Two years ago, financial planners arriving for their annual convention in Chicago found a shiny red Corvette glittering in the middle of the exhibition floor.
The car was a prize offered to the planner who did the most business for a certain investment company.This year the meeting was in New York, and there was a car again. But it was a back-to-basics black 1946 Continental, and it was part of the decor. Nobody was giving it away.
Gone along with the prize Corvette were most of the real-estate tax-shelter marketers who brought big promotions and big commissions to financial planning.
Indeed, a year after the stock market crash and two years after tax reform, this is an industry in transition.
After years of selling tax shelters and high-commission mutual funds to the well-to-do, planners are having to find another way to make a living. Some are having a hard time doing it.
"The people who have really been hurt by tax reform and by the market crash tend to be people who were focused on product sales," said Larry Carroll, chairman of the International Association for Financial Planning, the industry's largest trade group and sponsor of the meeting here. "They tend to have moved on to other things."
Carroll estimated that the average planner's income is down 10 to 25 percent from a year or two ago. The IAFP's own membership has declined 12 to 15 percent from its peak 21/2 years ago, and attendance at the convention was down proportionally from the high-water mark of 5,500 in Chicago.
Change was even more visible on the convention floor. The number of exhibitors declined from 575 last year in Atlanta to 475 here, with most of the drop coming among the real-estate syndicators. The falloff would have been even more dramatic but for 100 new entrants, led by insurance companies, appearing for the first time.
"The mix of people that are on our exhibit floor is typically a very good representation of the revenue mix or the investment mix of the average planner," Carroll said. "And you'll find the average planner is doing very little in the real-estate area at this point."
The departure of the high-risk, high-commission products and the resulting economic pressure on planners is producing another effect - the rediscovery of the middle class.
Traditionally, planners have focused on high-income clients, because most financial planning had its genesis in tax planning. It continued because the wealthy were best able to pay the fees of fee-based planners, or to make the investments that generated the commissions to support the commission-based planner.
But along with the recent tax-reform and stock-market problems, there has been a growing realization among planners that there aren't enough rich people to go around.
So the industry is being forced into what Atlanta planner Gail L. Cook calls "financial planning for the yachtless."
"For planners to survive, we really are going to have to pay attention to this market," she said. "They represent the broadest segment of the market available to us," and in many cases "they are the affluent of tomorrow."
Marketing to this group is refocusing attention on the question of payment.
Most planners get at least some of their income from commissions. They recommend certain investments to clients and get money when the client buys in.
Other planners who work for fees alone, along with some outside observers, question the objectivity of advice given by someone with a financial interest.
And still other critics argue that commission-based planners are likely to lose interest in the client once the sale is made.
But planning for the middle class has a much longer payoff, planners here agreed. It is more than ever in the planner's interest to try to get his or her client into investments that do well, not just those with good commissions.
Some are moving toward hourly rates or a mix of that and commissions. Others are acting more as asset or investment managers, charging a percentage of assets under management.
"If you're going to survive, especially in the middle-class market, you have to view yourself as a professional, and you have to charge for your services as a professional," said Cook.
Charles G. Hughes Jr., a planner from Bay Shore, N.Y., likened the old relationship to that of a landscape architect who draws a plan but leaves the planting and watering to others.
The goal should be to do both the layout and the gardening, he said. "The interest is in crossing that bridge to become managers" of the clients' assets, he added.
Carroll said he sees these trends as "positive for the industry in the long run," and for the clients as well. "The net effect has been, I think, to move out of the industry some of the people who call themselves financial planners, but their only focus was in moving a specific product," he said.
Those who remain, he said, are better educated, more professional and more interested in their clients' welfare. "I think all that translates into a better end product for the consumer," Carroll said.