When I first meet with prospective clients or introduce myself at the beginning of a class, I often take a minute to explain how my work as a fee-only adviser may differ from the approach of other types of financial professionals. What follows is a quick and informal summary of the most common sorts of roles somewhat involved in the advice industry.
Accountants and tax professionals are primarily engaged in financial management from the perspective of, well, accounting. They work with companies and people on proper reporting and organization of financial statements, and often have a special care around promoting tax efficiency and compliance with tax related laws.
The term “adviser” can be generic and can apply in some measure to all of the other categories on this list. However, there is a specific type of adviser -- the Registered Investment Adviser -- that warrants its own description. My firm, DRW Financial, is organized as a Registered Investment Adviser (RIA for short). RIAs have a few distinguishing characteristics:
Brokers work to bring together buyers and sellers of something: stocks, bonds, options, commodities, etc. A person can broker more than one sort of investment product or focus solely on a specialty. In commodities, in particular, it may be typical for a broker to deal only in wheat, or oil, or pork bellies. Brokers operate in many different ways, but tend to share a few characteristics:
Insurance agents may be primarily concerned with Property and Casualty insurance (P&C for short, and referring to policies covering cars, boats, homes, etc), with life and health insurance, or a combination of all the above.
Various Combinations exist among all of the categories mentioned above. It is relatively common for a person licensed as a broker to also have a segment of their business run as a RIA; similarly, many brokers will also hold an insurance license allowing them to sell insurance products to their clients. Accountants can be brokers or advisers; investment advisers of different sorts occasionally offer tax advice.
When I started DRW Financial, the decision to organize as a fee-only financial adviser came down to my own preferences and views on the industry. While I believe that there is value in each core role and even some combinations of roles, I prefer the alignment of incentives and transparency of motivation in the RIA model.
A word on designations: The financial industry is absolutely covered up in an “alphabet soup” of designations, certifications, charters, and industry groups. CPA is pretty recognizable in the tax world, CFP is becoming well known among advisers, CLU pops up on the business cards of some insurance agents...but there are many more out there as well. The idea behind each (competing) designation is that the holder of those letters has taken coursework, passed an exam(s), and meets “continuing education” requirements to maintain the designation. The designations in themselves do not enable a financial professional to trade a particular product or serve a given population. In some cases, the designation requires adherence to a particular code of ethics.
I have been relatively quiet on posts lately, due to a spurt of busy-ness that kept me away from the office and the opportunity to gather thoughts for blog posts. While watching the market bump and sway in recent weeks, I have given some thought to how investing clients experience volatility, as well as how clients think about short term vs long term returns.
The chart above shows the last month of data (September 5 to present) for 4 different stock market index tracking ETFs (exchange traded funds). For variety, I chose the SPY (S&P 500 index), IWM (Russell 2000 "small cap" index), the VT (Vanguard total world) and VTI (Vanguard total US stock).
Something that jumped out at me (apart from all of the sampled funds being "down" over the period) was the disconnect between the S&P fund and the others. The S&P 500 is not a "strategy" based fund, but rather a (mostly) passive vehicle for tracking the performance of 500 large companies. Therefore, the disconnect in returns over the past month must have to do with the sample of stocks held among those 500 versus the broader selection in some of the other funds. Or perhaps the relative size of the holdings -- as mentioned on this blog before, one stock in particular (Apple - AAPL) represents a significant portion of the S&P 500 (around 3.4% as of this writing). Apple had a decent month, while many other stocks fell -- maybe that is part of the disconnect in the S&P 500 and the other indexes tracked here.
Another part of my thinking over this month of moderate declines is around how my clients and the rest of the investing public think about returns. When we say to ourselves "the market is up/down/unchanged on the day/month/year", which market do we mean? And when we compare our own personal performance to "the market", are we making reasonable comparisons?
The basic idea behind comparing a given account or group of accounts to "the market" is called benchmarking. And at its core, benchmarking is relatively simple. If a given client (or account) elects to assign a risk tolerance and investment objective that seems pretty to similar to those exhibited by the S&P 500, then it may be reasonable to periodically compare the account's performance to that of the index. Or, if the account opts in to a risk tolerance and investment objective more consistent with a blend (say 80% S&P 500 and 20% 10 year bond rates), then a blended benchmark may be appropriate.
However, in my experience benchmarking does not stay basic or simple for long. In the real world, clients needs for liquidity (taking cash out of an account) tend to complicate comparisons to the benchmark; similarly, clients with personal situations that evolve over time will require coincident evolutions of benchmark.
The complications do not remove the value and need of benchmarking returns, but they do necessarily require a sophisticated and flexible approach to applying those measures.
David R Wattenbarger, president of DRW Financial
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