When the financial crisis hit a decade ago this month, the first place many investors turned — understandably — was to their financial advisor.
Depending on the advisor, it was a stressful time, an exciting time or a little bit of both. For many, it was also educational. On the occasion of the 10-year anniversary of the dawn of the Great Recession, four members of the CNBC Digital Financial Advisor Council — all certified financial planners — share their memories of that time, how it impacted the business of financial advice and what takeaways still apply.
● Where were you? "I had officially just hung my shingle in July 2008 as a fee-only financial planner. It was an exciting time, because I was ready. When you're ready, as a new planner, you anticipate maybe business not picking up as fast as it could. So you have the reserves ready, to be able to make that transition.
That was a family decision, and worked out for me. And it relates to people, and financial planning, in general. When you have your rainy day funds set aside, they can support you if you need to defer taking money out from your retirement savings and let it grow some more because you have another pot of money you can pull from and have some flexibility."
● How did you advise clients? "When investments were not preforming well, actually feeling like they'd completely tanked, there were questions such as 'How am I going to live my life?' … [For] long-term investors, those who had more time on their horizon, it was just a matter of asking whether their investment plan matched time they had [to invest]? If so, don't panic.
For those who were right at retirement, we had some things to consider. If you were heavily weighted in equities, that's what took the hit. Those clients … had to defer their retirement or be prepared to take less in terms of income, meaning changing their retirement lifestyle and what they had envisioned."
"There was extreme panic, [a move to] safety in cash. Those who decided to just cash out missed the market rebound and now they have to consider working with a smaller nest egg — which is not desirable for anyone! You want the best bang for your buck when you're ready to take out your money."
● Any lessons learned? "I try to educate people on setting expectations that there are going to be ups and downs, that they'll happen in cycles, and you can't determine how long or short the cycles are going to be. What I am doing with clients now is saying 'It's unusual that we've had such a long-running bull market. It feels great; it feels very comfortable. But let's think about where you are right now, because what goes up must come down.'
The question for a lot of my clients – particularly the pre-retirees – is saying 'All right; we're on the upswing of equities being wonderful, but is this level really reasonable for your time horizon of when you need the money?'
Clients have every right to take the information I have given them and match it up with who they are, their risk tolerance and their sensitivity to the market. I really have to defer to the client and let them do their gut check. Because, as much as I can say, a lot of this is tied to emotion. I just try to give clients data points – diversification, time horizon, etc. – to offset their feelings."
● Where were you? "My entire team and I were in New York and had breakfast scheduled on Wall Street the Monday morning that Lehman Brothers failed. Interestingly enough, we were meeting with someone who was a senior person at AIG. We didn't end up having that breakfast; we had a very quick meeting instead, because this person was fielding calls internally and didn't know what the future held for their company, what might happen to their pension, stock options, etc. So, not only were we on Wall Street when it happened, we got to see people go through it firsthand. We didn't just watch it on TV. I looked into the eyes of people who were experiencing it."
"There are a couple of bear markets, or corrections, that people who are alive and saving have been through. In 2008, everything came down; it didn't matter whether you were a car company, a fertilizer company, a Home Depot; it didn't matter. Whereas during the tech bubble of 2001-2002, there were a whole slew of stocks and sectors that gained during that time. The crash of 1987, the emerging market crisis in long-term capital in 1998 — those were scary but short-lived. Most people don't realize the Dow's return for 1987 was positive. So, 2008 was more than just financial; there were just huge downsizings and layoffs and companies that no longer exist."
● How did your clients react? "Anytime you have a downturn like that, and scary times in the financial markets — and this one was unique compared to most bear markets — you can actually see how people reacted financially. Did they make moves? Did they do things differently that weren't part of the plan? Did they build up a safety net? You can actually see what people's actions were.
People can say that 'if this happens, then here's how I will react,' but we saw it happen, so we can actually look at the facts and see what people actually did. Some people did nothing and moved on; with other people, spouses had to go back to work and other people got out of the industry."
● Any lessons learned? "I think what people worry about, and it's a valid concern, is whether the next downturn, or bubble bursting, within an area of the economy will be contagious or be contained. Has financial advice changed since 2008? Absolutely, and you should call out anyone who says otherwise. It had to change, if you lived through .
It's the idea that when people have confidence in a particular stock, sector or asset class, you really need to point out that that confidence has been there in the past in other areas and that can quickly change. I am trying to be realistic as far as setting expectations. I remember somebody saying once that if Fannie Mae disappears, we might as well be invested in hardhats and batteries. That's going back 25 years. Well, it didn't disappear, but its stock was close to wiped out.
It's important that we are realistic as far as the role that confidence plays in asset prices. The challenge today is that I'm getting a sense that more people are less worried about the down side than worrying about missing out on the gains that exist."
"There wasn't a lot of good to come out of 2008-2009. But, while I have more gray hair than I would otherwise have had, what I think was helpful to the fiduciary or independent portion of the industry was [the notion] that bigger isn't always better.
The competitive advantage some of these large brokerage firms that imploded had had from their size was no longer an asset. I think that many independents and fee-only advisors have an easier time sharing their portion of our collective story."
● Where were you? "I can't think of a more stressful time in my life or career than that period. As an aside I always was chair of NAPFA [The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors] that year, so it was really interesting. But the reality is that, for most advisors who worked with clients and developed relationships, 2008 was a very scary year because, no matter how much you believed you were doing the right thing, in the back of your mind you're worried about the people you worked with and cared about.
The reality was that the stress level for me and for most advisors was really off the charts, trying to make sure we did the right thing and help our clients as much as we could."
● Any lessons learned? "One of the things that really hit home during that period was that the clients we spent a lot of time educating – about diversification, why it's important, why we do management vs. maximizing returns, why we run scenarios that look at worst-case-type things – those clients did very well.
They obviously were still stressed but they dealt with the situation really well because they really understood what we were trying to do. For us, what it said was we needed to spend more time making sure that we continued to emphasize the importance of the things we thought could help clients deal with [any] environment.
Our top recommendation for how to invest wisely? Diversify, diversify, diversify — actually that's the Top 3. Communication is absolutely critical. During that period — even now, when the market has been going up for so long — communication is still essential because clients need to understand what you're thinking."
"I've never been a big fan of using cash as an asset class or keeping tons of cash set aside, but one of the things that really hit home for me was just the simple process of raising cash and putting it aside helped people sleep at night. So that's a tool that we used very effectively at that time, and we've continued to.
When a client is nervous about the market or has a lot of questions around that, then that's what you do: You raise some extra cash, and that gives them their peace of mind."
● Given today's bull market, what else are you advising? "Here's the thing about humans: What we do is when the world around us is doing a certain thing, such as the market going up, our brain builds in this dynamic that says it's going to go up forever – until it doesn't. And then we flip.
The question is, how long does it take for you to flip? The market tanked in 2008-2009 but recovery was pretty fast actually, two-and-a-half to three years, depending on whether you stayed in the market. But how long did it take your brain to flip to the plane of thinking that the market's going to go up forever, instead of going down forever? For some people, it took a very long time. Some stayed in the market, managed to close their eyes and not look at or shred their statements and did fine.
Other people jumped out of the market, stayed out and may still be out. It's the people who flipped quickly to the camp of 'the market's going to go up forever' who may be looking to get more aggressive in terms of putting more money in equity. It's really is about keeping these people centered and reminding them that what happens short-term is exactly that: short-term."
"The clients who are expressing real concerns are worried about the political situation and what sort of impact that might have on the markets. Trade tariffs, quick decisions being made without looking at the possible repercussions — that's what they're really worried about. I would suggest that the economy is better positioned today [than in 2008].
The concern I'm hearing from clients – and I won't use the language they use – is whether [politicans] are actually going to roll back all the regulations put in place after the crash to keep it from happening again. We do have a lot of conversations with clients around that. A lot of clients are now 10 years older and may feel they won't have the time to get it all back if something similar happens again."
● Where were you? "If you ask what's one of the first pictures to come to mind, it's not looking at a computer screen or seeing a particular number on the Dow or anything like that. It's driving into work and wondering which company that survived the Great Depression was going to go belly up that day … [and] if indeed the financial system itself was really going to implode.
The moment that was most prescient, that most people never even knew happened, was when we learned the reserve fund had actually 'broken the buck.' That didn't necessarily make headlines for consumer consumption but we in the industry knew that that was the moment: If something didn't happen right then, then we were about to revisit a Depression Era-level market meltdown."
"As a wealth management firm, we were trying to be very proactive. We were in somewhat of a better situation, because we'd always had an education bent and a, let's say, slightly more aggressive risk-management philosophy. It was impossible for anyone to elude the headlines and the emotions that go with those headlines and so it was certainly both a proactive and a reactive time that was … very active. They were not boring days."
● Any lessons learned? "One word that jumps to mind is 'relationship.' I think that if your relationship with clients is merely dispassionate education and communication, you're missing out on the opportunity both to enjoy your work more and also to more deeply connect with your clients. I remember being told very early on in my career that advisors really need to separate clients from their emotions, that that was our job.
But what we've learned from the field of behavioral finances is that that is biologically impossible and not even necessarily to anyone's advantage. Indeed, that emotional core within us, when well informed and engaged, can actually be the most powerful source of resolve and that's what we need to make it through those times."
"There's another conviction I already had when 2008-09 came, that's even more underscored now as I look back. Behavioral economics research screams out that people feel the pain of loss twice as powerfully as the joy of gain. That's the literal ratio. It hurts twice as much when markets go down as it makes us happy when markets go up. When we navigate discussions around risk tolerance, I think that as financial advisors we actually have a duty to acknowledge the science and err on the side of conservatism.
It seems to me that the financial industry, on the whole, has tried to overly impress its prospective clients with the notion that, if you work with us, we can make you more money. But why not ask the question, in the work that we do, how little risk can you take and still achieve your goals? I can't tell you how much it hurt to see a [new] client come through the door who'd worked with a typical advisor … preaching an overextension to market risk and had then sold at the perfectly wrong time.
And, because of the impact that had had on them — it cut so deeply on an emotional level — they were never willing to expose themselves sufficiently to risk [again]. So the fact that the market did come back doesn't mean that most investors enjoyed that return to market highs."
● Is there already societal amnesia about 2008? "I don't think it's societal amnesia, and frankly I don't think it's political, although it's made out to be. It's not any particular administration. I think that what it really is industry-based. The financial industry has long fought to avoid having to actually be fiduciaries for their clients.
Why is it that anybody would think a financial advisor shouldn't be a fiduciary, especially when that's the image that they're portraying in all the marketing they do? It's just pure profit motive over the best interests of the client, [and] that's the only thing that it ever has been. And everyone once in a while it catches a wave of political support or decline. The finance industry holds onto its profit as long as it possibly can, and you have to basically rip it out of its iron-like grip."