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When Financial Advisors Punch Themselves
December 10, 2020

When Financial Advisors Punch Themselves

When Marilyn Arsenault and her husband, Joe, decided to save for their retirement, they booked an appointment with a financial advisor. Marilyn, a university running coach, and Joe, a symphony orchestra conductor, expected the advisor to look after their interests.

And on the surface, that’s what happened. The financial advisor asked the couple about their goals, much as Marilyn asks her athletes every year. Then the advisor outlined a plan, much as Joe does when he prepares an orchestra. But there were a couple of differences. Marilyn doesn’t feed her athletes buckets of ice cream before every workout. Joe doesn’t pour water into trumpets.

But most financial advisors do something similar. They stuff actively managed funds into their clients’ accounts. That’s baffling. After all, decade after decade, low-cost index funds beat most actively managed funds. According to SPIVA, over the 15-years ending June 30, 2020, the S&P 500 index beat 87.23 percent of actively managed funds invested in U.S. stocks. 

That, however, still leaves 12.73 percent of them beating the index over the past 15 years. So why not buy those winners? Most of us have seen dogs chasing tails. This “pick the past winner” plan is much like that. For example, imagine it’s 2014. You find a list of funds that were among the top 25 percent of performers between 2010 and 2014. Most of them beat the S&P 500. But if you bought those funds in 2014 and held them five years, only one in five maintained their top quartile performance ranking from 2015-2020. As a result, most of the people who selected funds based on how they performed in the past bought (mostly) future losers. The SPIVA Persistence Scorecard regularly updates this data. And every time they do, the results are much the same. Picking actively managed funds, based on their past performance, is one of the silliest things an investor can do.

So, does that make most financial advisors bad people? I questioned their integrity. But new research sheds a different light. On November 28, 2020, researchers Juhani T. Linnainmaa, Brian T. Melzer and Alessandro Previtero published, “The Misguided Beliefs of Financial Advisors in The Journal of Finance .”

They assessed data from more than 4,000 Canadian financial advisors and about 500,000 clients between 1999 and 2013. The two participating financial institutions provided personal trading and account information for the majority of their advisors. Of the 4,688 advisors, 3,282 had their personal portfolios with their firms. Most of those who didn’t were just starting their careers.

I was surprised to learn the advisors ate their own cooking…and burned their own food. They bought themselves actively managed funds instead of index funds. In other words, they bought the same things for themselves that they recommended to their clients. That doesn’t reveal a lack of ethics–just a lack of knowledge.

Olivia Summerhill is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) with Summerhill Wealth Management, in Washington State.  She says,  “During the Certified Financial Planning extensive training, the focus is not on investment vehicles. A CFP candidate does not get any training in their program if actively or passively managed funds are better for clients.”

So, the advisors punched themselves when they bought actively managed funds. Then they kicked their own shins by chasing past performance. And this self-infliction cost them a lot of money. According to the study, these professionals (and their clients!) underperformed equal-risk adjusted benchmarks of indexes by about 3 percent per year over 15 years. When compounded, that’s about 55 percent!

If you had (or have) an advisor who invested your money in actively managed funds, you might feel like tossing some punches of your own. But, as I’ve just learned, we shouldn’t be quick to judge.

Make peace with these people. But don’t let them invest your money. Instead, give them a book about index funds. Christmas is coming. Your gift might help them and their future clients.

The 20 Best-Rated Books On Index Fund or ETF Investing *

Ranking Title Amazon Reviewer Average Goodreads Reviewer Average Overall Reviewer Average
#1 The White Coat Investor , James M. Dahle 4.8 4.47 4.63
#1 The Simple Path to Wealth , JL Collins 4.8 4.47 4.63
#2 Millionaire Teacher , Andrew Hallam 4.7 4.32 4.51
#3 The Bogleheads Guide To Investing , Larimore and Lindauer 4.7 4.29 4.49
#4 A Random Walk Down Wall Street , Burton Malkiel 4.7 4.25 4.47
#4 Quit Like A Millionaire, Shen and Leung 4.7 4.24 4.47
#5 Millionaire Expat , Andrew Hallam 4.6 4.32 4.46
#6 The Little Book of Common Sense Investing , John Bogle 4.7 4.19 4.44
#7 I Will Teach You To Be Rich , Ramit Sethi 4.7 4.12 4.41
#8 The Four Pillars of Investing, William Bernstein 4.6 4.21 4.40
#9 If You Can , William Bernstein 4.5 4.2 4.35
#9 Unshakable , Tony Robbins 4.6 4.11 4.35
#10 The Elements of Investing , Malkiel and Ellis 4.5 4.08 4.29
#11 How A Second Grader Beats Wall Street , Allan S. Roth 4.5 4.06 4.28
#11 Broke Millennial Takes On Investing , Erin Lowry 4.6 3.96 4.28
#12 Investing Made Simple, Mike Piper 4.4 4.08 4.24
#12 Common Sense On Mutual Funds, John Bogle 4.4 4.08 4.24
#13 The Bogleheads Guide To The Three-Fund Portfolio , Larimore and Bogle 4.5 3.97 4.23
#13 Winning The Loser’s Game, Charles Ellis 4.5 3.97 4.23
#14 The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read, Dan Solin 4.4 3.68 4.04

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This article contains the opinions of the author but not necessarily the opinions of AssetBuilder Inc. The opinion of the author is subject to change without notice. All materials presented are compiled from sources believed to be reliable and current, but accuracy cannot be guaranteed. This article is distributed for educational purposes, and it is not to be construed as an offer, solicitation, recommendation, or endorsement of any particular security, product, or service.

Performance data shown represents past performance. Past performance is no guarantee of future results and current performance may be higher or lower than the performance shown.

AssetBuilder Inc. is an investment advisor registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Consider the investment objectives, risks, and expenses carefully before investing.