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The Problem with Brussels Sprouts

Summary:
I think it started in 2010. Within six months of patient zero, they were everywhere. Every gastropub. Every upscale comfort food concept. Every ‘American Brasserie’ in a gentrifying neighborhood. Every farm-to-table that became an OK-maybe-a-little-Sysco-to-table after six months of food cost realities. Brussels sprouts. No, not the actual vegetable. That would be gross. No, I mean Brussels sprouts! These things that we quartered, soaked in olive oil and butter, bathed in salt and pepper and scorched until the memory of green was all that was left. These were things that, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire industry sold aggressively to a generation whose smell memory could still produce on command that acrid, metallic scent of unseasoned frozen sprouts being microwaved

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The Problem with Brussels Sprouts

I think it started in 2010.

Within six months of patient zero, they were everywhere. Every gastropub. Every upscale comfort food concept. Every ‘American Brasserie’ in a gentrifying neighborhood. Every farm-to-table that became an OK-maybe-a-little-Sysco-to-table after six months of food cost realities.

Brussels sprouts.

No, not the actual vegetable. That would be gross. No, I mean Brussels sprouts! These things that we quartered, soaked in olive oil and butter, bathed in salt and pepper and scorched until the memory of green was all that was left. These were things that, seemingly out of nowhere, an entire industry sold aggressively to a generation whose smell memory could still produce on command that acrid, metallic scent of unseasoned frozen sprouts being microwaved in water in a shallow Corningware dish – you know, the one with flowers or a cornucopia-style collection of earthy vegetables on the side?

Y’all, the only reason anyone orders this vomitous cabbage is because it is transformed into a cartoon of itself.

But hold that thought for a moment.


I had a colleague – now, sadly, passed away – who had a favorite expression: blue light, blue suit.

The idea behind the idiom was that the job of a fiduciary was not to blindly deliver what a client wanted, but what they needed. Still, one couldn’t get around the fact that clients want to be sold on what they want. If they want a blue suit, then give them a blue suit, dammit. But not an actual blue suit that would be wrong for them. Give them the gray suit they need – and shine a blue light on it if you have to.

I had a boss whose oft-used variant was the red convertible. Do your analysis, add whatever conclusions, bells and whistles you want, even take it up a notch. But the thing I get at the end of the day better at least look like a red convertible.

I met another wealth advisor once who favored a food-related analogy for the same concept. Investors need to eat their broccoli, he said, so figure out a way to make it taste good. It was, as you might imagine, a story offered in defense of investment policy statements which emphasized asset classes and strategies which (nominally, anyway) diversified home country equity risk. Heavy on foreign equities, alternatives, real assets, that kind of thing. After 10 years of S&P dominance, nobody really wanted them, but they needed them. The trick, he figured, was making the clients OK with getting the things they needed but didn’t really care about.

It occurs to me now, I suppose, that the food-related examples of this idea are overwhelmingly common. I know a CIO, for example, who characterized some of his firm’s strategies as hiding the pill in the cheese, a tactic immediately recognizable to any dog owner. It’s your job to give him what he needs, and it doesn’t matter how he gets it.

This is the heart of the meta-game of money management.

It is easy to see for those inside the industry why this meta-game playing is necessary. I hope that it is also easy for those same people to see how it might go very wrong. In practice, however, our own self-deception about why we sell investment advice in certain ways makes it far more difficult to detect. In the interest of circumventing that self-deception, let me offer another axiom:

There is no wealth management firm in the world for which investment expertise is a sustainable competitive advantage.

This is the Brussels sprouts are objectively gross statement of the story I am telling here. The only difference is that whereas some of you may have sufficiently bad food opinions to reasonably disagree with that statement, if you disagree with the above statement about investment expertise, I think you are probably just wrong.

If you think that the edge in your advice service is performance, you are probably wrong. If you think that the edge in your advice service is investment selection, you are probably wrong. If you think that the edge in your advice service is investment insight, you are probably wrong. If you think that the edge in your advice service is uncovering new investment ideas, you are probably wrong. And yet, if prospective clients don’t believe that we can do each of these things, we will almost certainly fail to build a business. What’s worse, those prospective clients will do business instead with someone less scrupulous.

The Problem with Brussels Sprouts

It is an uncomfortable truth, but the only reason we are usually hired is because we have been transformed into a cartoon of ourselves. A cartoon of relative expertise. A plate of Brussels sprouts, charred and covered with so much fat and salt as to be almost unrecognizable.

The inevitable path of the meta-game conscious financial adviser, then, is the creation of that cartoon of expertise. What does that cartoon look like? Well, we either celebrate some expertisey-sounding thing about our firm that really has nothing to do with expertise or the odds of any investment outcome, or we hold out the notion that something we are doing may be related to producing better investment results without exactly saying it.

We tout the home office’s resources.

We talk about the depth of our teams and resources.

We talk about team credentials.

We talk about our access to unique investments.

We talk about our ESG framework.

We talk about our research, our data, our analyst team.

We talk about our process.

We turn ourselves into a talking head. An expert.

In each of these cases, we may not say that these traits are definitely or explicitly related to better investment outcomes, but the reason we cultivate them and talk about them is absolutely to satisfy the client’s desire to hire a financial adviser with the most investment expertise. It is how we create a cartoon about our expertise, knowing full well that the client will associate that with their expected investment outcomes.

So if you’re a financial adviser, here’s the question you’ve probably asked yourself more than once: is this honest? Is it fair and good and right to heavily emphasize things in marketing that aren’t false, but which don’t really matter that much to the client’s outcomes, simply because we know the prospect or client cares about them? Does the fact that we really are delivering a very credible, high quality advice product at a really competitive fee that is far better than what the charlatans and churn artists out there are pitching mean that we can feel less bad about mentioning our amazing stock guy who’s had a great run the last few years ? Or the fact that our US-tilted portfolios outperformed our peer RIA across town, even though our positioning reflected bad diversification hygiene and our results reflected simple good fortune?

There’s a lot of salt and butter on those Brussels sprouts, y’all. These are hard questions. I don’t have an answer. But I do have a process: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts.  

Clear eyes: There’s no way around it. We have got to talk about these things. Our clients are grown-ups, and don’t deserve our condescension. Yes, we’ve gotta have a page in our deck with the team’s years of experience and degrees. Yes, it’s OK to talk about our process and why we think it works. Yes, it’s OK to talk about historical client outcomes, provided we’re doing it in a seriously, honestly, humbly non-promissory (and compliant) way.

Full hearts: No, we don’t have to build our entire proposition on a cartoon of relative expertise. We don’t have to treat clients like children, but we also don’t have to treat them like marks. I think that means emphasizing, not just in marketing but in practice, the elements of financial and investment expertise that are real, important and rare. I can think of six:  

  1. Identifying and consistently reevaluating and delivering the right level of risk.
  2. Delivering a nuanced, real understanding of diversification.
  3. Really influencing household expense management.
  4. Financial, estate, tax and philanthropy management.
  5. Business consulting for entrepreneurs and business owners.
  6. Structuring investments to properly complement existing illiquid holdings.

The more important truth, of course, is that the single most important thing an adviser can deliver isn’t any of these things. It isn’t a question of investment expertise at all. It’s…well…advice. When risk appetites are high, restraining exuberant behaviors. When risk appetites are low, restraining fearful behaviors. And in all cases, working constantly to ensure that when these times arise, we have the kind of relationship and trust with our clients that will make them listen. The relationship is the thing. And while I’m not saying that you, individual FA, don’t have a couple relationships that are strong enough to withstand a pretty rough go of it, I think we all need to be pretty clear-eyed about how much of these relationships will boil down over time to the perception of the results we produce.

I am also not saying that you should not earnestly try to outperform peers. I believe that there are behaviorally-driven strategies that will (nearly) always work over sufficiently long periods, even if those periods do seem to be getting, ahem, a bit longer. I believe that there are inefficiencies driven by non-economic actors in a variety of financial markets that can create opportunities with uncorrelated sources of return. I believe that there are changes in the structure of markets that occur from time to time that can create periodic sources of return. Ben and I spend half our time on these things, for God’s sake.

But they can’t be the fundamental value proposition. Not for someone who wants to do this the right way. Control your cartoon, but don’t let it turn you into a raccoon.

Rusty Guinn
Executive Vice President of Asset Management, Salient. Rusty Guinn is the executive vice president of asset management at Salient. He oversees Salient’s retail and institutional asset management business, including investment teams, products, and strategy. Rusty shares his perspective and experience as an investor on the Epsilon Theory website.

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