You Should Know Your Clients Better

I have a loyal follower and friend in South Africa. Sipho Nzimande. He not only reads these articles but comments and emails me interesting things from time to time. One of those emails came on Monday this week and I think it addresses a valuable point. It is from a South African Financial service magazine and refers to a Morningstar Study.

Do Your Clients Expectations Align With Yours

I think we all believe they do, but sadly NO!

The Morningstar study

You can get a copy of the summary from Morningstar. You must give them a little information about yourself, nothing onerous, and then they will email you an 8 page outline of the study. Page 5 has a graphic displaying the disconnects.

The best fit is communciation ranked 3rd in value by clients and 4th by advisors. The worst. Help me maximize my returns 4th by clients, 14th by advisors. I think advisors must be missing something here.

The study

I have no knowledge of the way the study was conducted but I believe Morningstar tries to do a good job.

These are the parameters they used and asked advisors and clients to rank them by importance.

  1. Helps me stay in control of my emotions
  2. Has a good reputation and positive reviews
  3. Is knowledgeable on tax consequences of investing
  4. Can help me maximize my returns
  5. Is approachable and easy to talk to
  6. Helps me reach my financial goals
  7. Is easy to get a hold of
  8. Has a clear fee structure so I know what I’m paying for
  9. Understands me and my unique needs
  10. Uses up-to-date technology
  11. Acts as a coach/mentor to keep me on track
  12. Presents themselves in a professional manner
  13. Keeps my interests in focus with unbiased advice
  14. Communicates and explains financial concepts well
  15. Has the relevant skills and knowledge

I don’t know about you but I would have trouble doing that task. It is hard for me to picture the 15th most important anything. I find ranking 5 parameters to be challenging and probably would have done this on the basis of the first 5 and the rest in more or less random order. In any case, it is a worthy exercise for you to see your side and the other side.

The match technique is a powerful marketing tool.

I know the idea has been used by PWC because one of my sons worked there and they used the technique to find disconnects. It helped them to design programs to change the metrics for the client.

One of their studies was for a large bank on the question of customer satisfaction. Percent of customers satisfied by a given product. The question asked of employees and client is in the form what percentage of customers will say they like this product. The average expectation from the bank employes was around 80%. When the customers were surveyed, according to my son, “We found the other 20% of the satisfaction.”

The disconnect was so great they had trouble making recommendations.

If you think clients will rank “Can help me maximize my returns” 14th, you may have the same problem. Please give it some thought.

A place to begin.

Start from your strengths that match. Like coaching, educating, helping control emotions, stay on track and such. Educate them about maximized yield and how managers do that, not you. Part of the disconnect here is the clients don’t actually know what you do. Your fault.

You can sign on to Morningstar here to get their survey report. It is worth the trouble and there may be more to come.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

It’s Good To Be Skillful. It’s Better To Be Lucky

“Almost all millionaires are hard-working, but every billionaire is lucky.” – Nick Maggiulli

  • Google was offered to Yahoo for less than a million dollars. Current market value $905 billion. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were lucky.
  • Salesforce was offered to Microsoft for $75 million and turned down. Current market value $143 billion. Marc Benioff was lucky.
  • Microsoft was offered to IBM for $30 million and turned down. Current market value $1.1 trillion. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Ballmer were lucky.

Having someone say no is not always a bad thing.

Luck plays a part in life

It is not always clear when it is happening though.

Part of the reason is we use thinking models and as with all models, they do not produce necessarily right answers. No matter how carefully you build it and no matter how rigorously you adjust it to changing conditions there is a meaningful likelihood a model is wrong.

Judging models

Models can be judged accurate by how often they produce a sigma event larger than some threshold. Sigma is a measure of how far from the middle of the normal distribution the probability of the event lies.

For example, using Stanford Binet testing for IQ, the probability of a person having a result 4 sigma to the good is about one in 65 thousand. Roughly an IQ of 150. Extremely rare and the test is questionably valid at that range.

Four sigma events are unusual. Six sigma is the ideal in quality control. One in two billion.

If a rare event occurs you have two choices. Take the event at face value and carry on, or assume there is a defect in the model.

If you are seeing high sigma values, the odds are immensely in favour of the model being the problem. Treat every high sigma as a sign to reassess.

Think about this

If we are tossing a coin and heads comes up 20 times in a row, what is the probability for the next toss? The model says 50-50, but can you realistically use that. My advice to a grandson studying probability was this, “If you see 20 consecutive heads, you have seen a one in a million situation if your model is right. The probability is you should examine the coin.”

I know people who would have been examining the coin by the time three heads came up.

Now think about stock market models

The October 1987 crash was a 20.98 sigma event. That has no meaning. It could not have happened, but it did, and so the model has a defect.

Similarly in 2008 There were several days with events greater than 10-sigma. 10 sigma is about one in 1.5 times 10^23. Slightly less than one in a billion billion million. The credit default swap market for AAA commercial real estate had a 23 sigma event in July 2007.

Sometimes smart people build models that cannot fail. Remember Long Term Capital Management. Their model relied on high sigma values.

“According to their models, the maximum that they were likely to lose on any single trading day was $45 million—certainly tolerable for a firm with a hundred times as much in capital. According to these same models, the odds against the firm’s suffering a sustained run of bad luck—say, losing 40 percent of its capital in a single month—were unthinkably high. (So far, in their worst month, they had lost a mere 2.9 percent.) Indeed, the figures implied that it would take a so-called ten-sigma event—that is, a statistical freak occuring one in every ten to the twenty-fourth power times—for the firm to lose all of its capital within one year. R. Lowenstein, “When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management,” Random House, 2001, pp. 126–127.”

They did of course lose all their capital and it took a lot less time than a year. Why? Because they deemed some events to be impossible, but as it turned out they were possible. Just never happened before. In Quantum Physics, Edwin Schroedinger pointed out that unless an event is specifically prohibited, it will sooner or later happen. Same thing in simpler things like the stock market.

And yet, we continue to use models that are reasonably accurate, but defended as if absolutely accurate. The tiny differences and the tiny probabilities of deviation are where the real money is earned. High Alpha is possible, just not common. To be a billionaire, you must be lucky. Maybe you committed heavily to more than one low probability event.

They are there and you can look for them.

Black Swans

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book “The Black Swan” provides some insight into the puzzle. It is not a recipe book, but it is worth the trouble to buy and read. Betting successfully on highly improbable events looks like luck, but maybe it isn’t.

There is meaning in highly improbable events whether in the stock market, the casino, or in life. At worst, the study of those events helps us understand the more common.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

Get It Right In Your 20s And Life Is Easier

Getting your financial life right in your 20s is not as hard as music theory but it doesn’t come to be without effort. Fortunately, the effort is merely the application of common sense and discipline. You can do that.

3 things to know

1) Avoid unnecessary debt

Debt reduces your available money in the future. Beware of debt that not only consumes future income but does not buy assets that produce income. By that idea reasonable student debt is good debt. Student debt of $40,000 that acquires skill and training worth a starting salary of $40,000 must be studied in context. Five times the debt to acquire a “prestigious” degree for a 20% greater beginning salary should be sufficient cause on the part of the recruiter to dismiss you from consideration. It shows your planning ability to be minimal.

All debt that produces no income or no cost reduction is bad debt. Especially lifestyle debt

Recall Pip in Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, “So now, as an infallible way of making little ease great ease, I began to contract a quantity of debt.” That’s a disqualifying attitude.

2) Understand lifestyle better

Lifestyle is about consumption. Living well, but within your income, will avoid the Pip abyss, but it is just as wrong. People who live too well, tend to want to do it forever. Looking out a decade or so, life will be very different and the bad habit of living well will become supported by the Pip Plan.

Don’t set your life up for misery. Dickens character Mr. Micawber, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Living well can be a trap. Think it through.

Lifestyle has components you can categorize. Necessary, preferred, and luxuries. Food, shelter, a phone, internet connection, and transportation are required for most of us. Modest vacations, entertainment, a new car, and charitable donations, are preferred. The best cell phone, the high priced cable packages, the meals at great restaurants, any impulse purchase, and Armani suits are luxuries.

Be wary of committments that, while not debt, are ongoing. Check you credit cards for preauthorized payments that, if asked, you might not make today. Small expenditures are hard to manage because they seem not to matter. They do. Put all auto-renew payments on the “bill me” basis.

3) Have a saving component.

Life is uneven. Sometimes you will need a cushion. Retirement may be too abstract yet. At least, you should start the savings habit. How much should be set aside is an individual choice. I think for a new graduate something over 30% is minimum. It constrains lifestyle and it is easier when you are not accustomed to spending a lot each month.

What to do with it is a separate discussion. Some of it should be invested. Even a little will help you understand the investing idea. Hopefully you will lose some and learn how that affects you. Most of it should be directed to reducing debt. Your financial life should have no footprints by the time you are 30. Saving, investing, controlling lifestyle, and avoiding debt are important tools to help you be financial responsible throughout life.


  1. Get to the front of the pack early. Coming from behind is fun but not a great life plan.
  2. Look for meaning. Learn to think of your finances as a limit. If you want a higher limit it’s necessary to produce more or the same for longer. You can control the upside but must make the effort.
  3. In the beginning most planning is guessing. It is certain to be wrong but still useful. Another skill that requires development. Learn how when the mistakes are not too costly.
  4. Learn the 3 Rs. Record, Review and Revise. Have a plan with clear expected outcomes. Write it down and write down the reasoning that supports it. Review results at regular intervals. Where the outcomes vary from the plan, update your knowledge, and revise your plan if you can see an improvement.
  5. Financial things are not the most important thing in your life plan. They will however, dislodge your other plans quicker than any other component.

Good financial planning is just housekeeping in the broad scheme of what matters. Take care of it though.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

Life Insurance Solves More Problems Than You Know

I am often asked for opinion about the efficacy of a particular life insurance program someone else has created. Usually with the opening position “They don’t need it.”

Most of the concern arises from people who do not have a complete understanding of what good there may be in life insurance.

Reason #1 – to replace a person’s income

Almost everyone needs to replace the value of their career early in their lives. We have the greatest liabilities in our lives by about age 35. Education, home mortgage, car loans, young children, and growing career value.

An organizational psychologist told me that people are most conservative in their mid-30s. Why? Because they area at risk and need the system to be predictable for them. Life insurance is one of the predictability tools. It is inexpensive at these ages and fills a low probability / high cost need.

This need may last to the end of the earning period.

If you have an employer pension you might discover if death occurs shortly before retirement the present value fo the pension at age 65 is vastly greater than the commuted value to be received at death. There can be a significant hole to fill for spouses’s retirement. Check.

Reason #2 – To provide liquidity in the estate.

If your estate includes non-liquid assets like rental properties, a business, even a vacation home, it can be challenging to find the cash to cover the checks payable for estate costs, specific bequests, and especially income taxes or estate taxes.

There are exactly four ways to get cash into an estate. Two of them the executor controls. Borrow and sell. Both these solutions are costly. Usually the loss to income taxes is magnified by the costs and discounts required to sell or the non-tax deductible interest and the extra time it will take to wind up the estate while security is in place for a loan.

The other two are within your control. Own predictable liquid assets. Money Market Funds, perhaps. Market related funds may not help. They may be down when you need the money. Suppose a person had died 1 March 2009. The estate would be gutted. Owning MMFs or short term deposits, produce little interest income, taxed at top rates with no deferrals. There is a huge opportunity cost.

Life insurance is the least costly in terms of its effect on the estate. Owning properly chosen, permanent life insurance can provide the liquidity required and it will provide a yield to the estate equivalent to a low risk, short term investment returning over 4% after taxes if you live to be very old.

The need for estate liquidity deals with estate costs, which are usually significant. It is a mistake to stop planning once they have been minimized. Never overlook the cost to make the cash available.

Reason #3 – to provide security for a second spouse or disabled child

It is not uncommon for a second marriage to mean the estate cannot be transferred to children in a timely way after the death. An example, male age 70 remarries a female aged 55. On a probability basis, there will be at least a 20-year span from father’s death to estate settlement in favour of his children. If the estate assets must be used to supply ongoing lifestyle income, the children wait.

If a disabled child must be protected, the estate may be tied up a long time.

Life insurance can provide a useful asset-producing advantage that minimizes the time to deal with other estate assets.

Reason #4 – as part of a planned giving program.

Suppose a couple aged 60 decide, at their second death, they would like to make a $1,000,000 mark on the wall at their local hospital. They could cause liquidity problems for the executors, or they could systematically solve the problem with a second-to-die life insurance policy. The price for that would be around $15,000 per year. To duplicate the result with $15,000 per year, using bonds paying 3% pretax, one of them would need to live 66 years. A vanishingly small probability.

AND here in Ontario, the million dollar donation could shield up to $530,000 in estate income taxes.

Reason #5 – tax advantaged accumulation of assets.

Life insurance is a Type II tax shelter. In those, capital is not deductible but income is untaxed until withdrawn. Deferral is a powerful advantage. For example $1,000 invested at 4% with tax due each year will become $2,200 in 40 years. With tax deferred, it becomes $4,800 with accrued tax of $1,900 payable, so $2,900 in hand. Nearly one third more. Using universal life as the tool, if a death occurs the interest earned would be untaxed in the estate. You must withdraw it while living to trigger the tax.

To get the same answer with conventional investments you need 5.4% after tax0 and that is not going to be a riskless investment. About 8% pretax to get $4,800 in the estate.

Reason #6 – to defeat the tax grab of using your own money to invest in a business.

If you have money to invest inside a business corporation and do so, you tax costs are maximized. If you use the money to pay insurance premiums and borrow against the insurance policy, the net effect is more wealth for you.

Moral of the story.

A single fact-vector seldom addresses the possible value of life insurance. If your facts stop with replace income, you will miss most of the opportunities.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

Losing Is The Beginning Of Winning

Winning is not a thing, it is a state of being. We can learn from ancient philosophers.

I find the Stoics to be helpful. Their view of the world erases the superficial. We are supposed to be here, we are supposed to be happy, we are supposed to respect the universe.

Zeno of Citium

The founder of Stoicism 300 BC

“Nothing is more hostile to a firm grasp on knowledge than self-deception”

“Well-being is attained little by little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.”

“All things are parts of one single system, which is called nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with nature.”


350 years later

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.”

“A wise man is he who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

“No great thing is created suddenly.”

Marcus Aurelius

450 years later.

He was the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He found time away from his duties to be a reknowned Stoic philosopher.

“A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.”

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”

“Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Albert Ellis

2,250 years later

Ellis was a psychologist so technically not a philosopher. Nonetheless, some of his thoughts sound like the Stoics

“There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy.”

“Rational beliefs bring us closer to getting good results in the real world.”

“Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it’s conditional.”

The Desiderata

2,250 years later

“Desideratum” is something that is needed or wanted. Desiderata is the plural.

The poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann includes many Stoic ideas. Emphasis added.

GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


Stoicism is enduring because it emphasizes understanding ourselves and the world around us. Facts, rational thought, and gratitude are its tools.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

The Government Part Of Context Restricts Your Wealth

What does it take to energize an entire country? It is certainly not a simple thing. As Epictetus claims, “No great thing is created suddenly.”

The 1994 American election might be the exception to slow change.

Sometimes there are inflection points we can find and we see what they means by paying attention. In a recent post, Investment Success is More Than Numbers, I wondered what happened in 1994 to cause the stock market in the US to suddenly rise and asked for input. I received none, but I think there is a candidate for the change.

This is the graphic:

Ne Gingrich and the Contract With America

In the autumn of 1994, the Republican party led by Newt Gingrich gained control of the House of Representatives. It was the first time in 42 years. The Contract with America was a legislative plan that intended to:

  1. Improve safety, both in the country and externally
  2. Tax reform
  3. Encourage family structure,
  4. Amend the structure of tort law.
  5. Encourage the development of businesses

In short to refine and build on Reagan’s dreams.

Today, the markets are at high point. The VIX is at near historic lows. People are not stressed about the future. Optimism that governments will interfere less is good for values.


Governments and their intentions are a material part of context. Governments influence all our lives and in ways we do not always fully understand. Much of what we think we know comes to us through filters and is usually incomplete and sometimes intentionally wrong.

When investing we cannot overlook the fact of government. You do not need to notice their specifics but their theme matters. Handing much control back to the people as Gingrich offered is attractive; hopeful even. The market corrects for the changed vision.

When governments place obstacles in the way of carrying out our reasonable activities we are less hopeful and that also is reflected in the stock market.

Is the market too high now?

It is if all you see is the number that reflects the index or other factors. Even the P/E ratio is too high against historic standards. Gold is up, usually a negative. Interest rates are low but unstable.

All true, but will those cause a crash or are they just background noise?

The P/E Ratio is high but still cheap given bonds as the alternative use for the money.

What troubles me

I am not too concerned that the market is foolishly high. I am concernd that the “progressive” movement may be gaining strength. Success for those would reverse the positive effect we saw in 1994 when government philosophy turned toward growth and away from increasing regulation and extracting tax money from the people.

While not a fan of “loud and vexatious” people, I must notice the current president has done a great deal to fix burdens needlessly imposed by his predecessors.

The Washington Examiner in October 2018 listed 289 accomplishments. None of those involved new government regulations or departments. Bureaucracy is what kills initiative in the private sector. You can see the accomplishments list here. You will not find the list on CNN or MSNBC. The media are busy being obstructive.

President Trump’s approach is to clear obstacles and the impediments to the citizen’s success. The optimism that results is positive for investments. If the zeitgeist changes to sacrifice and costly regulation, be out of the market.

Pay Attention

Remember Britain’s Law. You shouldn’t panic but when you must panic, panic first.

The market depends heavily on how people think about it. Anticipate how that’s changing. Act early. The chaos from the old ways will have catastrophic effects.

In Canada, the federal election confirmed the old and repudiated the idea of a government allowing its citizens to make their own decisions. That will not end well for investors.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

I Love Buying But Am Not Good At Selling

I have a friend who is a successful retail operator. He claims you make all the money when you buy, selling is just a nuisance. He has an ecclectic inventory.

I sometimes wonder how he survives but must admit he is very good at finding deals.

Investing has many parts.

The most obvious are buy, sell and hold. Most of us are not excellent at all three parts.

If we are good at just one of them it will be like my friend. The buy part. Buying is energizing. New toy. Widened experience. Fashionable. Complete analysis. Careful projection of future possibilities. Context. All in all, buying is offense and offense is fun.

The sell and hold part. Boring! Must ‘fess up to mistakes and who likes that? The only time some people sell is when they need cash to buy something exciting. Hold is postponable analysis, so maybe I’ll think about it tomorrow.

All three are the same decision.

They just look different. The same decision part addresses outcomes. Each is a decision to have a particular security or the cash it could be exchanged for. In the buy decision you have cash then the security. In the hold or sell case, you have the security and then the cash.

In each case, your decision represents a preference. The cash vs the investment

Since the decision is always the same, except for income tax effects, the analysis is always the same too.

The casual hold situation is like picking 3 on a 1 to 5 scale. It is meaningless. No decision.

A decision to hold is the same as a decision to buy at that price. Cash or security? A decision to hold is not usually analyzed the same way as a decision to buy and is therefore weaker. If you would not buy more at the after tax price presented, you should sell.

A decision to sell is finding the NO! answer when analyzing to see if you should buy the security at the price offered.

It should also happen whenever you decide another security is fundamentally better.

What happens if you don’t do it?

If you don’t know how to make a rational buy decision you are already in trouble so let’s suppose you do know. Buying then is well handled and only changing factors in your assumption set will trigger action.

If you don’t apply the buying discipline to hold and sell decisions two conditions result.

  1. I sold too soon. Selling at a profit seems riskless. It is if you ignore opportunity costs. Another friend, now deceased, bought Denison Mines in the ’50s for 35 cents a share. He sold it at 70 cents because no one ever went broke taking a profit. Fifteen years later it was over $100 per share. The fundamentals when he sold were better than they were when he bought it.
  2. I kept a stock that was down in hope it would recover. Sometimes they do and if your buy analysis makes sense you should keep what you have and buy more. The inability to own up to a loss hurts many investors. No original analysis remains right forever. Update regularly and keep track of what you used to decide. Recall the wisdom of Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, Prussian general and military theorist. “No plan survives first contact with the main body of the opposing force.” Never trust your buy decision to remain perfect.

The final word.

Canadian fund manager Ira Gluskin has pointed out the problem in very clear terms.

“If you sell your winners for a small profit and keep you losers with the hope they will recover, you will eventually own every dog that hits the floor of the exchange.”

Be disciplined at all three parts of the investment decision.

I help business owners, and professionals understand and manage risk and other financial issues. To help them achieve their goals, I use tax efficiencies and design advantages to acquire more efficient income and larger, more liquid estates.

Please be in touch if I can help you. 705-927-4770

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