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The Mirage of Unbiased Financial Advice

self servingIs your financial advisor biased? To find out, just check two things: Is the advisor human? Is he or she breathing? If so, the advisor is biased.

Even if someone created a supposedly objective robotic financial planner—let’s call it CFP-3-O—it would carry its programmer’s biases. Any providers of financial services have opinions and biases. A host of factors such as their personal backgrounds, professional training, and experience in the industry shape their investment philosophies. Their compensation model also influences their financial advice.

What you can do as a potential client is evaluate the factors that might affect an advisor’s biases. Then you can decide whether their biases will work in your favor.

After 40 years of experience in various sectors of financial services—from real estate to all types of insurance and securities—I know how these industries work. That experience as a financial services insider has given me plenty of opinions, which often show up in my weekly columns.

As a columnist, I am an advocate for my profession, advice-only financial planning. One of my strong biases is a belief that the closest thing to objective financial advice comes from a fee-for-service financial planner who has a fiduciary responsibility to represent your best interests.

My strongest bias as a financial columnist, however, is to be an advocate for my readers. My goal is to help you make sound financial decisions. Sometimes I write about strategies that have worked for me or for others. I also share my mistakes and those of others, with the hope that you will save a lot of money by not repeating those mistakes.

One of the rewards of writing a column is getting comments from readers. Most of these are positive, and many, even if they are critical, are educational. I appreciate the insights and new information I often receive. Some of the most negative responses come from financial services people who strongly disagree with me, often because they sell a product that I may criticize for its high fees or hidden costs. Unfortunately, many of these comments take the form of professional and personal attacks.

The question such attacks always raises for me is: “Why so defensive?” Those who are comfortable with the merits of the financial products they sell shouldn’t need to attack someone who points out factual information about those products. Although they would say what I consider factual information is a misguided opinion, which is exactly my point. Few of us can escape our tightly-held view of reality.

As a consumer or potential consumer of financial services, it’s best never to assume a given piece of financial advice is right for you. Instead, ask, “Where’s the bias?” Is this person representing a particular industry? Does his or her income mostly depend on selling a product? Does he or she appear to hold a prejudice for or against a particular type of investment? If so, what’s the likely reason?

Once you answer those questions, you are better able to decide whether the advice will serve your needs. For example, since one of my admitted biases is toward low-cost investments with no guarantees, obviously my financial advice will reflect that opinion. Any potential client who wants guarantees and is willing to pay the associated costs that come with them is probably not a good fit for my particular brand of financial planning.

As a consumer, you’re wise to hold onto one strong opinion of your own: to be biased in favor of your own best interests. That means taking any financial advisor’s recommendations with a bit of healthy skepticism. Including mine.

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One Response to The Mirage of Unbiased Financial Advice

  1. Brian Fechtel April 22, 2014 at 7:24 am #

    Very well put, Rick.

    I completely share your view that a healthy dose of skepticism is absolutely essential. In fact, you and your readers might enjoy Guy Harrison’s terrific new book: Think – Why You Should Question Everything. There’s a whole section entitled, “Your Bizarre and Biased Brain” that presents a list of common mistakes people make, in essence providing a summary of Nobel laureate Kahneman’s seminal research regarding framing,confirmation bias, loss aversion, etc.

    As I think you well know, it is precisely because of my commitment to providing good disclosure about products – that is, providing the answers to the questions that an informed consumer should have about the life insurance industry’s products – that my organization, Breadwinners’ Insurance, is growing rapidly. Good disclosure of financial products is imperative for a consumer to make an informed choice, and my associates and I provide the facts that prospective buyers and existing policyholders have always needed and deserved, but heretofore, not obtained.

    In fact, my campaign to bring good disclosure to the life insurance marketplace will be culminating – and I believe most successfully – in the coming weeks. Two weeks ago I was at the American Council on Consumer Interests annual conference in Milwaukee, sharing my disclosure approach with many professors concerned about consumer issues and active in the financial planning arena. Later this week, I will be presenting Truth-in-Life-Disclosure at fi360’s annual conference of fiduciaries in Nashville.

    So again, Bravo, Rick on trumpeting the importance of being wary of advisers’ and everyone else’s biases and of seeking the information needed to make good decisions. Along the lines of a Senator’s famous observation, we all know: “While everyone may be entitled to his or her own opinion, facts have a funny way of being compelling, irrefutable, and carrying the day.”

    Facts with the the power of a tsunami – a very friendly, informational tsunami – are coming to the life insurance industry and marketplace very soon. In fact, this friendly tsunami now reaches everyone who is wise enough to read your column. Everyone else, though, will soon enjoy, truly benefit from, and indeed Surf this Tsunami simply as this news is disseminated, this news that: Truth-in-Life Insurance is now in May 2014 coming to all of America’s life insurance consumers.