The Garrulous Jay – The Wrong Question

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The cover story in the Money section of a broadsheet newspaper last weekend ran with the headline: “Is your IFA really adding value to your portfolio?” I think this is the wrong question.

Imagine a parallel article in a medical journal that posed the question: “Is your doctor prescribing you the right antibiotics?”

Or perhaps a travel website that asked: “Is your travel agent choosing the best airline?”

All of these questions carry within them an assumption. Before prescribing any treatment a doctor would clearly wish to diagnose the condition that his or her patient was suffering from, and only then to decide if antibiotics were the answer.

Similarly, without knowing where the client wishes to go, whether they want to fly there, what their budget is and when they plan to travel, it would be impossible to answer the question posed by the fictitious travel website.

It is frustrating, therefore, to see an article in the consumer finance section of a newspaper fall into the same potential trap.

The implication is that the focus of financial advice should be investments, and within this investment performance. To be clear I absolutely believe that providing advice about investment choice should be at the heart of much, but by no means all, financial advice. I also think that investment performance can be part of how an advisor’s services are measured.

But I also think that anyone seeking the advice of a financial planner should expect, and indeed receive, a service that is far broader than that. Furthermore, I believe it is critically important to agree with any client the definition of “performance” to be used.

It is often presumed that investment performance should be measured against a benchmark, often a market index, ideally adjusted for costs. But this risks coming at things from the wrong end. I would argue that performance should actually be measured by the extent to which the goals agreed between client and adviser are achieved.

To truly measure whether a financial planner is adding value, one should ask the question: “Is your IFA really adding value to your financial wellbeing?”

Framed in this way the definition of wellbeing may be relatively narrow: for example, working with a client towards them being able to retire at 65 with an income of £50,000 a year. Or it may be far more nebulous, such as giving the client the peace of mind that comes with knowing their financial affairs are in good order and being looked after by someone they trust.

Seen in this way, the value proposition of the financial planner is about much more than just how their clients’ portfolios have performed against a benchmark or peer group, and more even than just their investment portfolio.

Of course these matter, but measuring value through investment performance alone is far too reductive and I would be nervous about using the services of a planner who placed this at the centre of their proposition.