‘We are going to be OK’: Planners manage clients’ emotions, and their own

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Elissa Buie, co-founder of planning firm Yeske Buie, knows it seems contradictory — her professed confidence in the future of both the markets and humanity itself, along with her crashing waves of emotion.

“We. Are. Going. To be OK,” Buie insisted, emphasizing each word before turning teary. “If you hear me be emotional, it is because I am emotional.”

At last count, 204 of Yeske Buie’s 300 clients responded to an email Buie sent out this week with “Checking in … and a hug” as the subject line.

Planner Maya Philipson with Astrid, the office cat, in the custom backpack Philipson uses to bring her to and from her office.

“That’s 68%,” Buie says, adding that she and her husband, co-founder Dave Yeske, feel they struck the right nerve. Most responded by saying they’re doing fine, but appreciated her words of comfort. Others said they did, in fact, need a little comforting and were glad to get it. The firm has offices in San Francisco and in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

“This coronavirus situation is scary. I’m a bit scared. And I don’t know where it is going to go,” Buie, 59, told them. But over her 37 years in the profession, she wrote in the email, she’s seen the world go through repeated doomsday scenarios. The generalized fear for Buie and her client base extends to not only the bear market, but all the uncertainties in a rocky political climate leading up to a presidential election.

“There remains one thing that we know to be true,” she added. “Human beings, especially American human beings, are resilient.”

Around the time Buie’s email went out, the World Health Organization declared the flu-like coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, reported cases have surged from coast to coast. Stocks plunged, recovered briefly, then plunged anew, ending an 11-year bull run. Like Buie, planners everywhere have been managing clients’ emotional swings, while contending with their own.

“It’s been a lot of sharing my strength with my clients when I myself have a lot of anxiety,” says Maya Philipson, 38, of Philipson & Robasciotti in San Francisco, which manages $144 million for clients.

Over the previous five days, Philipson says she has spoken at length with 11 clients, most of whom are older than 65. She worries about the risks the virus poses to their age group, even as they primarily discuss their investments.

‘I AM JUST SO WORRIED’

“I talked to an older woman who is 73 on Friday,” she says. “She was like, ‘I know you are going to tell me to just sit tight.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, that is what I am going to say.’ She said, ‘I am just so worried about having all of my money just go away.’ ”

With only 20% of the woman’s investments in equities, Philipson feels her portfolio’s assets are well-allocated. But when short-term bond rates in the United Kingdom dipped into negative territory for the first time ever a couple of days later, that briefly rocked Philipson’s confidence.

Nonetheless, sitting tight — and maybe buying at a discount — will be the firm’s investing strategy going forward, Philipson says. “We don’t really do market timing,” she says, but adds, “Other than fear, it is a great time to buy.”

Planner Sandra Field has been waiting for this moment. The founder of Asset Planning in Cypress, California, is that increasingly rare planner who is a stock picker (she also includes ETFs and mutual funds in portfolios).

In the past several days, “I bought travel industry. Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line were both down over 50%,” says Field, who sounded like a bargain hunter rummaging through a deep-discount sale bin. “Six months to a year from now I think this will definitely be in our rear view mirror and they will definitely be rebounding.”

She also snapped up Kimberly-Clark, maker of face masks and paper goods, including hand wipes and toilet paper. She bought a few shares of Teledoc Health, which provides remote medical care, before the price went above the limits she had set. Also in her basket: an S&P 500 ETF, purchased on one of many low days.

Mid-buying spree, Field sounded upbeat, but philosophical.

“It’s funny. I’ve had no phone calls at all. Zero,” she says from among the 70 families she serves personally. Overall, her firm manages $320 million for more than 300 clients.

HIGHER CASH RESERVES

“I did reach out to my clients about six to seven months ago explaining why I needed a higher cash amount than I had a few months earlier,” she says. At the time, “The market was still marching up for absolutely no reason.”

More than a year ago, she explains, she had started moving her clients’ portfolios up to 16% to 18% into cash, so she would be ready to buy in a downturn.

“Some of my cash went up to 25%,” she says. “You start to second guess yourself when you are holding this much cash when the market keeps moving up and moving up and moving up. And then this happens and, nope, you are rewarded for your patience, but it’s difficult.”

And while she hasn’t had clients reach out with panicked calls, Field does wonder, depending on how global events unfold, if those calls will start coming in.

Planners exist to take calls like that from clients, says Delia Fernandez, of Fernandez Financial in Los Alamitos, California.

“They need us. They need that discipline,” Fernandez says.

While none of her clients have engaged in panic selling, she’s been surprised that several have called to protest drops in their portfolios, as if they should have been immune to a global rout.

On the positive side, Fernandez has always insisted clients have cash in money market accounts to cover at least six months in expenses, if not more. Right now that practice is paying off.

To buoy her own spirits, partially to be there for her clients, Fernandez was resisting her typical urge to spend time alone and, instead, scheduled time with friends, including a road trip up to an orchid show in Santa Barbara. They reconsidered the trip, and then the show was canceled.

Philipson ferries her firm’s office cat Astrid (who has her own email on the website) to and from the office in a pet-friendly backpack. Spending time with Astrid brings everybody’s blood pressure down, she says.

In five weeks, Field still hopes to go on a vacation, including a river boat cruise, through six different European countries. “I have to go,” says Field, who relishes the fruit and vegetable juices she downs to maintain her general immunity.

On Thursday, Buie and her husband flew to New Zealand for a long-planned vacation. When anybody cracks that they are fleeing the country, Buie reminds them that, “my money is staying here.” While acknowledging she may be “kind of overwrought right now,” Buie recalls how bad things were in 2008.

“I could throw up right now thinking about what I was feeling in March in 2009,” Buie says. But “the world did not come to an end.”

Of the lengthy, overnight flight, she says, “I’m going to wash my hands a lot. I’m probably not going to wear a mask — but I might.” In the end, Yeske confirmed from their stopover in Fiji on Friday that the couple did not and slept for most of the first leg of the journey.

“I’m just going to do my vacation,” Buie said before leaving. “I’m going to pay my bills. I’m going to pay my staff and I’m going to be fine. I’m not meaning to make light of this. It is scary, but we also have to take a breath and say, ‘It’s going to be fine.’ ”

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