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Robin Powell






An experienced television journalist, Robin runs Regis Media, a UK-based content marketing consultancy which helps financial advice firms around the world to attract, retain and educate clients.

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How valuable is financial advice?


Vanguard released a new study showing that financial advice provides "meaningful" beneficial changes in behaviour, performance and financial outcomes. They had previously published a study citing a 3% "adviser alpha". I won't lie — I always thought that number was probably far too high. But is there a more reliable way to measure this? Let’s see.

Investing is like being healthy – everyone knows how to do it, but implementing a plan and remaining disciplined is difficult. And financial advisers are a lot like personal trainers. We aren’t going to turn you into Warren Buffett. But we will make sure you’re better off than you otherwise would be. In the world of personal training, this is analogous to the fact that most personal trainers won’t turn you into Mr. Olympia, but they will make sure you are in better shape than you otherwise would be. Financial advisers do this primarily by implementing and maintaining a disciplined plan of action.

The interesting thing about individual investors is that they're relatively undisciplined. Since 1987, the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) has provided reliable data on individual investor asset allocations. Over that time, the allocation has averaged:

  • 61% stocks

  • 16% bonds

  • 23% cash

What does this mean?

This data is interesting primarily because it exposes how irrationally fearful of bonds most investors are. And this fear has cost them a substantial amount of money over time, mainly because they've left 23% of their portfolio out of the game for 30+ years. It's an interesting thing I've noted through my entire career — while we tend to think of the stock market as the scarier asset class, it's actually bonds that most investors are irrationally scared of. And overcoming these various misleading bond narratives is not an easy thing to cure.

Now, the data is pretty clear that most investment managers cannot beat the market. But beating the above portfolio is pretty simple. In fact, a plain vanilla 60/40 allocation of US stocks and a total bond portfolio handily beats that portfolio since 1987:

  • AAII average investor: CAGR: 8.17%, standard deviation: 9.23%, Sharpe Ratio: 0.57

  • Plain vanilla 60/40: CAGR: 8.79%, standard deviation: 9.23%, Sharpe Radio: 0.63

So, there you have it.

The most brain dead financial adviser recommending a 60/40 allocation and making you stick with it helped you beat the average individual investor by a full 0.62% per year. This isn't a small amount. On $100,000, it amounts to a difference of $250,000 over 30 years. Of course, the kicker here is fees: the adviser who charged you 1% for a cookie-cutter 60/40 actually detracted from your relative performance to the tune of 0.38% (assuming the same underlying fund fees). But anyone paying reasonably low fees did better than the average individual investor just by implementing the simplest of portfolios.

Of course, we're not even accounting for other potential advice like tax location, tax loss harvesting, and other personalised advisory services. But when it comes to portfolio management, the data is fairly clear: if you're like most individual investors, you probably hold far too much cash because you are behaviourally biased and fearful of bonds. And paying any fee lower than 0.62% would have generated better returns primarily because financial advisers keep you in the game even when you're too afraid to remain fully invested.

NB. Vanguard's original 3% may not be that far off in many cases. After all, if a boring plain vanilla portfolio of 60/40 adds 0.62% in returns, then it's not unreasonable to assume that personal planning, tax location, harvesting, etc. would add upwards of 3% in certain cases.

CULLEN ROCHE is founder of the financial services firm, Orcam Financial Group, LLC. He also founded and writes for Pragmatic Capitalism, a blog that strives to provide an alternative perspective on finance and economics.

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