Cheating on a financial advisor is a known, but frowned-upon client practice. But new research says that it has been gaining traction among high-net-worth households since the market turmoil began in 2008, with many clients bolstering their stable of advisors. The report also suggests that when markets calm down, those same customers, weary of managing so many relationships, will pare the number down. But what does an advisor need to know to be the last one left standing?
The headline from a Cerulli Associates report would strike dread in the heart of any financial advisor: "Are Clients Two-Timing Advisors?" It outlines, in sad detail, how relationships that advisors painstakingly built were undermined by a lack of trust during the market downturn. Nervous investors second-guessed everything, and sought out the opinions of additional advisors. The most extreme statistic in the report: almost 30% of households with more than $5 million to invest are using four or more advisory relationships.
Aside from the ultra high-net-worth, the overall trend is disturbing enough. Multiple advice seekers are not limited to the wealthy. But they do tend to have more to invest—and lose—than their brethren using just one advisor.
Among the entire advice-seeking universe, 27% of households use multiple advisors. Narrow that range to households with $2 million to $5 million to invest and the percentage climbs to 35%. Among those with more than $5 million to invest, 58% use multiple advisors, according to Cerulli, the Boston-based research firm.
In the last three years, the pace has accelerated, with the average number of advisor relationships per household climbing as investors who handled their own finances turned to advisors for the first time and those already using advisors added to their stable. In 2008, investors kept an average of 0.67 advisor relationships, and that figure had climbed to 0.83 by 2011. The increase was more marked among high-net-worth clients. Households with more than $5 million to invest saw their advisor relationships grow to 2.25 this year from 1.51 in 2008.
The good news is the Cerulli researchers think the trend will dissipate when financial markets calm down. "We believe investors will eventually reconsolidate their assets as they tire of overseeing multiple relationships," says Katharine Wolf, senior analyst and head of Cerulli's investor practice. "Given the most recent volatility, however, more clients are likely to see additional advice as there is just so much uncertainty right now. But advisors should be thinking about the long term and position themselves to benefit from the eventual reconsolidating, since secondary relationships will lose assets to favored advisors," Wolf says.
Those in the advice industry were not surprised.
"We see this a lot, we've been trying to address it for years," Warren Terry, head of Envision, the financial planning platform at Wells Fargo Advisors, says. "High-net-worth clients are seeking the opinion of multiple folks; kind of a board of directors mentality. Diversity of opinion is important to that client segment," he says. In response Wells has a program called the "VIP Visit" designed to help the client see that the organization can take a holistic view of their particular issues. The visit will often be precipitated by a life event for the client, such as the sale of a business or retirement. After the advisor and the home office spend weeks or months getting a handle on the client's unique needs, the client travels to the home office in St. Louis, Missouri to be walked through all the areas of expertise that touch on their financial situation.
They can meet with the experts in the areas they are most interested in, whether that is the chief economist or the fixed income team. "The ultra high-net-worth appreciate the diversity of opinion," Terry explains. "They maintain the relationship with their advisor [after the visit] because it gives them that perceived value of seeking out multiple sources and comparing notes." After visiting, Terry says, clients often consolidate their various financial relationships with the Wells Fargo advisor.
Why are clients so will to consolidate at that point? Terry believes that is because "once they're convinced you understand their issues—that level of trust goes up."
A spokesperson at Merrill Lynch Bank of America agrees, saying: "What we've seen is that more than two-thirds of clients and prospects express a willingness to consolidate with a primary provider if that advisor could meet a broad set of needs."
Tom Fickinger, head of advisor growth and development for Merrill Lynch U.S. Wealth Management advised advisors to stick to best practices: planning and contact, contact, contact. "We see the best advisors take a planning approach to the practice. It's not just an emotional decision; the markets are tough. It's really based on what the client is trying to accomplish, and looking at multiple scenarios." He says that advisors need to "look at the big picture and not get caught up in today."
Fickinger stresses the oft-repeated advice that staying in touch is even more critical in turbulent times. "Clients want to be reassured when markets are difficult," he says. "We're making sure we have continued contact," he says, adding that most advisors have pared down their book of business. "They don't handle hundreds of accounts so they can spend more time with the client, especially during times like these," he observes.
Both Merrill's Fickinger and Wells Fargo's Terry say their relatively newly expanded capabilities to serve all of the client needs, including banking needs, is a big help to their advisors in preserving relationships. But for advisors who are not attached to a large bank, there are still tactics to take.
"I think a problem with advisors is that they try to be comprehensive on their own," says Terry, who stresses the importance of offering a full complement of services. "That's what that space is in tune with. If that means working with your local estate planning attorney, or your CPA, do it. You'll have more success in the consolidation effort because your value proposition is in aggregating that diversity of opinion and managing it. Be the quarterback."
For Bob Collins, an independent advisor affiliated with Wells Fargo Advisors in Bethesda, Md., that's a key principle. "Being the No. 1 financial quarterback is a goal of mine with all my clients." He sees quite a few high-net-worth clients with other relationships eventually consolidate their wealth with him.
Collins says his first move is to take all of a new client's assets, including those in multiple relationships with other advisors, 401(k) plans, no-loads, and put them into a comprehensive financial plan based on the client's goals.
"I do not pursue those assets right away—then I'm just a salesman," Collins says. With the list, he and his team of eight associates plug the client's holdings into Wells' planning software, Envision, and come up with a plan, then get the client's feedback.
"I make them talk about the relationships," Collins says. "When I meet with them to go through the financial plan, I educate them about what they're doing in other relationships—it gives them an outside view, a second opinion. Sometimes, later in the relationships, I'll ask them 'Why do you have this, or these types of securities?' Sometimes they'll say "I don't know" and they'll come to the conclusion on their own, or we'll come to an agreement that now it's time to change course with those investment and consolidate them with us."
Collins also says that in his 29 years, he sees many advisors who haven't created plans for the clients. "They're salesmen. They may be fee-based but they are just putting money with managers and just leaving it there, and the managers are not doing well and advisors are not firing those money managers and moving around to other investment styles."
Collins says advisors must take the initiative to guarantee that the client understands why they own every security—or at least to make the effort. Which, he says, comes back to being the quarterback.
"Clients want their advisors to really take lead roles and don't be part of the bench," Collins says. "There are a lot of other clients out there, and they're looking for advisors who aren't scared in this environment, and want them to take the lead role."