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Advising Clients

The Power of “May I Ask You?”

Jan Blakeley Holman, CFP, CIMA, ChFC, CDFA, CFS, GFS
Director of Advisor Education
24 Nov 2022
18 min listen

Jan and Hollis share ideas on how to talk to a client, family member or friend who’s experienced a heart-breaking life-event.

Read Transcript
The Power of “May I Ask You?”

Hollis Walker: This is #NowMe, a podcast for financial advisors and their clients.

Hey Jan, it’s hard to believe it’s already November. If you’re like me, you’re probably very busy and looking forward to the holiday season.

Jan Blakeley Holman: Well, hello to you Hollis. And that is true. I’m looking forward to the holidays, but I kind of haven’t done the get the leaves off the lawn thing yet, so I’m behind, to say the least. This has been quite the year, hasn’t it? From an economic and investment market standpoint, it’s been kind of crazy. And in one way or another, it’s challenged all of us.

Hollis Walker: You’re absolutely right, Jan. So you told me you had an enlightening conversation with a financial advisor a few weeks ago. You want to tell us about that?

Jan Blakeley Holman: Yeah, it was really interesting. I was at a conference in Tampa at the end of September, actually, the week before Ian hit, and it was supposed to hit Tampa, but hit south of Tampa, those poor people. But anyway, an advisor came up to me and introduced herself. I remembered her, and she said she’d seen me speak many times and of course, was always impressed.

And I think that’s what people should take away. I’m joking. But there was something she wanted me to know, and she was specifically referring to a presentation that I’d given about life transitions and how they affect individuals. Well, she told me her story. She’d become a widow, shockingly, and suddenly at a young age with four children to raise. In my presentation that I’d given, I talked to advisors about why it’s important for them to ensure that they understand the challenges that clients are facing as they navigate life events like hers, where the rug seems to be totally pulled out from underneath them.

Specifically, she wanted me to share with advisors and people who have loved ones or friends who experience a life shattering event that there is a way to talk with someone who’s going through or has gone through that. That in order to dig deeper than surface level conversation as a financial advisor has to do by nature of their business to get to the deeper level.

She said that it’s really helpful if you say to the person, “May I ask” instead of just diving into questions. In other words, she recommends that the person who’s talking to the individual who has experienced this life change ask for permission to take the conversation to a deeper level. And she suggested that, may I ask, is a more understanding and sensitive way to ask.

Now, Hollis most of our listeners don’t know that you are an interfaith minister and chaplain. I know you’ve spent a lot of time talking with people who have lost loved ones suddenly. People who have found out that they have a terminal disease. People who are in hospice, many people who are in that place in their lives where it would be helpful for them to be able to talk to someone at a deeper level.

I’m really interested in having you, if you’re ok with that, share the approach that you take when you begin these difficult conversations. Often many of us are at a loss, and what happens is instead of having the discussion we don’t talk about it at all and act like nothing’s happened, and that’s not a good solution. So, what would you recommend?

Hollis Walker: You’re absolutely right, Jan. Too often we do get overwhelmed and we’re afraid to broach a conversation with someone who’s had that kind of loss. And the woman you spoke to in Tampa was right. It is gentle and respectful to seek permission from someone when you want to ask them deeply personal questions or even just questions that might make them feel vulnerable.

So, prefacing any question with may I ask you, is it ok if I ask you about this is a great idea. And then the most important thing is to really listen to the answer. So often where we’re thinking up the next question instead of deeply listening to someone. So, listen to what they say. Sometimes people will say, sure, ask away.

And then sometimes they’ll say something that indicates, yes, but you can tell they really mean no, that they’re uncomfortable. And so, it’s important in those times to respect that, too, and say, hey, it sounds like you’re not really ready to talk about this. Maybe next time. And then just make yourself a note to get back in touch with them at a later time.

It’s also important to realize that most people who’ve gone through some huge life change actually expect you to be interested and expect you to ask them about it. So that’s another way to open the door. You’re their financial advisor. So, you can say, I don’t want to be intrusive, but I think we need to talk about the financial impacts of what’s happened to you.

And in that way you’re reassuring them that you’re not just being nosy. You really need to know some things to be of most service to them. And then just start out easy. You know, give them the opportunity to tell you their story about what’s happened. Try not to interrupt. Just let them talk it through. And then when they run out of steam, then you can ask questions and try to be reassuring along the way.

For example, you can let them off the hook by saying things like maybe you don’t know the answer to this yet, or why don’t you take a look through your documents when you get home to find that information and then give me a ring back. The whole point is to allow them to be in control of the conversation and how and what they tell you. And to remember to say you know, thank you, I know this wasn’t easy to talk about.

So, you know, having these kind of conversations, it’s not rocket science and there’s no perfect way to do it, but it is something that gets easier with practice.

Jan Blakeley Holman: Oh, thanks, Hollis. That’s really, really wonderful. You know, this industry has changed dramatically since I started in it 46 years ago. Mostly it’s changed in that we now find ourselves needing to discuss real life events, emotions, not just investment performance, but things that make people want to live, things that affect their lives and their outlook on lives. It’s much more difficult in that way, and it requires a different approach.

Likewise, all of the people who are listening, who are not in this industry, have friends or have had friends or loved ones who’ve experienced something incredibly dramatic, and they are at a loss for what to do. So, thank you very much for your expertise and for your contributions.

Hollis Walker: Thanks, Jan. All right. So let’s get on to Ask Jan.

As our listeners know, we’ve incorporated this Ask Jan segment into our podcast. Here’s a recent question from a listener, Jan.

Dear Jan, I am a 65-year-old woman who’s been investing for over 30 years. I know that 2022 has been a bad year for the stock market, but I’ve also noticed that the bond holdings in my portfolio have also been taking a hit.

I thought my bonds were supposed to protect me from market volatility. Did I miss something Signed Flummoxed in Phoenix.

Jan Blakeley Holman: Dear Flummoxed. Your question doesn’t come as any surprise to me. In fact, our last podcast featured a discussion, remember Hollis, of the 60/40 portfolio so 60% stocks, 40% bonds, and the fact that it had been having its worst year in decades. Also recently an op-ed of mine was published on CNBC’s website that discusses the 60/40 portfolio specifically.

Relative to Bonds, it’s important to understand that 2022 may go down as one of the worst since 2000, maybe the worst in history.

Hollis Walker: Wow.

Jan Blakeley Holman: Just about every type of challenge investors face has taken place this year. We’ve had rising interest rates, rampant inflation, a significant stock market correction, the war in Ukraine and historic natural disasters. Any one of those could explain the reason the stock market’s been volatile, but two of them have been particularly tough on bonds.

Hollis Walker: OK, don’t make me guess. Which ones?

Jan Blakeley Holman: Rising interest rates and spiking inflation. First, let’s talk about rising interest rates as a refresher. We all know that bonds are really IOUs that are issued by many entities like corporations, the US government, municipalities, foreign corporations and foreign governments. Every bond is issued with a face amount, which is the cost per unit, an interest rate and a maturity date.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say two years ago you bought a AAA-rated ten-year corporate bond, and two weeks ago you purchased a similar bond. Let’s say that the ten-year bond you bought in 2020 had a coupon rate of 2.3%. The bond you bought last week may have a coupon rate of 5%. One of the most important and tricky sometimes for people characteristics of the value of bonds is that they move in the opposite direction that interest rates move.

If interest rates go down, bonds will increase in value. If interest rates go up, bonds will decline in value. Let’s go back to our example. No investor in their right mind would pay the same price today for a ten-year bond that has a coupon of 2.3% that they would pay for a ten-year bond that has a coupon of 5%.

So in order for the bond you bought two years ago to be attractive on the secondary market, the price has to decline enough to ensure the buyer that the payments they receive in the future will generate a yield on their investment that’s close to the 5% rate of bonds that are being offered right now. Does that make sense?

Hollis Walker: Yes, I get it.

Jan Blakeley Holman: OK, now, it’s important for me to say that in our example, the fact that the ten-year bond you bought two years ago only has eight years to mature would affect the bond’s price but I’m not taking that into consideration in this example. I’m trying to make it easy. The fact that new bonds may be paying a 5% coupon is the reason why you’re seeing the value of your existing bonds drop.

Bonds always fluctuate in value depending on what’s going on in this economy and with interest rates. We just tend, it’s our nature, to focus on them when they decline in value. Now, the other reason that your bond portfolio may not be performing well has to do with inflation. There are a couple reasons, a couple of main reasons why people invest. One is to have their money outpace the rate of inflation. Another may be to receive income to supplement whatever income they have. When it comes to bond pricing, the real rate of return is what is important. Real rate of return is calculated by subtracting the percentage rate of inflation from the coupon or yield of the bond that you own. Because of the low rate of inflation we’ve experienced for many years, investors haven’t been worried that they’re not getting a real rate of return that’s higher than the rate of inflation.

But this year they are. Let me give you an example. Let’s say the yield on your bond investment is 4%. When you subtract the average rate of inflation for the past 12 months, which is 8.2% from that 4% that you’re earning on your bond, what do you get?

Hollis Walker: It’s got a minus sign in front of it.

Jan Blakeley Holman: You bet. A -4.2% return. That means that the income you’re receiving from that bond is not enough to overcome the rate of inflation. For investors who have that goal of outpacing inflation bonds are typically not the best investment to achieve that. Let me finish up this way, Flummoxed.

This year has been one of the most challenging and disappointing on record, but that doesn’t mean you should sell your bond investments. Most likely your financial advisor or you chose bonds because they generate income, not because you expect them to outpace inflation or provide a real rate of return. Because interest rates fluctuate, it makes sense to choose bond mutual funds or ETFs that are managed by a portfolio or separately managed bond accounts that allow the investment manager to use his or her experience to ensure there are always bonds with higher coupons in the portfolio when interest rates increase, and to hold on to higher yielding bonds when interest rates decrease.

Hollis Walker: Thanks, Jan. I actually think I followed all of that kind of a miracle.

You’ve been listening to #NowMe with me, your host, Hollis Walker, and Jan Blakeley Holman, director of advisor education at Thornburg Investment Management. If you want to suggest a topic or have a question to ask Jan, email us at NowMe@thornburg.com. If you’d like to hear more episodes of #NowMe, you can find us on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favorite audio provider. Or by visiting us at Thornburg.com/podcasts. Jan can also be found on LinkedIn. If you like us, subscribe. Share us on social media and leave us a review. Until next time, thanks for listening.

This podcast is for informational purposes only, and should not be relied upon as investment, legal, accounting, or tax advice. It is not intended to predict the performance of any investment or market, and is not a recommendation, offer, or solicitation to buy or sell any security or product, or adopt any investment strategy. Past performance is not an indication of future performance. Investing involves risk including possible loss of the money you invest. Consult your investment advisor before making any investment decisions. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. However, Thornburg Investment Management makes no representations or guarantees as to the accuracy or completeness of the information and has no obligation to provide any updates or changes. The views expressed are subject to change and do not necessarily reflect the views of Thornburg Investment Management. This podcast is for your personal and non-commercial use only. You may not use it in any other manner without the prior written consent of Thornburg Investment Management. Thank you for listening.

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