The Real Danger In Overstating Returns (Like PIMCO)

Originally in ForbesAs if PIMCO needed any more bad press, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether the bond giant “artificially boosted the returns of a popular fund aimed at small investors.” While we should all be attentive to the results of this probe—because I’d bet my lunch money that its implications will be felt beyond just PIMCO—there is an even deeper issue to consider. And this issue has a more direct impact on our individual portfolios and money management choices. The real danger in overstating returns, and indeed the root of most financial missteps, is self-deception.

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“How’s your portfolio?”

Who among us wants to feel like a failure? We’ll generally avoid experiencing this sensation at all costs. So, absent conspicuous success, we permit ourselves to believe that we’ve at least not failed, frequently through self-deception.

Defining “success” in investing can be an especially tricky endeavor and comes with a number of challenges. Is success attained by  reaching a certain number, or a particular account balance, however arbitrary? Or is success found in earning a particular rate of return? Or outperforming one’s peers or a particular benchmark?

There are so many variables unique to each investor that gauging true success becomes almost impossible. This is where self-deception becomes a handy tool.  It allows us to artificially create and meet arbitrary objectives, resulting in a feeling of progress. And progress, like success, feels good. In a classic scene from the movie Meet the Parents, Owen Wilson’s do-no-wrong character asks Ben Stiller’s still-finding-himself character, “How’s your portfolio?”

As so many do, Stiller responds self-deceivingly, “I’d say strong…to quite strong.” But is it really?

Unfortunately, self-deception is all-too-often our instinctive, default response.

The Financial Industry Fosters Self-Deception

The financial industry encourages confusion among investors by offering a seemingly limitless array of solutions and strategies. These solutions are marketed in a way to foster self-deception and lead investors to believe they are pursuing real success. Unfortunately, those who manage money have an even greater incentive to deceive themselves.

Maintaining an unwavering belief in the virtues of their investment philosophy is what helps money managers continue to attract new clients. It’s an act of self-deception driven by the most powerful human impulse—self-preservation.

I have seen many gross examples of the industry’s imperative for self-preservation. Some of them border on the hilarious. Once I was invited to a conference at a swanky hotel in Las Vegas. A number of the world’s most expensive platform speakers were on the bill. It didn’t take long to see that the whole event was sponsored by a large company whose business included acting as a middleman for financial advisors that sold equity-indexed annuities (EIAs) offered by insurance companies. The company took an “override” commission on every piece of business placed, so they worked tirelessly to brainwash advisors to see themselves as “the safe money experts.”

Advisors were swept into willful blindness by the siren’s song of double-digit commissions. They eventually talked themselves—and their prospects—into justifying the sale of products with surrender charges in excess of 10% that lasted for a decade or more.

Even more dangerous, however, is a less noticeable variety of self-deception. Take the money manager, for instance, who has convinced himself (and his firm’s investment committee) that beating the S&P 500 stock index over the past 14 years was a stroke of brilliance, all the while underperforming a simple, diversified blended benchmark. For an industry that has so consistently failed to add value during the investing process on behalf of its clients and customers, self-deception may be the only way for many to get a good night’s rest.

A Better Way

Fortunately, there is a better way. Investors, advisors and money managers alike can choose intellectual honesty. We can set in place deliberate systems of accountability designed to check and balance tendencies toward self-preservation through self-deception. We can choose evidence over opinion. We can choose transparency over sleight of hand.

We can redefine success by centering our planning on the values unique to each investor, and developing an evidence-based strategy tailored to an individual’s goals and objectives.

I’m a speakerauthor and director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance. If you enjoyed this post, let me know on Twitter or Google+, and click here to receive my weekly post via email.

Lessons In ‘The Happiness Of Pursuit’ From Chris Guillebeau

Originally in Forbes“People have always been captivated by quests,” writes author Chris Guillebeau in his brand new book, The Happiness of Pursuit. Chris, for one, is most certainly one of those people. His book celebrates the completion of a personal quest to visit all 193 countries in the world before his 35th birthday.

PursuitAre the rest of us captivated by quests as well? Absolutely. But is the whole concept of questing, journeying and generally living life as an adventure something anybody can pursue? Or are we merely relegated to living vicariously through Chis and his band of fellow travelers? After all, the rest of us have obligations, right? Nine-to-five drudgery is a responsibility. To some, it’s even an honor. We’ve got spouses, kids, mortgages, car payments and PTA meetings. We can’t be gallivanting all over creation in search of enlightenment.

Or can we?

Chris has some pretty strong feelings on that—so strong that the stated lesson of the first chapter in his book is: “Adventure is for everyone.”

Perhaps it depends on how we define a quest? Here are Chris’ criteria:

  • “A quest has a clear goals and a specific end point.”
  • “A quest presents a clear challenge.”
  • “A quest requires sacrifice of some kind.”
  • “A quest is often driven by a calling or sense of mission.”
  • “A quest requires a series of small steps and incremental progress toward the goal.”

By these measures, running a marathon would assuredly be considered a quest for most. How much more, then, is John Wallace’s feat of running 250 of them—in a single year?

Wallace is one of many questers featured in The Happiness of Pursuit, but most of the others’ exploits are far less headline worthy. Chris endeavors to bring the notion of questing closer to home by featuring a largely “ordinary” cast of characters, and in so doing, he succeeds.

Boomer Esiason’s Advice For Millennials: Plan For Tomorrow, Live For Today

Originally in ForbesBoomer Esiason is busy—I mean, really busy. “Starting next Tuesday, all the way until after the Super Bowl in 2015, I think I’ve got about four days off,” he told me.

Why, then, was he anxious to talk about financial planning and life insurance?

It’s because he has a message for today’s youth: “Protect your future and make sure that whenever adversity strikes, you are prepared for it.” Prepared, among other things, with the appropriate level of life insurance. 

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But how did one of the National Football League’s great quarterbacks and commentators become an advocate for life insurance and the spokesperson for Life Happens, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness of the importance of planning with life insurance? 

Back to School — Back to Financial Fundamentals for 3 Generations

Originally in ForbesAs kids head back to school, adults spanning several generations set their sites on getting their financial house back in order.  What are the most important financial planning considerations in three major demographics—Millennials, Generation X and Empty Nesters?

Millennials:  First things first – Before making any big financial commitments, like buying a house, figure out what you want life to look like.

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  • Are you in a relationship and looking to “settle down,” or do you highly value freedom and flexibility?  If the latter, you shouldn’t be buying a house or committing to a job that is geographically tethered.
  • If you’re in your twenties, the primary factor that will influence your financial success is how well you establish yourself in a career.  Invest in yourself, and that will likely help you invest more money in the future.
  • Save as much as you can in tax-qualified retirement accounts at this phase of life, because once you get settled down and have kids, your expenses will rise dramatically.
  • Don’t default to 100% equity portfolios just because you’re young.  After getting burned by the market crash of 2008, many Millennials got scared away and didn’t benefit from the subsequent market rise.  Your portfolio should likely be predominantly stocks at this age, but consider some fixed income exposure to keep from losing your shirt (and abandoning your strategy) in a downturn.

Dealing With the ‘Personal’ in Personal Finance

Originally in MoneyTo really help people, financial planners have to delve into the the feelings and emotions that drive their clients’ financial decisions. One planner explains why that’s so hard.

While most of us financial advisers want to do the best for our clients, we often struggle at the task.

The main problem, as I recently wrote: We don’t know our clients well enough. We may say that a client’s values and goals are important, but most of us don’t adequately explore these more personal (a.k.a. “touchy-feely”) parts of a client’s life.

Why is this? 

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One reason we avoid deeper discovery with clients: No matter how we’re paid—whether by commissions or fees—most of us don’t get compensated until the financial planning process has neared its end. 

3 Reasons Financial Advisors Should Court Younger Clients

Originally published CNBCLast month I attended a presentation that explored, in depth, the notable differences and financial tendencies of several generations, from the silent generation through the millennials.

The presentation described certain representative traits perceived as common among each generation and what financial advisors should consider when communicating with members of them as prospects and clients.

When discussion of the younger generations came up, I noticed advisors around the room rolling their eyes and scratching their heads. The expert at the front of the room was providing well-researched data to help us understand what is important—and less so—to these generations and how we might consider breaking through to them. 

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But, as the attention of this group of well-heeled advisors descended into a collective yawn, the presenter scurried to wrap up before answering the most important questions:

  • Why exactly should financial advisors dedicate themselves to working with younger clients?
  • Why should advisors apply valuable time and money to crafting services and messaging for a demographic niche notorious for inspiring descriptors such as “entitled,” “ungrateful” and “distrustful”?

New Report on the Cost of Kids: Reading Between the Lines

Originally in ForbesThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released its annual “Cost of Raising a Child” report. The news from it is really no news at all to us parents—kids are stinking expensive and growing even more so. However, if you read between the lines, there are three extremely important points that don’t show up in the executive summary:

My family outside of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston

1)   Parents still have a choice. The USDA estimates that households with less than $61,530 in income will spend a total of $176,550 per child. Meanwhile, “middle-income parents” making between $61,530 and $106,540 each year can anticipate spending $245,340 per kid. Those blessed with household income over $106,540 should expect to spend $407,820.  

Here’s how I read these numbers: It likely costs approximately $175,000 to care for a child’s needs in today’s dollars. Beyond that, it’s our choice as parents if and how we spend additional money on our progeny. When your household income jumps from $106,000 to $107,000, the USDA isn’t holding a gun to your head and demanding that you spend an additional $162,480 per child.

It’s completely up to you, and you may choose to spend more or less than some of the USDA estimates. For example, you may choose (wisely) to spend more on one child than another for various, justifiable reasons, including each individual child’s own gifts and weaknesses. If you choose to put even one child through private school, from kindergarten through a graduate degree, you could easily spend a million bucks just for education—and college isn’t even included in the USDA’s numbers. 

The Top 10 Places Your Next Dollar Should Go

Originally in ForbesThere is no shortage of receptacles clamoring for your money each day. No matter how much money you have or make, it could never keep up with all the seemingly urgent invitations to part with it.

TOP 10 DOLLAR

Separating true financial priorities from flash impulses is an increasing challenge, even when you’re trying to do the right thing with your moola — like saving for the future, insuring against catastrophic risks and otherwise improving your financial standing. And while every individual and household is in some way unique, the following list of financial priorities for your next available dollar is a reliable guide for most.

Once you’ve spent the money necessary to cover your fixed and variable living expenses (and yes, I realize that’s no easy task for many) consider spending your additional dollars in this order: 

A study by the Urban Institute uncovered a shocking statistic, that 35% of Americans have some consumer debt in collections.  I discussed this with Tyler Mathisen on PBS’s Nightly Business Report, produced by CNBC.

Date: July 29, 2014
Appearance: Discussing Shocking Consumer Debt Stats on Nightly Business Report
Outlet: The Nightly Business Report, on PBS
Format: Television

The 3 Keys to Surviving Major Life Transitions

Originally in ForbesYou might think that the most important work a financial advisor can do is related to allocating a client’s investment portfolio, or perhaps helping secure a timely insurance policy or drafting the optimal estate plan. In fact, their most important work is done when clients are in the midst of navigating life’s major transitions.

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I have very recently undergone two of these major life events — a job change and a move — in the span of five months. Crazy, right? Who would willingly subject themself to two of life’s most stressful changes within such a small window of time? Fortunately, I had at my disposal three keys to surviving major life transitions, and I’d like to share them with you:

Key #1: Flexibility

“Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.” — Albert Camus 

In February, I left the company I loved after seven years of life-changing work to lock arms with a national alliance of financial advisory pioneers dedicated to the practice of “building relationships by doing the right thing.” But in order to build a new and rewarding relationship with them, I had no choice but to sever some relationships with others.