FA Playbook

Here's what advisors are doing to help clients — and themselves — amid coronavirus volatility

Key Points
  • As markets careeen amid coronavirus-fueled economic volatility, financial advisors are at the eye of the storm.
  • Five members of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council share what they're telling clients, whether they're helping them reallocate and how the downturn is impacting their own fortunes.
Brandon Colbert Photography

As markets careen in response to a near-unprecedented public health crisis that's brought the U.S. economy to it knees, financial advisors are often the first place worried investors are turning — perhaps after favorite news outlets — for advice, information and solace.

While calming clients and working with them to shore up their investment portfolios, many advisors themselves, as small-business owners, are facing their own unique income and investment challenges.

We asked five certified financial planners, who are members of the CNBC Financial Advisor Council, what they're telling anxious clients, whether and how they're reallocating client portfolios and how they're faring as business people in their own right.

Are your clients worried? What are you advising?

Sophia Bera, founder and CEO of Gen Y Planning, Austin, Texas:  "A few reached out with initial concerns over the stock market. However, more are more worried about their small businesses or their employment than they are with their accounts. I've calmed a lot of fears and mostly by reassuring them that we did our best to prepare them for a market correction: They paid off debt, built up emergency savings and most of their investments are in their retirement accounts; ... we have decades before they will need to access this money."

Douglas Boneparth, president of Bone Fide Wealth, New York: "Fortunately, I can count on one hand the number of panic-stricken calls. Obviously, the last few weeks of the market rallying have soothed even those investors. As for what to say? I cut my teeth in 2008 and 2009, dealing with these types of calls throughout the day, every day, for a year.

"It's just assuring people that they can always think about the financial planning work that they've done. Think about the financial plan and know that these types of events are baked into a lot of the analysis that we do — especially when it comes to long-term goals. It's really just revisiting the foundation of the fundamental things that we have put into place, and that goes right back into financial planning."

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Lazetta Rainey Braxton, co-founder and co-CEO of virtual firm 2050 Wealth Partners "We wanted to stay in close communication with our clients. So we sent out an email alerting them that we're a virtual firm that's still available to them. We also sent out an email with a questionnaire with six questions asking about their current situation:

  • Is the pandemic currently negatively affecting your job(s) and earned income?
  • Can you foresee that it might or will in the near- or long-term future? If so, how?
  • Do you anticipate needing to provide financial support to any family member, friend or other individual resulting from the crisis? If so, please provide details.
  • Does this change the plans from your most recent financial planning conversations?  If so, how?
  • Do you believe you will need additional cash to meet unforeseen short-term spending needs, and if so, how much and when?
  • What other areas of concern do you have that we can address together?

"In that email, we also had a link to [our blog post on] the CARES Act, where we also did [a list of] comprehensive steps that you should take. We scheduled meetings for those who needed to speak with us if, based on the questionnaire, we thought it would be appropriate to schedule a meeting. We've also been having ongoing meetings, as well, with our clients. We were ahead of the curve with having a virtual practice, so there has been no disruption for us."

"Our clients were used to using the Zoom platform [with us] so that, in fact, helped them in their own businesses. We are looking at balance sheets making sure there's liquidity. We're also looking at their cash flow, budget and money rhythm statement to make sure about any adjustments that need to be made and then helping them negotiate with vendors, as well."

Ivory Johnson, founder of Delancey Wealth Management, Washington, D.C.:  "My clients are surprisingly calm, having survived the 2001 and 2008 crises. That said, they're further into retirement or closer to leaving the work force, and their threshold for sustained draw-downs are not without limits. Fortunately, I told them we were at the end of a business cycle before the virus affected the economy and so it did not take them completely by surprise."

Diahann Lassus, president and chief investment officer at Lassus Wherley, a subsidiary of Peapack-Gladstone Bank, New Providence, New Jersey:  "We are actively reaching out to our clients because we know people are concerned about Covid-19, the impact on their families, loss of jobs and income, and the impact on the economy and the financial markets. We always discuss making sure they have the cash they need and a continued focus on the long-term. Many of our clients lived through 2008-2009 and they recognize that staying invested is important in volatile markets like the one we are currently experiencing."

"The challenge for all of us is the number of moving parts we are dealing with, including the virus, our families, working from home and concern about the future. We believe you have to focus on what you can control.  We remind clients that we are incredibly resilient people and we will find a way to deal with the virus and ultimately work our way out of recession. In volatile times, it is always good to take a deep breath and remind ourselves why we are investing for the long-term."

Are you rebalancing/reallocating portfolios?

Bera: "I'm not reallocating clients portfolios right now, but Betterment is using the auto-rebalancing feature when they have swayed more than 3% from their target asset allocation."

Boneparth: "After we get over 'stay the course' and 'don't lock in losses or sell out,' we get into rebalancing back to target allocations — say, if you're an 80/20 or a 60/40 investor — helping clients identify when is a good time, whether that's right now or at a specific entry point. And an entry point is generally tied how far down the S&P 500 has gone. On March 23, we closed the market down about 33.5%. That's a pretty steep draw-down and we've come a long way since then; we're at about 17% right now. The point is to help clients identify at which point of a draw-down do you want to rebalance your portfolio back. If they don't have a preference, we'll help them identify one."

Caroline Purser | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

"There's an opportunity — and you need to be careful, because increasing your risk during uncertainty can be a precarious move. If you're comfortable and you have time on your side — I mostly focus on younger clients — going up in risk as the markets have come down significantly can be opportunistic. You're going to buy cheaper stocks with whatever bonds you have in your portfolio. That's opportunity No. 1."

"Opportunity No. 2 is, for those who have adequate liquidity, have a robust cash reserve of six to 12 months (beyond your ordinary three to six months). They can look to invest excess cash in a pretty discounted market. Those are all the steps we walk our clients through. But I can't emphasize enough being very careful to depart with liquidity, which is lifeblood for many people right now."

Braxton:  "In terms of reallocation of portfolios, we're keeping current with their investment plan. We're not tactical; we're strategic in our approach. For those who have cash available, we've been putting that to work. We are certainly rebalancing and looking at tax-loss reharvesting if it's appropriate. It's business as usual, pretty much, for us and making sure that our clients are where they need to be. The beauty of all of this is that we're able to say 'Now you see how your financial plan is at work for you, in good times and in challenging times' — which is quite rewarding."

During this type of volatility and uncertainty, a lot of people want to become financial planning clients.
Douglas Boneparth
president of Bone Fide Wealth

Johnson:  "I purchased two ETFs from Innovative ETFs that have a 9% buffer if the market declines and a cap of 16% on the upside. Outside of that, I realize that if you lose 25%, you'll need 33% to break even and I increased my cash position once the VIX breached 31, which suggests the range of outcomes makes stocks less predictable. I increased my gold position, as well and will reinvest the cash once the volatility settles down, purchasing sectors that outperform in a deflationary environment with slow economic growth."

Lassus:  "We continue to review portfolios and rebalance, both to make sure cash remains at the right levels in accounts and to bring asset classes such as US Small Cap Stock back within the bands. Small Cap stocks have suffered the largest losses and are more likely to be well below the target percentage in a portfolio."

"Our goal is to continue to buy at low prices to add to these asset classes. This strategy works for the long-term because it is a disciplined approach that forces us to buy low and sell high. So even if the financial markets go down more in the short-term, they will recover and those who have continued to rebalance will do well."

How is the coronavirus downturn affecting your own fortunes?

Bera: "It's been really interesting. I've lost four clients in the last four weeks but also gained two new clients during the same time. I've decided to waive a few monthly client fees for those clients who've been impacted the most by this crisis."

"I'm in the process of applying for a PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan for my own business and reaching out to clients about doing the same. I feel grateful that I'm in the position that I'm in and that my business hasn't taken a huge hit during this time and that I'm able to be there for my clients when they need it most."

Boneparth:  "I feel pretty good, all things considered. I think it's very circumstantial based on the advisors themselves and the way they built their businesses and their practice. We run a very lean shop; it's myself and one other employee. We both work from home two to three days per week anyway. We're fully tech-enabled, paperless, well collateralized as far as being able to withstand hits to [assets under management].  A lot of our business is financial planning fees, and there's been an increase in need for financial planning."

Josh Brown: How to protect your nest egg in volatile times

"During this type of volatility and uncertainty, a lot of people want to become financial planning clients — which is not dependent on AUM. So we've been able to mitigate a lot of the reduction in revenue based on AUM fees. I focus mostly on older millennials who have everything ahead of them. They aren't withdrawing assets. It's somewhat of a luxury to work with them, but that was all intentional because I started, in the early part of my career, seeing what happens when you deal with a mostly older clientele during system shocks like these."

Johnson:  "I can't speak to other businesses, but smaller shops have less cushion than the large firms. That said, I focus on what's right for the client more than my own bottom line because one drives the other. If I do right by them, chances are I'll come out of this intact."

Lassus: "The primary impact on our business, like many others, is the fact that most of us are working from home. We are very blessed to have a great team that has made a major shift in how we do business as seamless as you could possibly expect. Our technology has worked really well, with Microsoft Teams allowing us to have face-to-face video conversations with our team members and we have used Zoom for quite some time for client video conferences."

"With many of us working from home, communication has become even more important in terms of staying connected to our clients and staying connected to one another. There are always challenges, but we are all focused on the same objectives which are social distancing to slow down Covid-19, support our clients, our team and our families, and help bring our world back to as close to normal as we can."