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McKinsey: Time to Manage Behavior, Not Just Portfolios

By Murray Coleman May 11, 2016

The low-hanging fruits in financial markets leading to easy investment profits are well picked over. Now advisors need to focus on blocking and tackling – the basics of wealth management.

At least that’s the insight many FAs glean from the latest market warnings from McKinsey & Co. After a fairly “stellar” era of investment performance across broad stock and bond asset classes over the past 30 years, the consultancy is forecasting “returns are likely to come back down to earth over the next 20 years.”

“Although we’re not necessarily in agreement with all of their numbers, we think that this latest market forecast by McKinsey is spot-on,” says Andy Kapyrin, a partner at RegentAtlantic in Morristown, N.J., which manages about $3 billion.

Still, Kapyrin is finding rather limited remedies in terms of portfolio moves. He’s tilting some clients towards small-cap domestic stocks and emerging markets. But only on the edges, he adds, making sure not to expose investors to greater portfolio volatility than they’re likely to feel comfortable accepting over time.

“A more fundamental solution we’re finding is to re-assess a common concern we’re hearing these days – that lower returns will leave couples short in meeting their retirement goals,” says Kapyrin.

So his staff has been analyzing spending patterns of the independent RIA’s 1,200-plus clients over longer periods. Supported by outside research from JPMorgan, among others, Kapyrin’s starting to share with his clients a reassuring message: Even in less rosy economic times, retirement might not be as scary as first imagined.

While expenses might go up shortly after leaving the workforce as couples take more trips and “celebrate retirement,” Kapyrin relates that most of his clients’ golden years are characterized by moves to downsize and live more simply.

Paul Bennett

“The McKinsey study is another good reminder of the need to lower investors’ expectations over the next few decades,” he says. “But what research like this leaves out is that most retirees aren’t likely to go on any extensive spending sprees that will bust their budgets.”

Taking emotions out of the process isn’t just a matter of developing more realistic views of what a family might need to save and spend going forward, points out Paul Bennett, an advisor in Great Falls, Va., with United Capital, which manages more than $15 billion.

“I’m readdressing with our clients the need to make sure they’re not falling into certain mental traps when making choices about how best to invest,” he says.

A major bias that Bennett is urging investors to watch out for is something he calls the myopia trap – when clients become so focused on one aspect of investing that they miss the bigger picture.

It’s a behavioral trait Bennett says he tries to avert by making sure investors aren’t creating “mental silos” where they’re “fixating” on a relatively small number of holdings or accounts.

Right now, he’s also finding many clients falling into what he refers to as the “confirming evidence” trap. This, he says, is where “people tend to remember things selectively and interpret information in a biased manner.”

For example, investors might emphasize one politician’s take on economics with relative zeal. The veteran FA isn’t trying to take sides, however. “In those situations, I think it’s important as an advisor to objectively point out that they’re effectively devaluing anything that might come along in the future that contradicts those preconceived notions,” says Bennett.

A good start is to make sure clients’ goals are put into proper order, suggests Michael Liersch, head of behavioral finance at Merrill Lynch.

“It’s common for people to have very implicit ideas about money,” he says.

During times of lower market expectations, FAs must strive to become even more articulate to flush out clients’ true bucket lists, recommends Liersch.

“The challenge is to refine your interviewing process so that a family’s goals are laid out in a more quantifiable way,” he says. “As an advisor, that’s going to allow you to align clients’ investment plans and track their progress in a more definitive manner.”