Why women don't trust financial advice


If you are not a wine aficionado and your waiter recommends a pricey bottle, you can be forgiven for thinking it is more about netting a big tip than improving your meal.

The same thing apparently happens with women and financial advisors. More than 90 percent of the respondents to a recent survey said they felt financial services companies were more interested in selling them products than providing advice. 

They may be on to something. A 2015 discussion paper published by the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Germany found that in that market, financial advisors with a conflict of interest tend to provide worse advice to clients who appear unsophisticated. 

"In a perfect world, the solution to limited financial literacy would be to consult an independent, well-meaning and knowledgable financial advisor," the authors wrote. However, in reality, "consumers who appear to be more versed in financial matters receive better advice, on average," perhaps because the advisors realize that they are better able to go elsewhere for quality information.

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This is especially problematic for women and those with less education, and not just in Germany, said Tabea Bucher-Koenen, a senior researcher at the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging and an author of the study.  

"Independent of the cultural background and institutional background, women almost everywhere show a lower level of financial literacy compared to men," she said, and they voice less confidence in their financial knowledge, "The evidence we find indicates that advisors seem to tailor the quality of their advice to an estimate of the advisee's financial sophistication."

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The studies are appearing at a time of vigorous debate about standards for financial advising when people retire and move savings out of workplace retirement accounts. The Labor Department is readying a new rule that would require all advisors helping customers with those decisions to act solely in the customers' best interest. 

Currently, some advisors meet that standard, while others are only required to recommend "suitable" investments, which could come with higher commissions for advisors but also saddle clients with worse performance, higher fees or both. 

Advocates such as AARP and the Consumer Federation of America strongly favor the new rule, arguing that it provides important protections for investors. But opponents, many of them from the financial services industry, argue that the rule will prove unwieldy and unduly costly to implement, and could result in small investors' being closed off from personalized financial advice.

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The debate over the Labor Department regulation, which is widely known as the fiduciary rule, is unlikely to quiet any time soon. Implementation may take time, and some opponents, such as the United States Chamber of Commerce, have said legal action is a possibility.

However, if  Bucher-Koenen and her co-author, Johannes Koenen, an economist at the Ifo Center for Industrial Organisation and New Technologies, are correct, it may be in the firms' interests to adopt the new standards. 

"Certain types of monetary incentives such as sales bonuses or kickbacks may actually turn financial advisors (who have the advisee's interest in mind) into salespeople wanting to close a given deal," they wrote in an email. "A certain share of customers is going to notice that they are receiving problematic advice over time," and that would not bode well for the advisor-client relationship.

In the meantime, women could do themselves a favor by making sure they understand whether their advisors have conflicts of interest. It could make a bigger difference than they realize.