"We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience."
-George Washington

The editor queried, "Could you do a piece on the significance of last fall's events for financial planners?"

"You bet," I responded. The events of September and October 2008 seemed ripe for review-for both putting them in context and looking at their unfolding implications for ourselves and others.

Frankly, the financial planning community has not looked itself in the eye on the subject, much less a mirror. Though there has been ample weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, genuine self-examination has seemed sparse. Where were we? What were our responsibilities? What could we have done differently? Where do we fit in the scheme of things? All things considered, the various market crashes, currency threats, budget implosions, banking debacles, Ponzi schemes, employment downturns, foreclosures, government woes and personal tragedies were very big deals-and big challenges for the personal financial planning community. The issues are complex and they have brought us face to face with ourselves, our work and that revealing mirror.

Errors were made. Experience was "dearly bought." There are, indeed, lessons to be learned. George Washington got it right.
October 2008 was the proverbial wake-up call-especially for those folks having trouble separating financial planning from investment management. I wondered about financial planning's proper domain and methods for serving it. Are we personal advisors? Or should we simply serve product delivery roles?

In particular, how can fiduciary advisors step up to help folks in the bottom 95% of income or net worth in a country increasingly reliant on money for personal and social structure? As we tackle these questions, it seems we have arrays of lessons to learn.

Lesson I: The financial services industry is not our friend.
If we had any genuine doubts, the financial services industry proved it is no friend of either our clients or our profession. When the chips were down, it went for quick bucks, attempting to dazzle people with modern versions of the old shell game. In the process, it created gimmicks for its gimmicks without regard for consequences. By its extraordinary selfishness and greed, it threatened the underpinnings of international trading currencies and the livelihoods of billions. Then, when even more chips were down, the industry needed a taxpayer bailout while continuing to ravage pensions, real estate holdings, stocks and bonds and the lives of regular folks.

The lesson is simple. Fiduciary advisors may operate in the same sector-money-as the financial services industry. But we are not it. We're, in fact, on the opposite side. Because the industry has the power to hurt our clients and their well-being, we ought to be watching it with guard dog vigor on our clients' behalf. When we see the financial services industry engaging in dangerous behaviors, we must call them on it. Truth be told, we are among the few in a position to do this intelligently. Remember, most industries have gatekeepers. Can you imagine the physician community's response to intentional pharmaceutical sabotage?

Gatekeepers in other industries may call for contaminated food and drink to be removed from the shelves. Or disqualify and shame athletes who break the rules by doping. Yet the financial services industry can seemingly go back at it with impunity, bonuses and all. Where have our voices been when they do so?

Financial advisors probably cannot escape being in the same bed with product manufacturers, but perhaps we should acknowledge that the industry too often just uses us for our bodies. It doesn't love us. It never loved us.

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