The investigations and finger-pointing have begun. With markets in tumult, do we have what it takes to abandon old ways of business and elevate our industry to ensure its brightest future?
Over the last 12 months I have had the privilege to address financial planners and industry executives all over the world. I see that they strive to be true professionals and are proud of the strides our profession has made. They know that their customers and clients look to them for guidance in a complex financial landscape. However, the recent severe volatility in markets across the globe is testing our clients' faith. Distrust of all things financial is at a peak. Historically, times of crisis have been the moments of greatest innovation for improved client service in the financial planning profession. In the deep crisis we face today, an opportunity has opened to help fashion a profession that consumers will trust and admire decades from now.
But first we need a bit of history.
Where Have You Gone Merrill Lynch?
When I was a boy, I had a fantasy of earning and saving money, or perhaps getting an inheritance. I had a single idea of where I would go with the money: Merrill Lynch. My image of the firm was that of a pillar of wisdom, financial stability, professional probity, fiduciary care and accessibility to all. You could find a Merrill office in almost any town across America. A few months ago, sagging under $26 billion in losses, Merrill stumbled into the waiting arms of Bank of America, a victim of overexpansion into the subprime mortgage arena.
This failure of trust and others like it will haunt us if we don't embrace a more customer-oriented business ideal. The financial planning industry should be the standard bearer for this ideal. Indeed, we can look back at three great movements in the last 30 years that have shaped our profession for the better.
The Three Great Movements
The initial movement toward greater client orientation was the origination of comprehensive financial planning itself and the creation of the professional designation "certified financial planner." These developments grew out of the Rust Belt recession of the 1970s, which was the last great secular bear market of the 20th century, and the disillusionment investors felt then with Wall Street-an era, like our own, when the talk was about "the end of equities."
The second major wave of development in the U.S. was the movement from commissions to fees that began in earnest in the early 1980s and continues today. Again, this movement was given great initial impetus by the steep and prolonged U.S. recession of 1981-1982.
The third and final wave was the financial life planning movement that gathered force following the dot-com collapse of 2001-2002. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 also brought many consumers and advisors to question the deeper meaning and purpose of money in our lives. Life planning represents the full embodiment of a client-centered approach to planning, since it recognizes that money is not an end in itself but a means of helping people realize their dreams for freedom and accomplishment.
Financial Planning's Historic Moment
The global market downturn of 2008 has been a time of wrenching readjustment for our industry and our clients. The foundations of our old structures are being shaken. This is the historic moment to discard the failed models of the past and create the new structure that will last for years to come-the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes. What does it look like? What are its characteristics?
To me the answer is clear. We must build on and continue to encourage these three movements, calling advisors toward a professional designation widely respected by all, completing the movement toward fees and establishing the client-service practices required by life planning.
Looking forward, there are four necessary principles that should guide us if we want to rise out of this crisis as a stronger and more respected industry: