Was it just two years ago? March 2000. Yep, just two years. And you know, by any reckoning, two years is nothing. Just a chronological wisp.
Yet, for pure between-the-eyes instruction for financial planners, this two-year distance seems more like light years than time years. It's a long, long way away. A lot of ground has been covered; the scenery has changed dramatically.
Let's do a little inventory just on what's public. Two years ago, we had survived Y2K with grace and bravado. Truth is, we were feeling pretty cocky. Two years ago, tech reigned supreme, and we knew it was different this time. Two years ago, the federal budget balanced nicely-a condition that seemed destined to persist indefinitely. Two years ago, we thought presidents were elected on Election Day, Enron was a growth stock, an audit by Arthur Andersen was worthy of reliance, and stocks would outperform bonds and money market funds. Two years ago, unemployment rates were under 4%, college grads were actively recruited for highly paid employment regardless of experience, and the Nasdaq stood above 5000. There was no Financial Advisor magazine. Two years ago, the World Trade Center was a symbol of commerce and capitalist might. Two years ago, we could take nail clippers onto airplanes. Two years ago, terror was not personal.
You can do your own private inventory. Maybe your world, too, has encountered some unanticipated changes. Looking at such categories as health, employment, income, children, parents and loved ones, residence, interests, senses of purpose, and so on, has your life experienced any significant modifications? There sure have been some in mine. And what impact does any single one of them have on our long-range planning?
Or let's look at it from the standpoint of a modest and diversified portfolio. This is not idle contemplation, after all, at least as far as individuals are concerned. The numbers are huge. A loss of 20% (roughly the S&P 500/1000 for this time frame) on a $1 million portfolio takes it to $800,000. Lots of portfolios have lost 20% over the past two years. Lots. But wait, there's more. Not only has this money been lost, the anticipated money has not been gained. If we assumed 10% per year returns, there is the $210,000 not achieved. $1.21 million vs. $800,000. We are looking at a 50% differential. Whoa. So!? What changed? And in the next year, the $1.32 million we had projected will require the next year to return in excess of 65%. Maybe the long-term future will give it back. Maybe it merely leavens the long-term past. But for people with real money that went into the market two years ago, there are
real live shocks here.
And two years ago, we thought mechanistic, computer-generated financial models were instructive, informative and comforting. (Hmmm.)
Yep, just two years ago. Most of these changes were unpredictable, many even unanticipatable. Yet every one of them generates waves and effects of unbounded consequence. Every one changes the world, forever, in manners inconceivable before the change became manifest.
Are there any lessons for us? (Hmmm, again ... maybe.)
For me, I am taking this personally. Sure, I am applying it professionally, but I am taking it down-to-my-toes personally because I have a whole lot of my life devoted to this inchoate grouping known as the financial planning profession, doing financial plans, in my role as a financial planner. However, I'm thinking that some of our lessons from these last two years might go to the very essence of our planning craft. Like, how do you plan within this much changeability? Especially, how do you plan comprehensively?
But I don't know. Seems specious to me. No need to get preachy. I just wonder whether some of our professional models are inherently structurally defective.
One thing for sure, I am no longer certain as to what the word "planning" means. Or "plan." Or "planner." Or "comprehensive." I am certainly less than sure our genuine work is appropriately that of "comprehensive financial planning."
Doesn't "planning" imply control? Does it not entail the promise of manageability? Of power? Of predictability? Where are these qualities in our "last-two-years" world?
Doesn't "comprehensive" mean the whole enchilada? The thesaurus produces words like "complete," "inclusive" and "all-embracing." In turn, "complete" generates "whole," "total," "entire" and "absolute." Not much give in these words. Yet don't we presume that "comprehensive financial planning" is achievable? Or are we simply asking the wrong questions?
Now this is delicate. It is fragile because we like machines and believe they can fix problems and do jobs. It is awkward because nobody enjoys hearing that his most deeply held assumptions might be flawed. Going there makes my stomach feel kind of achy. Re-examining presuppositions, especially those most fundamental, is spiritually threatening.
Conversely, I don't think we do our stakeholders, i.e. ourselves, our clients, our profession, our communities and outward, much good if we don't turn ourselves into sources of intelligent inquiry.
So, please, don't take it too personally. Wondering is good. Wondering is a conversation between seekers, not certain superiority. Can we just wonder together whether some of our "last-two-years" lessons better prepare us to engage uncertainty and rethink our work? Can we better identify our work in an age of phenomenal change? And if it means some rethinking, can we wonder together whether this challenges our art as well as our craft? Can we wonder whether some of this challenge requires us to rethink this art from the inside out? In fact, can we wonder together whether some of our lessons necessarily challenge the very foundations of anything that can rationally be called "planning"? Is it conceivable to maintain any rational certainties as to what the future is likely to bring and whether our models can continue to serve us? It may even go to the very foundations of whether we should care about trying to get too certain as to what the future is likely to bring.
After these last two years, it seems I can hear the Lord laughing. And maybe that's the point.
It seems to me that this goes to the nature of money and the extent to which we can rely upon it, as well as the nature of financial products and the extent to which they can do the job as hoped, if not as advertised. It is one thing to engage the basics, e.g., savings, insurance, spending controls, tax strategies, diversification techniques and so forth. It is another to understand the comprehensive implications of money in our lives, long term and short term, and how we are going to respond to its demands upon us. Do we think our money actually enables a level of assurance that removes us entirely from life's perils and tribulations? And maybe that's what we are talking about. In times of uncertainty, these sorts of notions undulate from the inside out in manifestations infinite and pervasive.
We have relied upon computers at the expense of habits and behaviors. We have engaged investment theory with implicit assumption that the past is prologue when, actually, the past is past and the future uncertain. We have pulled levers and pushed buttons as if they were connected to something tangible, but we still could not diversify systemic risk. Not to say that the past is not informative or that these levers exist in a vacuum, but the last two years tells us that experience trumps theory. We act otherwise to what end? Two years ago, we argued about the impact of a 1% difference in rates of return. We all know that the difference between 8% and 9% over 72 years is double. True enough-and we based our projections there. Since they have been derailed, now what?
Whoa. So!? Big numbers. They don't change the Rule of 72, but can they help us grasp something profound about the nature of money? Are they instructive as to the extent to which we can mechanize it and rely upon it alone in the long term? In view of the speed of change, can we maintain faith in notions of a long-term "planned" machine?
For me, the trouble with long-term plans, much less "life" plans, is that they just don't seem to have the tensile strength to do the job. Life moves too fast. Numbers move too fast. Questions come too fast. Unanticipated changes come way too fast. Genuine belief in assumptions is genuinely delusional. It did not work for the Soviet Union, either.
Yet, what's really changed except perspective? Such two-year periods are always possible and have always been possible. Since these years actually happened, were we derelict when we failed to anticipate their glorious trauma? Or are we asking money and its machinery to do a job of providing security and reliability that is simply not within its scope of dependability? I don't know exactly. I am not saying all mechanics are wrong. I just wonder.
It seems many current assumptions are rooted in the industrial age, when machines ruled supreme and structure was everything. Accordingly, much 20th-century modeling is grounded in various attempts to view social structures, including money, mechanistically. But haven't we seen consistently that strength and innovation come from the small and flexible? If we look at nature, don't we see these coming harmoniously together?
Naturally? Don't we see self-organization as a perpetual phenomenon while machines consume enormous care and cost? Haven't we continually watched the decline and decay of larger enterprises, including governments, as infrastructures grow, innovation increasingly is discouraged and the adaptable hardens into the structural?
Currently, leading thinkers continue to challenge notions birthed in the age of machines. Obviously, humans are not interchangeable cogs to be slipped in and out of the social engine. Perhaps money is no more inclined to rigid controls and manipulation. Can we tinker with our economy without recognizing our lack of control re ramifications, waves and ripples? Can we see that long-term projections are too often merely shackles inhibiting adaptation and flexibility?
And so on. As we move away from the age of machines, are the machine models ceasing to serve? Can they be replaced?
Some of this coalesces around new thinking, new models. I look to folks like Margaret Wheatley, Peter Senge, Fred Koffman, Mikhail Csikszentmihalya, Ken Wilber, Don Beck and Richard Cowan for help reconceptualizing machine metaphors into apt science models.
We are unique, each of us. Special. Irreplaceable and irreducible, with singular missions.
Is it the nature of money to allow us to plan for 40 or 50 years on unearned income? Do we require nonmonetized economic resources? Can humans function within theoretical law-of-the-jungle capitalism? Or is it money's nature to be part of blended asset mixes-asset mixes including family, community, housing, habits, control, viable safety nets and the like? But asset mixes enabling organic decisions appropriate to our particular circumstances any time?
Does adherence to mechanistic money rules impose the trustworthy order we need or does that order emerge from elsewhere within a more organic dynamic?
I am not suggesting that we can't lay paths or that all projections are exercises in futility. There is obviously something to be gained from manifesting potential scenarios. I suggest it is worthwhile for advisors to work from the inside out developing skills in coping, responding, listening, feeling, silence and understanding, and grasping money in its myriad complexities. I am suggesting personal money mastery is among our responsibilities and money mastery implies a need to look at money and its issues from deep inside us.
I wonder how we can create workable financial models incorporating the realities of change, and the nature of money and human beings, together with functional, flexible structures. I wonder how we can provide our clients with financial guidance that serves them today and tomorrow.
Given our last two years, this seems a right and proper challenge.
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of Worth Living LLC, based in Denver. He has been a practicing financial advisor for more than 18 years and is a national past president of the Institute of Certified Financial Planners.