The Rolling Stones taught us long ago that we can’t always get what we want, and that at times it’s important to settle for just getting what you need.
Investors should have been humming that tune and living that story for the last year; no living investors ever experienced a worse December than 2018, when the Dow Jones industrial Average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 both lost roughly 9 percent, the worst final month to a year since 1931.
That drop turned a ho-hum up year into an adventure in holding on, the first time in a decade that all of the major market indexes finished a year together in the red. When the carnage was over, the Dow and S&P both were down roughly 6 percent, but the sudden decline made it feel much worse than that.
As the market was bottoming out on Christmas Eve, visions of crashes and portfolio crushers danced in most investors’ heads.
This year, what was expected to be a topsy-turvy difficult time has instead taken the market back into record-high territory. The Dow is up roughly 20 percent year-to-date and the S&P has gained about 25 percent.
By any measure, that’s a heck of a year.
But the measure most investors will use to evaluate their financial advisers is that kind of compared-to-the-index performance, and that is where the difference between need and want – and last year and this one — comes to the fore.
I’ve written two books on choosing and working with financial advisers and have done countless talks on consumer-adviser relationships and it has always been clear that people turn to financial planners and wealth counselors because they want broad-based help.
They want to build a solid, all-weather portfolio, but also protect assets, think about tax consequences, make sure they can make their planned contributions to college educations for children while reaching key benchmarks that show they are saving enough to someday enjoy a comfortable retirement.
Yet the moment performance of their portfolio becomes disappointing, advisers start getting the ax from investors who never truly made investment results their primary goal.
In all market conditions, investors want returns, the bigger the better. That’s why it’s easy to feel good about 2019, and why 2018 felt so bad.
Thus, no matter how a financial adviser does for 2019, they’ll look good to clients, whereas last year – even if they minimized losses during tough times – they looked bad because portfolios rode out with the tide.
What investors need, in all market conditions, is progress, and the ability to keep going.
There’s a difference. While returns obviously help an investor make progress to their goals, staying in the game when others are ready to leave is another way to move forward. People who bailed out of the market last winter may have done better than the indexes by missing out on some pain, but they didn’t necessarily make real progress if they missed out on the strong rebound of this year.
Studies show that financial advisers typically help investors earn greater returns – as much as 3 percent more per annum, depending on the study – but it’s not by picking better stocks or mutual funds but by providing the emotional discipline to stay in the market and follow the plan.
Instead of focusing on raw returns, most advisers try to come up with a target number for that progress, saying for example that an investor needs to build a portfolio that grows by, say, 7 percent per year in order to reach financial goals.
A year like 2019 isn’t a win just because a well-designed balanced portfolio might have doubled that number, it’s a victory because it represents sufficient progress to help protect a portfolio against a down year like 2018.
In short, an investor with a well-designed portfolio shouldn’t have been panicky a year ago and shouldn’t be jubilant now; they should be examining if their adviser bolstered their intestinal fortitude in the face of the decline of 2018 and kept them positioned to benefit from the rebound in 2019.
Moreover, investment advisory firms are always going to be understated when positioning portfolios for the upside. It’s hard to find many pessimistic investment strategists right now, but you won’t find many who are calling for double-digit gains ahead.
Instead, they are couching their words; aim small, miss small, keep the client reasonably happy. If you miss big – but the market works in your favor – the client is satisfied despite the errant forecast.
Yes, it is fair to make sure that annualized returns are appropriate, relative to clearly defined expectations. No financial-planning client wants unpleasant surprises or shortfalls; financial planners do their job by keeping clients aware of the market’s potential impact on a portfolio.
And oversized gains also can be a troubling sign, an indication that a portfolio is taking on too much risk; if performance is radically ahead of expectations, find out why.
Your absolute investment returns are important, but they should only be considered after an investor is sure they’re getting what they need, namely solid guidance and a strong hand making them confident about reaching their goals.
The market doesn’t know when the kids are off to college or when you plan to retire. It doesn’t care about your timing or your ability to stomach big swings.
Your adviser knows those things; if they help you make progress – which is about more than portfolio profits and losses – they earn their keep and the right to continue on.
Keep that in mind when reviewing performance. Advisers aren’t as bad as they appear in down years – or as brilliant as they appear when the market and your net worth is rising – but you will never get what you want from an adviser or an expert if you can’t evaluate them in a way that allows you to stick with them – provided that their advice is appropriate and moving you forward relatively on schedule — through thick and thin.