By: Henry VanBuskirk, CFP®, Wealth Manager
Everyone’s had that story of their friend or family member that said they got shafted by some seedy financial advisor. However, there is a huge difference between what is legal and what is ethical. The majority of these “seedy” financial advisors are still following the law as constructed, but unfortunately, most of the time it’s up to you to ask questions and know what you’re buying even when buying a product as intangible as financial advice. It’s important to work with a team that is legally required to act ethically and know that they are in danger of losing their business and professional licenses if they don’t put your interests ahead of their own.
Take, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Impulsive. They are emotionally driven decision-makers that have $200,000 across investment accounts and bank accounts and spend $100,000 per year. Mr. and Mrs. Impulsive make $120,000 per year but are under duress since they want to pay for their 5-year-old’s college tuition in the future and aren’t sure how. On a whim, Mr. and Mrs. Impulsive meet with a financial advisor her friend recommended and he recommends buying a $750,000 cash-value life insurance policy and paying for the future college tuition through cash-value loans on the life insurance policy. There are no mentions of alternative savings vehicles for minors, such as 529 plans or UTMA accounts, just a life insurance illustration. The specifics on why the life insurance recommendation is not appropriate are not important for purposes of this whitepaper, but what is important is to illustrate why the recommendation may have been made in the first place (the example I am using is based on a real client we met with recently). Here are two pages of the illustration that illustrates why:
If your eyes glazed over these diagrams and the Charlie Brown Teacher “wha wha whaaa wha” started going off in your head, don’t worry. The reason this recommendation is most likely not appropriate is simple. Notice the TP and Target Premium numbers of $20,078. That’s how much the financial advisor would be paid upfront in gross commissions if the client agreed to move forward with the life insurance recommendation. The insurance agent would then get a residual gross commission of around 2% ($401.56/yr.) or so after the first year. Not a bad payday for a couple of hours of work and usually explains why it is generally hard to have ongoing life insurance servicing 5+ years later. Also, Mr. and Mrs. Impulsive would have to pay $53,018.81 for 7 years to fund this policy and they won’t have the liquid cash available to do so. Some other alternatives to save for college are a 529 plan or a UTMA account, which can be done for a fraction of the cost. Note: BFSG does not sell any product, nor do we receive any compensation from any source other than our clients. This helps us strive to always put our clients’ interests first and to remain objective.
Mrs. Impulsive knows that she needs to talk to her husband before signing the paperwork. Mr. Impulsive during their conversation thinks about their plans to retire in 10 years but is concerned about the current market volatility. He likes the sales pitch by the financial advisor and decides to meet with him to discuss this. The financial advisor asks, “Did you want to move forward with the life insurance recommendation?”. Mr. Impulsive says, “Mrs. Impulsive and I need more time to think about this. I wanted to ask you about our retirement plans in 10 years, but I am concerned about market volatility. Do you have any suggestions?”. The financial advisor then proceeds to recommend moving $200,000 to a Fixed Indexed Annuity and taking withdraws from it in 10 years. The financial advisor exclaims, “The withdrawals of $10,935 would be guaranteed for the rest of your life. Keep in mind that you would be subjected to surrender charges if you took more than 10% of the contract value in any one year within the first 10 years (this is called a surrender schedule).”. Here is an illustration (again a real client situation).
Again, the reasoning why the recommendation may not be appropriate is just as important as why the recommendation may have been made. A fixed indexed annuity commission is paid out in schedules that the advisor chooses. Since the annuity is a 10-year annuity, the commission schedule is 10% over that 10-year period and most likely would be one of the following schedules (as permissible by the insurance agent’s brokerage firm). The annuity commission over a 10-year period is 10% regardless of what Schedule is chosen:
The calculus on which Schedule the agent wants to choose is frankly dependent on how long the agent actually wants to work with the annuity purchaser. Annuities, like cash value life insurance, are not inherently bad recommendations, but they are typically oversold since they are easy money for the agent or advisor selling them. The financial advisor didn’t mention that annuities can come in the form of advisory annuities, where no commissions are paid out and the advisor is paid based on an agreed-upon percentage of the annuity’s account value and there is no surrender schedule. The financial advisor might not be properly licensed to sell advisory products, so this might be the reason why this was not mentioned. In any case, Mr. Impulsive stops thinking with his amygdala and starts utilizing his frontal lobe. He tells the financial advisor, “So let me get this straight. For meeting with us for 4 hours, you’re about to make at least $40,078 off of us if we sign this paperwork. Thanks, but no thanks. We will find a different financial advisor to work with.”.
Mr. and Mrs. Impulsive then learn that there are alternative methods for saving for retirement. They also learn that crafting a comprehensive financial plan can help indicate how to save for retirement in a realistic way and how aggressive or conservative you want or need to be. The issue with annuities is advisors that pigeonhole everyone nearing retirement to make them buy an annuity or obfuscate the story to make it seem like the prospective client has to be conservative near retirement in order to make their financial plan work. This leads to advisors who overuse and oversell the annuity, leading to upset prospective or current clients that may have never needed an annuity in the first place. This is not illegal, just unethical from our point of view. To distance ourselves from this potential conflict of interest, BFSG does not sell annuities or life insurance.
Key Takeaways from this Series:
The problems that we’ve addressed in this series are:
Comprehensive financial planning is a meticulous, collaborative process between planner and client. If you’ve seen yourself in one of the examples we listed in this series, we offer you to reach out to us for a complimentary financial planning meeting so we can discover what your unique needs are, what assets you have to work with, and how realistic your financial goals are. We offer objective advice and are a fee-only RIA. We do not sell any product, nor do we receive any compensation from any source other than our clients.
We are a team of CFP® professionals, CPAs, CFA® charterholders, and PhDs ready and willing to help you on your journey. We look forward to working with you to help you achieve your financial goals and grow our wealth of financial planning knowledge with you.
Disclosure: BFSG does not make any representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any information prepared by any unaffiliated third party, whether linked to BFSG’s website or blog or incorporated herein and takes no responsibility for any such content. All such information is provided solely for convenience purposes only and all users thereof should be guided accordingly. Please remember that different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment or investment strategy (including those undertaken or recommended by Company), will be profitable or equal any historical performance level(s). Please see important disclosure information here.
(This is the first article in a four-part series)
By: Henry VanBuskirk, CFP®, Wealth Manager
Let me just start off and say that nobody’s perfect or infallible (including BFSG). As a wise man once said, “To Err is Human, to Forgive is Divine”. It is one thing to make a mistake, but another to learn from it. We pride ourselves on working to avoid pitfalls and always being eager to learn. When you’ve been in the financial planning industry as long as we have, we’ve come across mistakes that other advisors have made and we’ve noticed there are some common mistakes and assumptions that are made regularly. Some of these are minor, like not adding accurate cost basis information on a taxable investment account. A major concern like not adding a beneficiary (commonly referred to as Transfer on Death) to an Individual investment account can be harder to forgive, especially if this error is noticed by your would-be heirs after your passing.
The purpose of this article is not to bloviate about how we can do no wrong (last time I checked, pride is one of the seven deadly sins). The point is to show that everyone makes mistakes and for you to be on the lookout for these errors when choosing a financial planner. Anyone can sound convincing if they don’t say um and uh too much and are loud when they talk. The content of the answer is just as important as the delivery method. Sometimes the best answer that you can give someone is an affirmative, “I don’t know, let me get back to you.” Here is an example of what I mean:
Ms. Wilson is 70 years old and wants to withdraw $100,000 from her IRA and have an advisor manage the $1,000,000 account. She is unsure whether or not there is a tax consequence to doing so and decides to meet with three financial planners. Here are those three financial planner’s responses:
Based on these responses, which Financial Planner do you believe Ms. Wilson chose to work with? Most likely, Financial Planner 3. Here’s why:
The goal of this exercise was to show what the very real effects to you can be if you don’t do your due diligence for your investment portfolio and what the effects are to our bottom line if we don’t do ours.
Over this series, we will work through what these mistakes are and how to look out for them.
For example, assume Mr. Fox had a meeting with an advisor in December of 2021. When he receives that glossy investment proposal or neatly packaged financial plan, the first question that he should ask is “Are you assuming historical returns, or are projecting future returns based on today’s valuations?” Let’s assume Mr. Fox’s advisor answers, “The S&P 500 has historically averaged 8.16% since 1980. I’ve assumed a rate of 8.16% over the life of the plan”. Now assume that Mr. Fox is an 80-year-old widower with a $1,000,000 S&P 500 Index Account in an IRA and withdraws $80,000 (after-tax) per year (the $1,000,000 account value is after the $80,000 distribution you just took out). This is the only asset that Mr. Fox has. Since he needs this money to live on, he asks his advisor, “Will I have enough money to keep taking $80,000 at the end of each year for the rest of my life?”. The advisor says, “Yes’. Hearing that answer from the advisor, do you believe that it makes sense for him to assume that your $1,000,000 IRA would earn 8.16% forever? The answer is No. Here’s why (all numbers quoted in this section are net after-tax):
2022 rears its ugly head and the stock market is down -19.87% year-to-date. Mr. Fox is worried because of his need to take $80,000 out of the account at the end of each year to fund his living expenses needs every year. Now let’s look at the account value from where Mr. Fox’s advisor assumed he would be versus where he actually is:
The advisor assumed that since Mr. Fox’s investment account will grow by more than $80,000 per year, since Mr. Fox takes out only $80,000, by default his financial plan is successful. However, looking at where Mr. Fox actually is, you need to take $80,000 off of an account value of $721,300 and you are 81 years old. Now, let’s assume that the markets go through a recession in 2023 and the S&P is down -15% at the end of 2023. At the end of 2023, here’s where the advisor thinks Mr. Fox would have been and where Mr. Fox actually is:
Now Mr. Fox is 82 and very concerned that his investment account was almost cut in half in two years. He isn’t very happy with his current advisor since their assumptions were way off from reality. Mr. Fox decides to meet with another advisor, Mr. Valuation, but also wants to give his current advisor a chance (after all, his current advisor sends delicious cookies to him around the holidays each year). He states his case to both advisors, and they give the following answers to what growth rate to assume for the financial plan and if you will be able to meet your $80,000 yearly distribution for the rest of your life:
Frankly, Mr. Fox doesn’t like either answer. Both advisors’ sense this and they give the following responses:
Now let’s show why even though both advisors have the best intentions, neither of them will be able to show Mr. Fox a financial plan that works, regardless of whether or not they reallocate his investment account to a more conservative investment portfolio.
Unfortunately, driving a DeLorean 88 miles per hour to travel back in time isn’t a realistic recommendation (not to mention unsafe) for Mr. Fox. For a moment, let’s say Mr. Fox found a working flux capacitor and could go back in time to December 2021. Now when Mr. Fox hears that answer of “The S&P has historically averaged 8.16% since 1980. I’ve assumed a rate of 8.16% over the life of the plan”, his ears perk up since he now knows that’s wrong to assume. We’re back in time and the account value is $1,000,000. Mr. Fox decides to meet with Mr. Valuation, and they have the following exchange.
Mr. Fox: “Are you assuming historical returns, or are projecting future returns based on today’s valuations?”
Mr. Valuation: “We project future returns based on today’s valuations.” Since we believe that the market is overvalued, we believe that the S&P will be down anywhere between 10-15%. We also recommend that you reallocate your investment portfolio to 50% stocks and 40% bonds and 10% cash. Based on this allocation, we assume that your portfolio will be down -10% in 2022, -5% in 2023, and then earn 4% from 2024 until the end of the financial plan.
Mr. Fox: “That sounds reasonable, can you prepare a financial plan for me?”
Mr. Valuation: “I would be happy to.”
Below are the results of that plan:
Even though the plan does not make it to Mr. Fox’s age of 100, at least knows ahead of time that the assumptions allow the plan to last to his age of 98. Mr. Valuation says not to worry, since we can still reduce your annual distribution to $70,000 to make the plan last to age 100.
Here is the summary of that plan:
As a satisfied time traveler, Mr. Fox decides to stay in this timeline where he didn’t lose half of his money in two years.1
However, you as an astute reader might be thinking, “Well this is nice to know, but markets don’t return exactly 4% every year.” Mr. Fox then turns to Mr. Valuation and asks, “What does the plan look like assuming returns the next few years are bad, but the plan still averages 4% per year? How about if the plan starts off good, but the plan still averages 4% per year?” Unfortunately, Mr. Valuation isn’t sure.
Mr. Fox decides to take the work that Mr. Valuation has done and find a different advisor who can help answer his questions. Fortunately, Mr. Fox finds another advisor, Ms. Sequence, who can answer his questions and will lead us to the next concerning mistake, if not addressed properly, Sequence of Returns Risk. Unfortunately, you’ll need to wait until the next post to read the next installment of this series.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk. Therefore, there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment or investment strategy (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended and/or undertaken by Benefit Financial Services Group [“BFSG”]), or any consulting services, will be profitable, equal any historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful. BFSG is neither a law firm, nor a certified public accounting firm, and no portion of its services should be construed as legal or accounting advice. Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this document serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from BFSG. A copy of our current written disclosure Brochure discussing our advisory services and fees is available upon request or at www.bfsg.com. The scope of the services to be provided depends upon the needs and requests of the client and the terms of the engagement. Please see important disclosure information here.
Please Note: The above projections are based upon historical data and should not be construed or relied upon as an absolute probability that a different result (positive or negative) cannot or will not occur. To the contrary, different results could occur at any specific point in time or over any specific time period. The purpose of the projections is to provide a guideline to help determine which scenario best meets the client’s current and/or current anticipated financial situation and investment objectives, with the understanding that either is subject to change, in which event the client should immediately notify BFSG so that the above analysis can be repeated.