Consider a hypothetical popular financial adviser with $30 million in investable assets. Her (or his) primary clients may average $500,000 of liquid reserves ready to be directed in any manner as instructed. The typical advice these clients may receive likely involve investing mostly in equities through stock index funds. They have low expenses and are poised to provide decent returns with average risk. This advice may include special consideration of asset allocation, with a slide towards lower risk once in retirement to help provide more reliable income while maintaining capital.
This is sensible advice for the average client, though a financial adviser has the responsibility to tailor his advice to the client’s unique situation.
Let’s take a look inside the portfolio of a $30 million adviser. In fact, it just so happens we have some details on one particular famous financial adviser with television and radio shows, books, and a strong brand image, so let’s use her portfolio as reported in 2007.
Suze Orman has a liquid net worth of $25 million, which doesn’t include her $7 million in real estate. Only $1 million, or 4% of her liquid net worth, is in equities. Suze, whose advice is over-simplified and dumbed down to be understood by the most idiotic of callers and is usually accompanied by “motivational” words of empowerment bordering on mean, doesn’t follow her own advice. Far from it. As of 2007, Suze invests almost exclusively in municipal bonds, favoring “safe,” lower returns over the risk of the stock market. Out of her entire portfolio, Suze invests only what she can afford to lose in equities.
Does her asset allocation and refusal to follow her own rules mean she is a bad financial adviser? While there may be several reasons to seek personal advice elsewhere, her own portfolio isn’t one of these reasons. Her advice is not directed at people with $25 million to invest. While some of the general tenets of her advice, like pay off debt, spend less than you earn except in some circumstances, and avoid costly commissions, hold true universally, some of the specifics like asset allocation are directed toward a certain type of client.
Suze’s personal choice makes some sense. With $25 million, you can afford quite a bit of flexibility. With $24 million in bonds, you may be generating a yearly income of $720,000. (Add to that seminars, royalties, appearance fees, and endorsements, and you’re doing pretty well.) One might levy criticism that she is not securing the future for her heirs, but I’m not convinced of that argument. Personally, I have no idea if Suze has any heirs or future plans, but I would think that she would want to do something with her accumulation when she dies, either provide for a family or provide for a foundation. And I would also think that she wants to build as much as possible to do the most she can to help whatever cause she chooses. So in that sense, she may not be doing all she can to allow her funds to grow.
But her current wealth puts her in a position where she can still reach her goals, and give herself a better *chance* of doing so by backing off and choosing less risky investments for a major part of her portfolio. You and I, her average clients, can’t afford to forgo the potential for higher returns and must therefore take on higher risk.
The first fallacy is the idea that one piece of financial advice fits all people all the time. The other fallacy is that one cannot give advice without following that same advice. A stunt man can advise an actor not to jump out of a moving car. A parent can advise a child not to handle knives. A police officer can advise a civilian to put down the gun. Suze — or any other financial adviser — can advise her average clients with not much investable assets to invest as much as possible in equities for the greatest return, regardless of her own portfolio.
But when Suze yells at callers, placates the lowest common denominator, or is otherwise condescending, I change the channel. I tend to think her recommended allocation for the average caller is a little on the safe side. However, she’s free to do whatever she likes with her money, and it doesn’t affect the quality of her advice.
Information on Suze’s portfolio from Outing Sue Orman’s Investments, Chuck Jaffe, MarketWatch, March 8, 2007.
Published or updated June 6, 2008.