Some of my readers think this is the last year of the 2000s, and that January 1, 2011 properly begins the new decade. So we are either in the last or the first year of a decade; either way, I think it might be a good time to assess the changes we and the profession have experienced over the past ten years, and spend a moment thinking about the things which are obvious now which were not so obvious then.
This makes it possible for us to consider in what ways, ten years from now, we will look back on this day with a sense of superiority.
Ten years ago, there was no mention of the word "fiduciary" in our professional conversations, and it was still possible to get into a heated argument about whether fees were really the future of the profession. I remember one prominent broker-dealer executive who proclaimed during a conference presentation that financial planning was and would always be about sales, and that selling packaged invest-ment products was a higher calling than giving advice "without implementation." Some of us gently pointed out to him that fee-only advisors were managing client portfolios, handling IRA rollovers, filling out tons of paperwork and trade tickets, sending out quarterly performance statements and a lot of other implementation tasks. But back then the "no implementation" label seemed to have a life of its own, impervious to logic. How quaint it seems to us now.
Today, we can look back and see that the profession of the late 1990s was groping for an ethical standard, and the real-world client interactions were only starting to emerge from a sales model. Nevertheless, the handwriting was on the wall for anybody looking in that direction. All of the major broker-dealers (including the BD managed by the "no-implementation" guy) had created asset management plat-forms and were beginning to derive a significant piece of their revenues from fees. This was clear evidence that charging fees was a trend for the future–and, looking back, we can see that it was.
What will we think ten years from now? I suspect that in 2020, we will look back and realize that today's profession still had not fully emerged from the sales model; that it was still possible, way back in 2009, for the president of one of the largest broker-dealers to say that the public needed somebody to offer financial advice and still be able to sell them an annuity.
We will notice that, with a couple of exceptions, most of the BDs were still earning more than half–and in many cases, much more than half–of their revenues from transactions, on sales activities, and we will look back on the speeches and outlines of presentations at many industry conferences and see how many were given by annuity representatives who were showing us how to overcome objectives. Certain industry expert columns will be particularly interesting to read; we will see how advisors in the 2010 era were advised, soberly, not to be investment generalists always looking for the next product to sell, but to consider embracing a model where we collaborate with clients on the issues that THEY want to resolve. Such a concept!
And I think there will be a general realization, ten years after the fiduciary concept has become the law of the financial planning landscape, that commissions represented a conflict of interest, and that the insurance companies who created annuity products were mostly focused on capturing assets through the old, creaky, dying remnants of what was once a vibrant sales channel, charging more than mutual funds for their products because they could pay people to recommend them.
Ten years ago on the investment side, modern portfolio theory ruled the land, but we were comfortable with tinkering with our definitions of asset classes. Thus "tech stocks" somehow became an asset class, and there were a few people like Bob Markman who were arguing that diversification was a bad idea when it was obvious that technology was the engine of a new age of commerce. Today, we look back at the tech boom era with some amusement, at all the companies that were trading at impossible multiples and reaching new heights every week. What were we thinking?
Ten years from today, I expect that we'll look back on the 2008-2009 market deba-cle and shake our heads at the naive way that advisors expected a diversified portfolio of market-traded securities to somehow avoid downturns when there was panic everywhere in market-traded securities. I expect that this will be the decade when quasi-public companies will go straight to the investing public for their funding, when UMA platforms will allow every advisor to pool client assets and build a portfolio of startups, timberland, well-managed cattle farms, oil wells and coal fields–operating businesses with tangible assets whose veracity and accounting will be overseen by the same auditors who currently check the books at Fortune 500 companies.
In that future day, MPT will have been modified and made more complex, with leptokurtotic distributional models of quarterly and yearly returns, evaluations of the correlations (and shifts in correlations) of individual assets within each asset class, detailed comparisons of current valuations versus historical norms and expected inflation, interest rates and turns in the domestic and global business cycles. I expect that there will be a bifurcation between asset managers and financial planners; advisors who enjoy the client-facing planning work will delegate the invest-ment stuff to professionals who enjoy digging into all this new investment complexity, and larger companies who will handle the investments on an outsource basis. The difference between that and sales is that the client-facing planners will monitor the costs and activities of the investment managers on behalf of clients.
In general, I suspect, we will look back at the investment portfolios of 2010 as hopelessly naive and simplistic.
In the year 2000, the Internet was just finding its legs, and it was still possible to hear grumbling from some of its pioneers that the "greedheads" were taking over and actually applying business models to their web activities. Access to the web was slow, and what we found was relatively unsophisticated.
Ten years from now, I will be astonished if we are still typing on keyboards the way we do today. I expect the Web to be not just interactive, but visually active, where we will talk to each other and view recorded video messages sent and received like e-mails. This newsletter service will become an audio file, and then a video presentation, with the text available side by side with the author's discussion of issues and events. Discussion boards will become more active and interactive, more personal and more visual–and all of it will be convertible on demand to text files, as text files will be convertible to audio files.
This next wave of information overload will, paradoxically, lead to a greater reliance on professionals to filter and sort and summarize what's going on. Most of you realize that much of what you read about financial services and investments in the consumer press is naive at best, and often wrong, and I think we all suspect that doctors, lawyers, scientists, artists and pretty much everybody else realizes the same limitations of the press in their respective fields. People will turn to their professionals in each area to find out what they aren't hearing, and eventually the information on the Internet (which is where the press will be, as well as more detailed information sources) will be scanned mostly by professionals, who will offer their own blogs and summaries to their clients.
Between now and 2020, I expect the planning profession to BE a profession, to have created its own fiduciary standards, to have enforceable standards of practice, and state boards of financial planning. The few dead-enders who believe in a commission model will be increasingly sold out by product vendors who see the handwriting on the wall and cut the loads the way the mutual fund industry did way back in the Dark Ages of the 1990s.
Like all people in all ages, we will look back on the world ten years ago and wonder at how naive and primitive it all was. And maybe we will be bold enough to write predictions for the next ten years which will probably fall short of the remarkable things that actually take place.