Can the financial planning profession actually be a profession if the services are not available to ordinary Americans? Planning seems to have bifurcated into advisors who collect their fees by AUM model and who primarily serve wealthier clients, and those who earn a commission for selling less-wealthy people insurance policies, variable annuities and mutual funds. In both cases, most of the emphasis is on the investments, not on the planning.
A small number of advisors - especially members of the Garrett Planning Network - offer planning work on an hourly basis to essentially anyone who walks in the door. But there are hardly enough of them to offer detailed planning work to 115 million U.S. households.
Is there a better model for delivering planning advice to Middle America, and even those who aspire to Middle America? Richard Gable thinks there is. You haven't heard of Richard Gable? You're hardly alone.
Since 2000, he's been the resident salaried CFP advisor for the Houston Police Officer's Pension System. His job is to talk with 8,000 current and former Houston police officers not only about their benefits, but also about any financial issue that comes up in their lives.
SOMEBODY TO TURN TO
In a typical day, Gable meets face-to-face with two or three people. Between meetings, he is on the phone or answering emails about everything from refinancing mortgages to whether it makes sense for a former officer's elderly mother to gift him her home. "I say that if they inherit the home instead, their tax basis going forward becomes the fair market value at the time of death, and they might want to think about that," Gable says. "When they ask about refinancing, I ask how long the mortgage has to go until it's paid off, and what the current interest rate is, to see if the monthly savings can justify the closing costs. If I've learned one thing in 12 years," he adds, "it is that the vast majority of people in this country don't have anybody to turn to for answers to simple, basic, important questions like that."
Working with the non-wealthy is very different from the services you hear most advisors talking about. Gable says he rarely fields a question about portfolios. Instead, people come to him to talk about their credit card balances. "Typically, they're feeling overwhelmed because they're trying to attack everything at once," he says. "I introduce them to the idea of lining up their debt according to the rate that they're paying. We identify the debt that is doing the most damage and put it at the top of the priority list. Then we focus on paying off that card and sending everybody else the minimum."
Of course, people also ask about retirement. "We always find time in the meeting to talk about their benefits," Gable says. He uses customized spreadsheets to match each officer's pension income and Social Security benefits with current and future expenses - evaluating their situation interactively while they're sitting with him in the office.
Some people drop by the office once a year, each time with different questions. Gable has developed a system for keeping notes on every conversation, and he says that over time something resembling a full financial plan will emerge gradually. "They seem to prefer to take the process in bite-size chunks, rather than a full-fledged plan all at once," he explains. "If you give them all that analysis in a binder after the first meeting, it is often overwhelming to the person. They don't understand half of what they're looking at, and it becomes distracting."
Gable believes his model might be the best way to deliver quality, objective planning advice to the underserved 90% of the American population. Most employers, he points out, have a benefits staff. Why not designate one of those staff positions to a financial planner and give employees access to advice, analysis and information on a much broader range of topics?
OVERCOMING LIABILITY WORRIES
There are several potential obstacles. The first is a concern about liability. "When I started here," Gable admits, "they were a little skittish about what might happen if I gave bad advice." From the start, he was forbidden to sell any products or refer Houston police officers to any relatives who sell life insurance. The pension system took out errors-and-omissions coverage. "But you know what?" he asks. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, if you are offering objective advice, you are probably going to give decent advice. In 12 years of doing this, we have never had even a hint of a legal problem."
Another potential obstacle comes from the other side of the fence. Why would advisors want to work on a salary when they can start their own company and charge 1% of multimillion-dollar portfolios?
The answer is that the great majority of advisors are not actually owners of their own businesses; they are salaried staff advisors who might not be getting the direct client interaction they crave. Gable, himself, worked in the operations departments for two different financial services firms while he studied to become a CFP. His goal was to move into a junior planner role, hoping to gradually take on more direct client responsibility and earn more money. When he saw a job posting from the Houston pension office, giving him a chance to function as a full-fledged advice-giver at a higher salary, he jumped at the chance.
"Could I make more money if I started my own firm and charged a fee to manage assets?" he asks. "Almost certainly," although he adds: "But that assumes that I have the skill to bring in clients and manage the firm and make the investment decisions - and that I want to do those things instead of helping people all day long."
An employer that has a planner on the benefits staff could see dividends, Gable says. "I can tell you that, when people come in to talk about their benefits, they inevitably ask a lot of other financial questions as well," he says. "The company doesn't really want the benefits staff to take a stab at answering questions about how their deferred comp is going to be taxed or projecting their future income versus expenses. But the alternative is equally bad," he says. "Somebody calls in with a question and they say, 'I'm sorry. I can't talk to you about that.' 'Well, do you know somebody I can talk to?' 'Nope, I can't refer you to anybody.' It becomes very awkward, as opposed to saying, 'Why don't you talk to Richard about that? I'll have him call you right back.'"
Employers also may want their employees to be thinking about work, rather than about the distracting problems with their finances. If they're going to spend money on employee benefits staff anyway, why not give those workers access to a broader range of advice?
The bottom line is that Gable is pioneering an unexplored career path for planning professionals, a startlingly logical and easy way to make planning advice accessible to the masses. He hopes that case writers and salaried planners will begin approaching local employers with a proposal: Add a CFP planner to your benefits staff. Smaller businesses that can't afford their own planner might be served by a subsidiary of a traditional planning firm whose staff would master the nuances of the various benefits plans while they offer unlimited planning advice to the rank-and-file employees - all for a set yearly fee.
Gable hopes most of all that, eventually, everybody will have somebody to call for basic planning advice. "I keep hearing people say that we can't figure out how to service the enormous need for planning in Middle America. We're solving that problem here," he says, "and I can tell you that the model works."
Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist, publishes the Inside Information website and newsletter for advisors at bobveres.com. Post your comments on Financial Planning's discussion boards at financial-planning.com/forums. Readers can also send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.