The Folly of Bovine Behavior (or, why cows never retire).

March 12, 2012

Running along rural roads yesterday somewhere outside of Augusta, Kentucky, I reveled in the beauty of the countryside.

The turkey buzzards were circling overhead (I must have looked pretty bad), the deer were traipsing through the woodlands, and the occasional herd of cattle grazed placidly upon the hills.

Consider the cow.  Bovine lives are tranquil affairs right up to the unfortunate end. Unabated by the stressors facing so many of their human counterparts. They are free to stand, eat grass, chew their cuds and moo about whatever is on their minds.

One immediately notices the unflinching uniformity shared by those of the bovine persuasion. These are not charismatic creatures. God obviously created humans, then sea creatures, reptiles, Michigan and Steelers fans, then spilled what remained in the charisma bottle on the table, and only then pieced together the bovine.

Yet, cows and humans are much alike. Each wants to be part of the herd. Neither desires to stand alone. Both essentially choose to look, sound and act alike as often as possible. To think and behave in a fashion that does not distinguish them from one another.

Gary Larson capitalized on this when he created his legendary cartoon. In The Far Side, cows and other mundane beasts would be personified so as to act in ways typical of humans. They were funny because cattle would be seen engaging in human activities. The human equivalents to grazing. Mooing. Cud chewing.

Only, cows are afforded this lazy, monotonously cozy lifestyle because, eventually, they are slaughtered and eaten. While many Americans choose to emulate the bovine lifestyle, ultimately, they must fend for themselves. Increasingly, however, they have not displayed much capacity for doing so.

A recent report on the state of retirement by TIAA-CREF asserts that baby boomers reaching traditional retirement age will face a new era. One that is less certain and more demanding.

Americans are living longer, healthier lives. Simultaneously, mandatory retirement has been eliminated for the vast majority of American workers. Traditional employer pension plans have been eliminated. Social Security benefits have been pushed back. Concerns abound about the road ahead. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

A study by Allianz Life Insurance recently found that 92% of boomers believe there is a retirement crisis in the U.S. They also believe that they are unprepared to deal with it.

In light of such social and demographic changes, retirement patterns are dramatically evolving. The century-long trend towards earlier retirement has reversed. Many retirees are taking bridge jobs, which continue to provide an income before facing the prospects of a full retirement.

So what's the problem? It boils down to the disparity between retirement expectations and reality.

For years, Americans have sat with their financial advisors and discussed retirement locations, hobbies, legacies and plans. They were lulled into a false sense of security. Skipped financial planning. Ignored forward looking analysis. Yet, expectations remained for a cozy retirement, complete with a home in Florida, and trips to Disney with grand children.

As such, many soon-to-be retirees continued to lazily graze, spend, chew their cuds and moo. Instead of making the difficult decisions, they opted to be part of the herd. Continued working with Chad from Church. Biff from the Block. Cole from the Club.

Only, it was more like hiring Jennifer Lopez as your judge. Yes, someone is in the chair. But they certainly were not doing the job. Not making the tough calls.

"Yes men" are effective only on the cabinets of third-world dictators and on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. Otherwise, they tend to be non-prescient sycophants more interested in maintaining something that works for them than effectively performing the task for which they were hired.

The secret to financial independence is no holy grail. In fact, it is beautiful for its simplicity. It can be summed up in the following triumvirate of financial principals:

1) Save early.

2) Save more.

3) Protect your downside.

There is a simple mathematical logic behind how these three principals work together to create wealth.

Future Wealth = Current Wealth x (1+k)T

K represents the annual rate of return on your current wealth. T, the exponent, represents the number of years that wealth compounds in value.

Realize that wealth accumulation is not a linear exercise, but an exponential one. A 10% return on $100 compounded over a ten-year period equates to $259.  $673 over 20 years.  A 15% annual rate of return on $100 compounds to $405 over 10 years.  $1,673 over 20 years.

This disproves the Buy and Hope mentality long perpetuated by the brokerages. Wall Street is obsessed with mutual funds and money managers whenever it does not involve Wall Street's money. Most of these managers cannot own cash, charge high fees, and have exposed investors to every correction the market has ever suffered. Few provide the opportunity to preserve capital. So lowering the annual rate of return.

Yet, the three largest brokerage firms have over 50,000 advisors between them. That's a lot of cows, er, advisors to feed. So, the sales and marketing mentality predominates. Less time is spent on the mousetrap. More time is spent finding the mice.

In the eyes of clients, a round of golf and a steak dinner will make up for a lot of poor returns. And so the brokerage firms will continue to hire anyone they think can sell. Former real estate agents. Software peddlers. Ex-middle managers.

The idea? Simple. Set up a drive through window. Advertise the drive through window. Get as many cars to pass by the drive through window as possible. The meals will be fast, easy to prepare and standardized. Quantity over quality.

Still, Americans refuse to face the dilemma. To think differently. Think for themselves.

"If the advertisement says so, then by God, that's how it's gotta be!"

Few defer immediate gratification. Make difficult decisions. Wish to consider something new.  Better. So, many continue with financial advisory relationships that are more convenient than effective. Continue working with salesmen rather than advisors.

And so we save less than we should. And when we manage to put money away, we do so with someone possessing a scratch golf game, but no game whatsoever when it comes to the principals of investment and risk management.

Accordingly, we ride every market cycle.  Up and down. We buy and hope.  Often, at my former employer, I watched salesman who looked like advisors but were as shell shocked as their clients when the market corrections transpired.

I saw the brokerage firm(s) spend more time teaching brokers how to talk clients off the roof than teaching advisors how to prevent clients from wanting to go up there in the first place.

"John, I don't know where the market will be in three months. Nobody does. But, I do know where it will be in three years. So, we just have to ride this out..."

When that passes as advisor training it's time to seek greener pastures, bovine pun intended.

Save. Early and often. And have risk management procedures in place in order to preserve capital when markets get volatile.

For years, the mega-brokerage firms put more money into marketing communications and advertising than in advisor training. New brokers were sent to remote locations where they would spend the lion's share of their time learning about the firm's products, services, and how to close new business in two appointments or less.

If you were productive upon your return to the office, you were invited back for further product training. Additional tutorials on cold calling and overcoming objections.

Weren't much of a producer? You were eventually invited to leave the firm. Weren't much of a producer but displayed a modicum of charisma? You were eventually offered a managerial role.

But don't worry. There were resources upon which the new advisor could rely. The branch manager who invited every wholesaler with a credit card into the office for lunch. The guy from the firm's asset management department who had an office right down the hall. He would do whatever it took to help you sell the firm's mutual funds and money managers. Even though these guys rarely ate their own cooking.

Brokers are like politicians. Appearances are everything. And deceiving. The business card may say Vice President. But brokerage firms hand out the V.P. moniker with all of the scrutiny by which Sandra Bullock chooses husbands.

Your doctor doesn't play golf three days a week. I would argue that your finances are not too far behind your health when it comes to your long-term well being. So, if your broker plays golf every day, your wealth is probably not his biggest priority.

A financial advisors handicap simply should not be less than the current 10-year Treasury yield.

With the negative convergence of demographic, political and personal preparation trends, the situation will likely worsen before it improves. Or, retirement as we know it will simply cease to exist. Because for all of our inability to think for ourselves, we are also creatures of habit. Once comfortable, we tend to stay put. For a long time. Often to our detriment and that of our families.

Of course, that's what the brokerage firms count on. Even as many smaller accounts are forced into call centers, less personalized products, and a more difficult road to prosperity.

Once the cattle is in the barn, it rarely tries to leave.

At some point, investors may wake up. Save more. Save earlier. Formalize the education of financial literacy within our schools. How is it that we offer students 600 sports alternatives per season yet few students, if any, leave high school with any idea as to what a balance sheet represents?

Until we open our eyes and seek clarity on these and other matters, Americans will continue to march towards imaginary retirement dates while counting on imaginary pools of money and dreaming of imaginary states of financial independence.

Wake up, America.  The farmer may love his cattle. The cattle may love the farmer. But when the farmer is contending with a herd of 350 head, he has little time for each individual cow.  Regardless of how much you moo.

Cows do not work on retiring.  They are ignominiously retired.  And its ugly.  Yours does not have to be.

Securities offered through Dempsey Lord Smith LLC – Dempsey Lord Smith LLC, Rome, GA Member FINRA / SIPC / MSRB.

Advisory Services offered through Dempsey Lord Smith, LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Clearing through and accounts held at Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

Dempsey Lord Smith, LLC nor Hyde Park Wealth Advisors LLC provides tax or legal advice and you should consult your accountant and/or attorney if considering an investment of this type. Hyde Park Wealth Advisors LLC is not controlled by or a subsidiary of Dempsey Lord Smith LLC. Investing in Alternative Investments come with a variety of risks that could result in a complete loss of principal investment.

Alternative Investments offered as private placement securities are offered only to qualified accredited investors via confidential private placement memorandum. Income and returns are not guaranteed and there are no assurances investments will meet their stated objectives.

© 2024 Hyde Park Wealth Advisors. All Rights Reserved