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How Professional Biases Can Cloud Your Judgment

Advisors have to be aware of their own biases in order to guide clients effectively.

Justin A. Reckers and Robert A. Simon, 07/21/2011

The day-to-day operations of an investment advisor, financial planner, or wealth manager are complicated by incessant and unrelenting information overload, constant trials of our competency, and powerful tests of will. You are tasked with the management of other people's financial matters. You are asked to earn competitive returns and never book losses. You are required to insure your advice is suitable for your clients and in their best interests.

In your discharge of these tasks and obligations, you have developed opinions over time--some rooted in education, others in experience. So what happens when your professional guidance becomes the barrier to economically rational financial decision-making for your clients? You are not a crook or out to do damage. You live by the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. You read all of the research you can get your hands on. You watch CNBC and Bloomberg to make sure nothing gets past you. You maintain a fiduciary standard for all of your clients and keep up on your continuing education. So how could you be leading your clients into economically irrational financial decisions? Your professional biases can be the most powerful of all.

In previous articles, we have stressed the importance of self determination, informed consent, and a fiduciary standard of care in the professional financial advisory world. As architects of decision-making, these should be your main goals, but you also have to be aware of your own biases in order to guide your clients effectively to this end.

Professional biases come in all shapes and sizes. Just as clients exhibit aversion to loss, so do their advisors. It is incumbent upon the professional investment advisor to understand this and build a disciplined process for constantly monitoring and analyzing the performance of client assets without attaching emotional value to market performance. One of the most important roles of a professional investment advisor is to remove emotion from investment decisions. Some clients are completely unable to do so. Investment advisors have it as their job description.

You all know how much easier it is to deal with your aversion to loss in bull markets, but what happens in bear markets when your clients have lost money? Everyone lost money in 2008 and 2009. We have heard many advisors comment about how much more difficult their job had been during the Great Recession. Their will was tested, their investment discipline either hardened or destabilized, and in many cases client loyalty has come to the forefront.

Whether you are a buy-and-hold manager or an active one, your client review meetings have probably included many questions such as: Where is the bottom? When will we get out? In the buy-and-hold world, your answer is probably dictated only by change of time horizon because your discipline tells you to always be invested. Your job in the review meetings is to be the voice of economic rationality and deter your clients from making emotional decisions. But what if you also have an aversion to loss? Do you find yourself questioning your investment discipline? It was hard to watch the S&P 500 lose 56% in 2008 and 2009. Even the most hardened buy-and-hold advocates were tested.

We suggest using investment policy statements to clearly delineate downside risk tolerance and processes for evaluating the performance of investments. Writing it down commits your discipline to contract and removes much of the emotional connection. We suggest having checks and balances in place through an investment policy committee or board of advisors. Even the strongest willed advisors can be affected by temporary economic irrationality if left alone. Maybe even join a practice group through your local financial planning association. 

Confirmation bias is another common professional bias for financial advisors. Confirmation bias is the tendency for advisors to seek and rely upon information that confirms their preconceived notions regardless of whether it is true. This bias is particularly strong in situations where advisors have attached significant value to large issues and established beliefs. Advisors can end up anchoring upon their established beliefs and refuse to receive or test the possibility that other options even exist.

Justin A. Reckers, CFP, CDFA, AIF is director of financial planning at Pacific Wealth Management www.pacwealth.com and managing director of Pacific Divorce Management, LLC www.pacdivorce.com, in San Diego.

Robert A. Simon, Ph.D. www.dr-simon.com is a forensic psychologist, trial consultant, expert witness, and alternative dispute resolution specialist based in Del Mar, Calif.

The author is a freelance contributor to MorningstarAdvisor.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.
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