As the year comes to a close, I’ve been thinking of the main themes I’ve come across in doing these weekly online columns. And at first, it seemed like there wasn’t an overarching theme, but rather a lot of smaller issues. And often times, they even seemed to be working at cross-purposes.

Investor confidence, for example, was up in one survey and down in the next as I noted in a column in November. And even if confidence was on the rise, financial literacy was still woefully inadequate, which was the main idea of a couple of recent offerings.

ETF coverage abounded over the past year here at On Wall Street as well as other publications. But as popular and efficient as these investments have become, the fact is there are just so many of them that they quickly become overwhelming. Indeed, there are more than a thousand ETFs so the main challenge is not picking which ones you want, but eliminating which ones you don’t. And whenever there is that level of choice, whether with investments or household goods, paralysis-by-analysis can set in and the level of choice becomes counter-productive.

Another idea that surfaced several times was the notion that clients want more collaboration with their advisors. And that is eminently reasonable, but if true, it marks a major shift in mindset for a lot of people who have always wanted to outsource this part of their lives. Their idea, which was also reasonable although perhaps not entirely practical in this day and age, was predicated on a division of labor.

They were good at doing something else, so they did what they were good at and they let advisors deal with the money.

Then I realized that the main overriding theme is one of simplicity. Whether or not your clients want more of a hand in the financial decision-making; whether their financial literacy is where it should be; or whether they want only ETFs but are getting bogged down in the sheer numbers, the one common thread is the desire to simplify this part of their lives.

And that actually makes things harder for advisors. The concepts of investing and risk are far from simple. And now you need to be able to explain those concepts in an easy-to-understand way. Some may argue that that’s always been the job of an advisor. But now it’s more important than ever to have the ability to synthesize information.

Each client should be viewed as the CEO of his or her portfolio. You’re the COO, so you’re the one who makes it work. And part of making it work is explaining things simply to your demanding boss who doesn’t want your full 100-page report; he wants the same information delivered in an executive summary.

The often-quoted expression that comes to mind is “KISS: Keep is Simple, Stupid.” But that makes it easy to miss the main point. It’s not all that difficult to keep it simple. What’s hard is to convey the main points in your simplified, shortened version. A better expression to remember is the old saying, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one.”

The fact is, those two-page executive summaries are harder than they appear. But that’s the skill that is going to be more and more important in the future for advisors.


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