Three Numbers Every Investor and Fiduciary Should Remember

The abundance of investment products and investment information available today can be intimidating and confusing to many investors, both novice and professional.  Over my twenty-plus years as an attorney and investment adviser, I have tried to help others focus on some of the critical information in order to avoid unnecessary investment losses, to help level the playing field against some of the ne’er-do-well that continue to defraud the public and plague the financial services industry.

Speaking with a colleague the other day, he commented on the fact that a lot of the important information we get through trade publications such as InvestmentNews rarely seem to get mentioned in the mainstream media and press.  And when we mention such information to clients, they often comment on how useful such information would have been.

After my conversation with my colleague, I started thinking about some of the “inside” information I have shared with my clients that produced the most reaction and appreciation.  In hindsight, I think five numbers and five fats have stood out the most to me and my clients.  In this post, I will discuss the five numbers.  I will discuss the five facts in my next post.  That being said, the five numbers every investor and fiduciary should know are as follows:

1. “75” – The number “75” is actually important for two reasons.  First, a study by Schwab Institutional found that approximately 75% of investor portfolios were poorly structured and unsuitable for their investors given the investors’ financial needs and goals.  I believe that this is primarily a result of the fact that (1) stockbrokers are not required to act in a client’s best interests, and (2) investors are often mislead by portfolios that appear to be diversified because they hold a number of different types of investments, but such portfolios are often not truly, effectively diversified.

The second reason that the number “75” is important is because research and history have shown that approximately two-third, or 75%, of stocks follow the general trend of the market.  This simply supports the popular Wall Street adage, “[don’t] confuse brains with a bull market.”

2. “94” – While there are many firms and individuals in the financial services industry calling themselves wealth managers, a study by CEG Worldwide, a well-respected financial services consulting firm, concluded that 94% of those calling themselves wealth managers or claiming to provide wealth management services failed to meet the criteria used to qualify as wealth managers.  The criteria that CEG used in their study to determine true wealth management was based primarily on advisers who practiced wealth management as a process as compared to those who simply used “wealth management” as a marketing ploy to push product.  This is the same criteria that investors and fiduciaries should use in choosing a financial advisor to work with.

Secondly, one expert has suggested that this number (OK, actually 93.6, which rounded off is 94), and the study that produced it may have caused more damage to investors than any other number/study.  The number comes from the famous 1986 Brinson, Hood and Beebower (BHB) study that stated that 93.6% of the variation of a portfolio’s returns could be explained by the portfolio’s asset allocation.

The study did not say that asset allocation explained 93.6% of the portfolio’s actual returns, but rather the variation of the portfolio’s returns.  Nevertheless, dishonest brokers and advisers misrepresented, and still do misrepresent,  the BHB study’s findings to convince investors to choose an asset allocation and rigidly adhere to it, despite the proven cyclical nature of the markets.  This is the mantra of the” buy and hold” approach to investing, an approach that some have suggested is better described as the “buy, hold and regret” approach to investing.  Just ask investors how well that worked during the 2000-2002 and 2008 bear markets.

Unfortunately, given the current budget issues that exist at the time I write this post, static asset allocators may soon get yet another costly education.  Dr. William Sharpe, a Nobel laureate for his work in the area of investment management, now stresses the need to be proactive and adjust portfolio allocations when changes in the economy and/or the market dictate such moves.

3. Zero – This number represents the number of variable annuities (VA) and equity indexed annuities (EIA) an investor should own.  As a former compliance officer and a current securities attorney I have heard all the convoluted and conniving justifications for these atrocities.  I have written posts and articles warning investors about these products.  While there may be a few limited instances where they may make sense, such as wealth preservation for high net worth investors, the way they are marketed to the masses is extremely questionable.

One Wall Street Journal article reported that variable annuity salesmen were told to treat potential annuity clients as “blind twelve-year-old,” and to “put a pitchfork in their chests,” and provide questionable responses to potential client’s questions.  VA salesmen and VA advertisements often tout that by purchasing a VA the investor will never run out of money.

What is often not made clear that in order to guarantee that lifetime stream of money, you give up all rights to the money invested in the VA.  Once you annuitize your VA, the balance goes to the insurance company once you die, not to your heirs.  In most cases the insurance company offers various choices for payout, such as joint survivor and a guaranteed period, but these options generally result in lower periodic payouts and, in  some cases, additional fees.

One of the most onerous aspects of VAs is the excesssive fees that most VAs charge, especially with regard to the so-called death benefit.  VAs typically guarantee that in the event the VA owner dies with out having annuitized the VA, the owner’s heirs will receive either the accumulated value of the VA at the time of the owner’s death or the amount of the owner’s actual investment in the VA, whichever is greater.  So the VA issuer is only insuring the amount that the VA owner actually puts in the VA.

Meanwhile, the insurance company assesses the VA’s annual death benefit fee not on the basis of their actual legal obligation, which is the amount of the VA owner’s actual investment, but rather on the accumulated value of the VA.  One study estimated that the actual expense of the annual was approximately 0.10-0.12, but that the insurance companies often charged approximately 1.50%, or approximately fifteen times the estimated value, resulting in a nice windfall for the insurance company.  The additional fee also cost a VA investor by reducing this investment return.

EIAs are also problematic.  EIAs are generally sold with the pitch that investors can earn the same return that the stock market does, with the guarantee that even if the market is down, the EIA investor is guaranteed a minimum return.  What many investors are told is that the potential return is usually capped at a relatively low number, say 10%, and then  is reduced even more by a “participation rate,” usually an additional 2-3% reduction.  In short, the EIA investor is looking at annual rate of between 2-7%.  If the market is up 20% or more for the year, just who is getting the benefit of the excess over the investor’s return?

There may be other significant numbers that I have omitted.  However, investors and fiduciaries that remember these numbers and the reasons for their significance will be in a better position to protect both their financial security and/or their clients’ financial  security.

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