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Valentine’s Day is about romance and personal relationships. It’s also big business.
CBS News reported that consumers plan to spend on average $193 celebrating the holiday. Valentine’s Day spending is expected to be $26 billion this year.
Imagine if fiduciary relationships had so much attention and as grand a budget.
In 2010, New York Times personal finance reporter, Tara Siegel Bernard, wrote a Valentine’s Day piece on what consumers should expect from a fiduciary.
Bernard’s headline (which I used to title this article) is playful; its principle is worthy. Healthy personal and professional relationships share key features. Care, loyalty, honesty and communications engender respect and trust.
For advisors, it starts with competence and integrity; for Valentine’s, loyalty and respect stand out. For both it requires and trust and integrity.
Tamar Frankel, professor of law emerita at the Boston University School of Law, put it this way: “Fiduciary and personal relationships are vital to the existence of a prosperous and happy society. Strong fiduciary duties are necessary for a market economy; good personal relationships for a healthy society. These relationships share certain features. Both require reliable and trustworthy behavior and are essential for society to flourish. Even the suspicion of a lack of trustworthiness is likely to undermine society.”
Valentine’s Day has taught the language of love for centuries. According to the official Wikipedia entry on Valentine’s Day, a British publisher issued The Young Man's Valentine Writer in 1797, “for the young lover unable to compose his own.”
Fiduciary language is not hard to compose.
Advisors spend time and resources learning to grow their firms, market their services, build great websites that attract prospective clients and make videos that zing.
But what about piercing consumer distrust of finance and financial advisors? Research shows consumer distrust remains stuck at 2009 levels.
At the recent FSI conference, Tom Reiman of J.D. Power reported that research showed that only 14% of consumers believe they get the comprehensive fiduciary planning and advice they want. Yet, the planning profession, with noteworthy exceptions like Tim Hockey, Mark Tibergien and Ric Edelman, typically deny that trust is even a problem.
When just 14% express satisfaction with their planner or advisor, language plays an outsized role. The impact of unclear or incomprehensible language deserves center stage. There is a need for an RIA advocacy focused on offering language to better explain fiduciary financial planning.
Too much advisor-client language is legal and technical and focused on process, products and returns. Too little is plain language, humans talking to humans about life, goals and relationships.
Fiduciary principles like equity are not as old as romance, but they are found in the writings of Aristotle. These principles are hardly Greek, though. They are common sense.
Language should fit the client and circumstances. Here’s one explanation a fiduciary advisor might use on Valentine’s Day to say what fiduciary means. It’s based on the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard Real Fiduciary™ Practices.
I act as a fiduciary and put your interests first at all times. I act with prudence and care.
This means I disclose all material facts in plain language. I avoid conflicts, if possible, disclose and manage unavoidable conflicts and minimize investing and planning costs.
Our services and fees and expenses will be communicated and explained transparently, clearly and simply. You will know the services we deliver and the fees you pay.
I believe you will understand and appreciate why we do what we do for you.
I will maintain a recognized designation with ongoing education.
I will put this statement in writing and sign it for you.
Plain language, clear action and honesty on fees matter more than advisors may assume.
The spirit of Valentine’s Day and trustworthy personal relationships are needed for a healthy society, as Professor Frankel reminds us. Given that $26 billion will be spent this year to reinforce these relationships, imagine if RIAs spent a tiny fraction of this to explain fiduciary relationships to the public.
Knut A. Rostad, MBA, is the co-founder and president of the Institute for the Fiduciary Standard, a nonprofit formed in 2011 to advance the fiduciary standard through research, education and advocacy.
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