C.J. Burton—Corbis
By David Edwards
February 24, 2015

While returning from a business flight last year, I experienced a queasy stomach sensation. Later than night I woke up with searing pain across my abdomen. At my internist the next morning, I asked, “Do I have food poisoning?”

“I would say something more serious,” the doctor replied. “We need to get you a CAT scan.”

Off to the imaging center. The radiologist came out: “You have appendicitis,” he said. “You cannot pass Go, you cannot collect $200. You have to go straight to the emergency room. Take this copy of your images.”

I checked in at the hospital and was triaged. I slumped in a corner, clearing my email and calling the office. Eventually a doctor came out and asked why I was there.

“I have appendicitis,” I replied.

“Really?” he said. “Did you self-diagnose on WebMD?”

“No,” I said. “I went to a radiologist. I have slides! Look at my slides.”

He did, and then he operated on me.

In recovery later that day, I realized my surgeon has the exact same problem I have: “Yeah, doc, I know you have a medical degree and 30 years of experience, but I’ve been reading WebMD and I think…”

Or in my case: “Yeah, Dave, I know you have an MBA and 30 years of investing experience, but I’ve been reading [pick one] Motley Fool/Zero Hedge/CNBC/TheStreet.com, and I think…”

What do I say when clients think they know more than I do?

At my firm, we work with executive families. Our clients are brilliant; many have advanced degrees from top universities. These clients have ascended to the pinnacles of their careers and are accustomed to being the smartest person in the room.

Trouble starts, though, when the clients confuse brilliance with experience. For the most part, the clients let us do our job, but every once in a while, we’ll get an order along the lines of:

  • “Buy Shake Shack in my account.”
  • “Put 50% of my assets in emerging markets.”
  • “Put 100% of my assets in cash! So-and-so says the sky is falling!”
  • “My 14-year-old has ideas for restructuring the portfolio.”

We could say, “That is a stupid idea. We are totally not going to do that.” But that approach leads to resentful clients who may take their resentment, and their account, to another adviser.

I prefer to use these requests as opportunities for education, laced with humor. Several clients asked us about the Shake Shack IPO in January. We showed them a simple metric: stock market capitalization divided by store count. We asked, “If Shake Shack is valued at $26 million per store and McDonald’s is valued at $2.6 million per store, do you think that the Shake Shack burger is ten times better than the McDonald’s burger?” That reality check then led us into a discussion of the risks and rewards of emerging growth stocks versus value stocks.

Clients have told me that picking stocks must be easy.

“Really?” I say. “Do you like to play poker?”

“Love playing poker,” comes the reply. “Every Saturday with my buddies.”

“Really? Do you ever go to Atlantic City and play with the pros?”

“Gosh, no! I’d get my eyeballs ripped out.”

“Really? You don’t have an edge in poker, but you think you do have an edge in stock picking, which is 10,000 times more complicated than poker? Really?”

I started investing at 17, so it’s not out of the question that a 14-year-old might have good ideas (though the same parents who think their child could manage their portfolio never allow that kid to drive their car). If a parent wants to involve a child, we’ll send that child several books on investing and instructions on how to “paper trade.” If the child is willing to paper trade for a year and show me the results, I’m willing to take his or her input. (That conversation hasn’t happened yet, but one day!)

Ultimately, there has to be a line we won’t cross. If a client starts sending daily orders, or even worse, jumping into his or her accounts and making trades without us, we have to fire the client. That is a no-win situation for us: Anything that goes well in the portfolio is because of the client’s brilliance, while anything that goes badly is our stupidity. We’ll set that client free to make room for clients who do respect our expertise.

———-

David Edwards is president of Heron Financial Group | Wealth Advisors, which works closely with individuals and families to provide investment management and financial planning services. Edwards is a graduate of Hamilton College and holds an MBA in General Management from Darden Graduate School of Business-University of Virginia.

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