Just a few years ago, testing a client's risk tolerance through hypothetical bear market projections seemed a bit too ... hypothetical. It can be hard to truly measure a client's investing confidence when his portfolio plunges 23% one year and 21% the next- if the planner and the client know it's all a game.
"At the time, it seemed a little ridiculous to me," investor Les Hickok says of the 2005 exercise arranged for him and his wife by their new planner, Derek Kennedy of Knoxville, Tenn. But the stress-test, designed to show how long the retirement savings of Hickok and his wife would last, was prophetic. The Hickoks told Kennedy that they remained confident in their disciplined rebalancing strategy, but for countless Americans, the engineered fears became reality.
In our special report on retirement solutions, Financial Planning senior editor Ann Marsh found that many planners are spending time coaxing and coaching fearful clients into taking on the appropriate amount of risk. "I found myself thinking about shriek-inducing carnival rides," Marsh tells me. "Ride scared and stiff on a roller coaster and you probably won't have fun. You could even end up with an injury like whiplash. It's better to loosen up, take in the view on the high rises and enjoy the terror of the dives. It's not a metaphor that anyone would have associated with the golden years prior to 2008, but it's a suitable one for retirement investing right now," she adds.
Indeed, as Los Angeles planner Kim Ip tells us, "Volatility, while it's scary and disconcerting, provides opportunities." Often, the opportunities with the biggest payoffs might be found not in risky or complex investments, but in the nitty-gritty work of a planner, such as a well-timed Roth IRA conversion.
When the government started Social Security in 1935, Americans on average were living just a few years past their retirement. Today, Marsh writes, retirement savings must last - and perform - for decades. "Retirement isn't an event. It's a process," says planner Kurt Brouwer. "One person in a couple may be alive 25 years after retiring. So if you don't have some growth in your portfolio, taking into account inflation and other factors, then you could really be struggling 25 years from now," adds Brouwer, who splits his time between Hawaii and California (one of the better retirement plans I've heard lately!).
The long view is essential even for clients decades away from retirement. In a separate story on an advisor with many celebrity clients, including TV and movie star Jeremy Sisto, planner Jeff Fishman says, "I tell them, 'You've got to be humble and realize the good times may not last forever.'" No one who lived through the markets of the past decade needs to be reminded of that.