recently, I had the distinct privilege to join Sheinelle Jones on the Today show, discussing some rapid-fire personal finance issues in Simple Money style. Is now a good time to buy stocks? Is it a good time to buy, sell, refinance or renovate a home? We even discussed a version of the Simple Money Portfolio and my top two picks for cash flow apps that can improve your financial situation. Click HERE or on the image below to view the segment.
Advisors to President-elect Donald Trump have been vocal about rescinding the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule, introduced earlier this year to protect retirement savers from advice that isn’t fully in their best interests. The rule has already been under fire from the securities industry, and lack of presidential support could spell its ultimate demise.
As someone who has worked on both the fiduciary and non-fiduciary sides of the industry, I think revoking the rule is a bad, even dangerous, move. My rationale for such a position starts with my experience, early in my career, at one of the nation’s largest insurance companies.
“Look, you can set up your business any way you see fit after you’re successful. But right now? With a young family? You need to put yourself and your family first, and that means selling A-share mutual funds,” said my sales manager.
In other words, you must put your interests ahead of your clients’.
As a brand new financial advisor, I was having a heart-to-heart with my supervisor after laying out my plan for creating a fee-based business within the agency, which would have meant recurring revenue for the firm but apparently in much smaller increments than were preferable.
“A-share mutual funds” are a variety with some of the largest up-front commissions—for both the salesperson and the company they represent. Variable annuities were even better, generating more of a “front-end load.” Whole life insurance was the pinnacle of up-front commissions.
In the newbie bullpen, we were encouraged to sell in various and sundry ways. The general agent in charge of the Baltimore metro area—the self-proclaimed “big dog”—was, indeed, a large man. A former starting lineman for a recognizable college football team, I’m quite sure that he routinely watched the classic Alec Baldwin “motivational speech” from Glengarry Glen Ross (turn the speakers down if you’re at work or children are nearby).
I recently discussed this topic on the Nightly Business Report (at the 9:05 mark)
My favorite anecdote from that time, though, was my general agent’s big fish story: “When you get a big fish on the hook, I want you to set a noon lunch meeting at the Oregon Grille.” (The Oregon Grille is an excellent restaurant north of Baltimore in pastoral horse country, where most of us had never dined.) “Go to the restaurant 30 minutes early and introduce yourself to the maître d’. Let him know that you’ll be returning shortly to the restaurant with a guest, and that you’d like to be referred to by name.”
Who does the stock market “want” to win?
Hillary Clinton. This isn’t a partisan statement, but simply a statement of fact. There may be several indicators to which we could point, but the glaring one is this: When the FBI announced last Friday that a new slew of emails had been discovered that could impact its investigation and shed further negative light on Clinton’s handling of classified emails, the market sold off. Period.
But why? Is the market more Democrat than Republican?
No. In fact, you may recall the George Bush/Al Gore recount in 2000, when the market seemed to cheer in Bush’s favor. But what the market really doesn’t like is unpredictability, and it has asserted its opinion that Donald Trump is a more unpredictable candidate than Clinton.
Big bank fees are at an all-time high while the interest they pay is at an all-time low. Worse yet, evidence recently has come to light of the criminal abuse of a practice common among large banks since the fall of Glass-Steagall: cross-selling.
Cross-selling is rooted in consumer research that large financial institutions tend to salivate over. It shows that customers are more profitable for longer when they own more products. How else could they get us to settle for deposit products for which we pay them? Does this absurdity leave you wanting to bolt the big banks?
Fortunately, you have alternatives. Here are the top four:
1) A good option for most is to flee the big brick-and-mortar bank for its younger virtual sibling: the online bank. Online banks, which lack the overhead of their more traditional rivals, can offer higher interest rates, lower fees, free ATM withdrawals and low or no minimum balance requirements. And they do.
I’ve been using an online bank for several years now and haven’t paid a single ATM fee for that entire time—and I can go to any ATM in the known universe (seriously). In the past year alone, I’ve received more than $200 in ATM fee rebates!
I recommend that you choose an online bank that best serves your needs and lifestyle. Mine, for example, offers unlimited ATM reimbursement, but others will cap the reimbursement amount or restrict you to a (typically large) number of “free” ATMs. Those banks, however, may pay a higher level of interest than my bank. Nerdwallet did an excellent job summarizing the best online checking accounts of 2016.
You’re no fool. But let’s imagine for a second that a major public figure said something—something false—over and over (and over) again. Regardless of its questionable veracity, is there a chance you’d be more likely to believe the proclamation simply because you’ve heard it often and recently?
Like it or not, the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”
You and I are more likely to believe something is true when it’s readily available—that is, when we’ve heard it frequently and, especially, when we’ve heard it lately. This phenomenon is dubbed the “availability heuristic,” and even though it was discovered and named (by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) more than 40 years ago, it likely hasn’t caught on in the broader public awareness because its title includes the word “heuristic.”
Nonetheless, the availability heuristic’s power to persuade is not lost on marketers, salespeople, lobbyists and politicians. They use it on us all the time. But let’s explore the errant biases in investing, in particular, that while readily available often lead to sub-optimal outcomes.
Active vs. Passive
The debate rages (and no doubt will continue to do so) over whether active stock pickers are able to beat their respective benchmark indices. The implications seem simple: If fee-charging money managers aren’t persistently outperforming their benchmarks, we likely should not be paying them for underperformance, right?
Since her early 20s, Danica Patrick has driven a racecar for a living, speeding 200 miles per hour around a crowded track bordered by concrete walls. It’s dangerous. Really dangerous. And she recognizes that.
“There are things that happen in the car that you can’t plan for and that are out of your control, like a tire blowing on you or an engine blowing up or a crash that happens in front of you or someone hits you,” Patrick told me in a recent interview. “So no matter what your skillset is, those things just happen. Absolutely it is a risk.”
But it’s a risk that she has chosen to manage, in part, with life insurance. Patrick has owned life insurance since she started racing, and the subject is important enough to her that she now advocates on behalf of Life Happens, a nonprofit founded to help consumers make smart insurance decisions.
Commendable though it sounds, I wanted to know more about why. Why was she motivated to buy life insurance at an age when most people don’t even think about it? Why did she feel she needed life insurance—then and now?
I don’t watch reality television contests, because as a rule, the best participants rarely participate and when they do, they almost never win. Whether the over-commercialized, profit-over-art system is to blame—or the television audience, or both—I’d rather not suffer the invariable disappointment of an unjust outcome. But quite randomly, a 12-year-old ukulele player named Grace VanderWaal, inspired me to break my own boycott.
On our way to another channel, my family stumbled on America’s Got Talent a few months ago just in time to see one of my favorite instruments—the ukulele—adorning the neck of a diminutive blond girl. “Wait a second,” I said.
She’s clearly overwhelmed just to be there. “It’s crazy,” she says, as her voice cracks in response to the judges’ welcome.
“What are you going to sing?” asks the legendarily gruff host, Simon Cowell.
“I’m singing an original.”
“Really?” Simon says, eyebrows raised.
“Yes.” Confidently, but not defiantly.
It’s just her and the miniature instrument on the stage. And then she parts from reality singing contest convention launching into a song that she—as a 12-year-old—wrote herself. It’s not a tune that the crowd can recognize and cheer for. Judges can’t easily identify with it to help sway them in her favor. She’s on her own.
“I don’t know my name…” she begins. “I don’t play by the rules of the game.”
Indeed. Her uke is a little out of tune (but it’s almost impossible to keep them in tune). Her voice is interesting—quirky, but good. Her pace is variable, perhaps intentionally. But in her vulnerability, her apparent imperfection, she endears her way toward her own version of perfection.
In the song’s climactic stanza, she rejoices with soaring authenticity, “I now know my name.”
By the end, I’m visibly crying, much to my 10 and 12-year-old sons’ utter shock. (“You’ll understand one day, once you have children,” I assure them.) And to my shock, everyone loves her, the judges anointing her with instant superstardom. She, in turn, is shocked, overwhelmed that she put every bit of herself out there for the world to see—and the world embraced her.
But even more surprising is that in every subsequent show, working toward the final round, she played another original. At no point does she curry favor through the influence of another. With almost no accompaniment, she just keeps playing and singing her own brilliant, old soul 12-year-old songs.
Then, in last night’s final round of performances (prior to tonight’s minting of the new millionaire Vegas headliner), every contestant got an extended vignette as a prelude to their performance. You know, the tear-jerking journey that each performer has endured on their way to the big stage.
Grace, the final performer of the night (no pressure, right?), has a vignette that doesn’t feature her, so much. It’s a collage of YouTube videos featuring other people playing her songs, songs that even her middle school classmates hadn’t heard 13 weeks ago that have now gone viral.
Without an ounce of pretension, but with conviction in who she is and what she does, she brought the house down.
“On paper,” her voice couldn’t compete with the virtuoso opera singer. Her production couldn’t compete with the contortionist. She didn’t have an ounce of the showmanship of the Sinatra protégé, and she was clearly the least experienced of the entire field.
But she was easily the most comfortable in her own skin. She seemed to need the praise least of all. “I’m just glad it’s over,” she said in response to the standing ovation. For the first (and likely last) time, I actually got on my phone to vote for a reality show contestant.
And despite all the commercialism, media manipulation and bias against true originality—God bless America—justice prevailed. She won.
But I’m not a music writer. My specialty is personal finance, of which career is a primary component, and the whole notion of vocation or “calling” is one with which I am fascinated. I believe that we each have a unique combination of personality characteristics, natural proclivities and honed skills that when employed in the service of others at the right time and in the right environment can bring uncommon fulfillment. (But be warned, it may not bring money, fame, or even a job.)
So what vocational lessons might we learn from this unlikely 12-year-old star?
1) There may be no stage in life in which it is harder to be authentic than middle school. If she can do it then, we can do it now.
2) Nothing conveys authenticity better than vulnerability. (But while life-giving, being vulnerable can be exhausting, and it’s never easy.)
3) Most of the work we do requires trust on the part of those we serve. Vulnerability—even the upfront acknowledgement of our faults and shortcomings—is the quickest path to trust.
4) We need not be free from constraints and the influence of others in order to exercise authenticity and our own brand of creativity. (This is something I learned from James K. A. Smith in his new book, You Are What You Love.) Many a tortured musician would spurn the mere thought of submitting him or herself to a venue as “establishment” as America’s Got Talent. But with innocence and whimsy, Grace was able to be fully herself—even while being constrained by a decidedly commercialist enterprise. You don’t have to be “out on your own” in order to be fully you. Constraints can ironically inspire creativity, and the best organizations welcome individuality in the midst of their communities.
5) We all have creative potential. Whether a plumber, priest or professional, we can all bring a certain artisanship to our work.
What does this mean for you? What is the next step in authenticity, vulnerability or creativity that you could take?
It’s that time of year again, where the heat of summer recedes, sweatshirts make a comeback and businesses lose billions in flagging productivity due to fantasy football. But it’s not just businesses losing out—fans and players come up short as well.
How, after all, can I truly dedicate myself to rooting fully for my beloved Baltimore Ravens if I took Le’Veon Bell—who, for those not acquainted with the best rivalry in football, plays running back for the Steelers—second in the fantasy draft? It can’t be done. It’s just wrong.
Partly. But there are more serious personal and financial implications to embracing fantasy (sports or otherwise). The danger in fantasy is its distance from reality. It’s “betting on a future that is not likely to happen,” according to Psychology Today.
Our fantasies tend to sensationalize what we’d prefer to imagine while ignoring what we’d prefer to not. Then, when our actual spouse, child, parent, friend or co-worker falls short of the impossibly high bar we’ve set for them, we—and often, they—are crushed.
“Emotional suffering is created in the moment we don’t accept what is,” says Eckhart Tolle, who, perhaps unintentionally, delivers a potent dose of truth that especially informs us in our personal dealings with money.
Here are a handful of financial fantasies, followed by their unvarnished truths:
Competition for your dollars creates an inertia that always seems to lead Wall Street down the path of unhelpfully increasing the risk in your portfolio. The recent Wall Street Journal headline, “Bond Funds Turn Up Risk,” illustrates an especially alarming trend. Specifically, of increasing the risk in the part of your portfolio that should be reducing overall risk—bonds.
Bonds are supposed to be boring. The primary role they serve in our portfolios is not necessarily to make money, but to dampen the volatility that is an inevitable byproduct of the real moneymakers—stocks.
Imagine that your entire life revolves around a single performance lasting less than 14 seconds. You’ve sacrificed your youth, close friendships and any semblance of a career in pursuit of validating your Herculean effort on the world’s largest stage. The hopes of your country on your shoulders. Tens of millions of gawkers eager to praise perfection — and condemn anything less.
You dork it.
That’s precisely what happened to Haitian hurdler Jeffrey Julmis in the Olympic 110-meter semifinal heat when he crashed into the very first hurdle, tumbling violently into the second.
Wow. I love the Olympics, the pinnacle of athletic competition. I even see past all the corporate corruption and commercial sensationalism, drinking in every vignette, simply in awe of all that the human body, mind and spirit can accomplish in peak performance. But thank God life isn’t like the Olympics (even for Olympians).
We aren’t subject to the imperial thumbs up or down based on a single momentary contest (or even a handful of them). But we’re certainly capable of treating life that way, often to our detriment. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you said (or thought):
“This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
“It’s all leading up to this.”
We’re trained to think this way because that narrative is more likely to keep you from switching the channel, more likely to motivate you to buy that car (or house or hair product), all of it promising to be that singular moment or lead you to it.
This script is especially common in the world of financial products. If you surveyed the marketing collateral for a host of investment products, you’d think the product being sold was a sailboat, new golf clubs, a winery or beach house — a life without care. But success in investing is actually achieved through the tedium of saving and the application of a simple, long-term investment plan — not the sexy new investment product or strategy that pledges to deliver your hopes and dreams.
Thankfully, this is also true in life (and athletics). “Success” is cultivated in the millions of unseen moments, the application of simple disciplines employed in pursuit of goals that don’t expire the minute we’re out of the spotlight. And even at the moment of our most abominable failures, the humbled Haitian hurdler provided us with the only example we need:
He got up and finished the race.
I ask because it dovetails nicely with a series of questions (inspired by Rick Kahler) that I use to begin most speaking engagements. These questions are designed to incite self-awareness, offering us clues about how our life experiences have shaped the (often unarticulated but powerful) beliefs that unavoidably influence the decisions we make with and for money.
Regardless of an audience’s homogeneity, their responses are consistently inconsistent. I have, however, seen some generational persistency on the topic of retirement. For example, on average, baby boomers have a generally positive view of retirement—no doubt shaped in part by the incessant financial services commercials that promise a utopian post-career existence with beaches, sailboats, golf and an unlimited supply of vintage Pinot Noir.
On the other hand, the finance and accounting students that I had the privilege of teaching at Towson University—almost all members of the Millennial generation—had a generally negative view of the notion of retirement. This is for two prominent reasons:
- They pictured hot, humid, early buffet dinners in rural Florida.
- They don’t think that the American dream of retirement is available to them.