Kill the Caricature

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”  — Oscar Wilde

Dina here …

When asked by strangers what I do for a living, nothing makes people recoil more than realizing my profession has to do with financial matters.

If only they knew that, as a fee-only fiduciary, my role as a financial advisor is markedly different than what they have come to think of from a financial “professional.”

I have had the following hurled at me by people who assume that all of us in the industry are alike:

  • “Oh, you’re a salesman!” – Gender aside, no I’m not. Selling is as unnatural to me as writing with my less dominant hand.
  • “You must love money and all the trinkets it can buy.” This is comical since I drive a mini-van that is over a decade old. Yeah, status and stuff don’t ring my bell.
  • “You’re not going to want to talk to me; I don’t have any money.” Again, au contraire; I’m not all business and second, I love being helpful above all else. I derive great satisfaction from educating someone so they can avoid being taken advantage of.

I could take offense at being misjudged so quickly, but these misperceptions say a lot more about the state of the financial industry than my intentions.

The continued misleading practices by sales-driven firms to seem like they are advisors are confusing and damaging.   A google search of “financial advisor ratings” brings Ameriprise to the top of the results.  A stop at their homepage seems very investor-friendly, touting:

“When you put your client first they return the favor.”

They brag about how clients awarded Ameriprise with top ratings in customer service, customer loyalty and trustworthiness

I guess these clients haven’t heard what the SEC had to say:  “SEC Charges Ameriprise with Overcharging Retirement Account Customers for Mutual Fund Shares”

In short, some retirement accounts contained higher cost funds when lower cost funds were available.  Of course, clients were not presented with the lower cost options, nor did anyone explain that the firm would make more money (at the expense of the clients’ total returns).

It seems like clients should have awarded Ameriprise “Best BS Artist.”

There are plenty of other offenders. UBS was kind enough to spread their sunshine beyond just retail investors to include retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) participants; and even charitable organizations.

They, too, failed to offer clients lower cost funds that were available; they chose to sell more expensive classes of mutual funds.  Nor did they disclose their conflicts of interest. Read about it here.

Cheating charities – does it get any lower?  Do they drown kittens as an encore?

It’s no wonder my profession is a hot button with strangers.

The industry has made oodles of escarole pretending to be something it is not, and it has brainwashed young, eager minds fresh out of school with the lure (or the lore) of “making a lot of money.”  It’s not a tough sell; don’t many parents push their kids into landing a profession based purely on earning potential?

Shortly after I graduated, I received a phone call from a guy I grew up with – a kind, smart, nice guy.  He asked me to purchase my college directory for him so that he could have a cold call list chock-full of country club, young (ignorant) career-minded individuals.

In spite of my naiveté, even I knew this smelled rotten.  I politely told him that I wouldn’t want my information passed on to a stranger and I would not do to someone what I wouldn’t want to be done to myself. (Oh, if only the industry and the world at large operated this way!)

He couldn’t understand why I would care.  He promised not to let anyone know where or how he had obtained the directory.  In his eyes, there was no moral dilemma.

It was hard to reach him because his eyes were already dancing, anticipating a glittering prize; and, it changed him.  They changed him, and he complied:

  • He grew facial hair, at the request of his manager, to look older than 22.
  • He was forbidden from taking his Toyota Supra to appointments; a more elegant Cadillac was leased for him so that he could appear older, wiser and more successful than he really was.
  • His speech changed into a fast-paced, “always working an angle” sales babble that made me twitch.
  • All conversations led to money – who was making what; who was living the good life; driving the right car; landing the trophy girl.

Basically, Wall Street the movie was being held out as the gold standard, and not the cautionary tale it should have been.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, we drifted apart.  This young man I had thought of like a brother had become a stranger to me; and an ugly one at that.

So, when someone mistakes me for this caricature that the industry created, I see the skepticism for what it really is: a series of bad experiences investors have had elsewhere.  It is my job to right these wrongs if they will let me.

If they take the time to get to know me, they can decide for themselves without pressuring tactics or smoke and mirrors because I don’t sell anything, nor do I pretend to be something I am not.

Some of us can only function as decent human beings; and yes, we do sleep better at night for it.

That’s all the perk I need.