One of the most famous exchanges in the history of finance took place on Capitol Hill in 1912 between. J.P. Morgan, the world’s most powerful financier, and lawyer Samuel Untermyer:
Untermyer: “Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?”
Morgan: “No sir; the first thing is character.”
Untermyer: “Before money or property?”
Morgan: “Before money or property or anything else.”
Morgan’s essential insight remains true. Markets work best off a foundation of trust. Yet a lack of trust is a worrisome feature of the current personal finance industry. “Trust has completely eroded,” says Fred Martin, founder of Disciplined Growth Investors, the Minneapolis-based independent asset management firm.
Martin pins the trust shortfall on several factors, including the fallout from the Great Recession. He emphasizes that people expect greater transparency thanks to social media, yet too many clients don’t know the real cost they’re paying for advice.
Martin’s trying to encourage a grass roots movement of motivated clients asking advisers simple questions, like what is the total cost of this relationship. Advisers should give straightforward answers which, in turn, lead to more meaningful conversations.
He’s putting his money behind his effort with the “Objective Measure Conference” in Burnsville on Tuesday. The conference is the first in a decadelong commitment to restore trust between advisers and their clients.
He highlighted during our conversation an important divide between clients and many financial advisers. Industry participants are comfortable with numbers. But people typically turn to advisers for help in matching their money to their values. “They want a portfolio not to beat the market but to meet a life dream,” Martin said.
The best financial advisers are terrific at the values equation. They know the basics of investment and money management, of course. But they are stellar at working at helping clients think about what they want to accomplish with their life. If a client figures out the “why” — what really matters — the adviser can always construct the “how,” the financial tactics that support those values and goals.
In essence, Martin wants more finance professionals to invest in this model. His enthusiasm is infectious, although there’s a bit of Don Quixote tilting at proverbial windmills in his approach. I hope my skepticism is wrong and he succeeds.
Christopher Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.