Stress Management for Financial Advisors

Crosby_2015Dr. Daniel Crosby, Founder, Nocturne Capital

The dictionary definition of stress is, “a specific response by the body to a stimulus, such as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism.” But one can scarcely conceive of a more pointless construct to define than stress, because just as the Supreme Court famously said of smut, you know it when you see it. This is especially true of financial advisors, who inhabit one of the most stressful professional roles in the modern corporate landscape.

shutterstock_247024930Health.com named financial advisors to their list of 10 Careers with High Rates of Depression.” A study titled, “Casualties of Wall Street” found that 23% of advisors surveyed had significant signs of clinical depression while another 36% percent showed mild to moderate symptoms. And a study published in the “Journal of Financial Therapy” found that the vast majority of financial professionals surveyed experience medium to high levels of post-traumatic stress in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

So what’s an advisor to do? Well, the tips for managing of stress are often simple and intuitive. So simple in fact, that they may be overlooked by advisors accustomed to a life filled with risk and complexity. Notwithstanding their simplicity, try the tips below to start feeling better today:

Tame technology – The 24/7 availability of technology such as email has done a great deal to increase the stress level of people everywhere. Having a means of being reached at any time by your clients means that you are in a constant state of heightened readiness. Set limits on your electronic availability by turning off or limiting the times of day when you “plug in.” These periods of electronic disengagement will allow you to connect with others socially, exercise, and pursue hobbies, all of which have been proven to combat stress.

Damsel in Eustress – One common misconception is that stress is always the result of negative events. Recently, an advisor was crying in my office, unable to pinpoint the reason for her feelings of anxiety. As I learned more, she revealed that she was overseeing a number of projects at work, preparing for a wedding, and readying herself for a move. Although each of these things was positive, the cumulative effect of all of this positive change was quite stressful. Remember, the body cannot distinguish “eustress” (literally, good stress) from bad stress, so be sure to take a moment to relax, even when things are going your way.

shutterstock_41447092As a Man Thinketh – Too often, we accept the fact that things just “are” and that we have little control over our lives. Viktor Frankl said it best, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” The things that happen to you can be as positive or negative as you construe them to be. If you choose to interpret life events in an upbeat and optimistic manner, you will position yourself for success in all areas, and achieve that success with calm confidence. For practice, try and think of five positive things to emerge as a result of the most recent economic volatility (e.g., spent more time with family).

Little Comfort – It is a strange paradox that all of the so-called “comfort foods” have the very opposite of the desired effect on stress levels. Caffeine causes elevations in heart rate and respiration that can mimic a panic attack. Alcohol depresses our mood and impairs decision making, and eating fatty foods provides a brief period of pleasure followed by sustained periods of regret and lethargy. While we understand that an evening run or a healthy meal may be advisable, our short-sighted bodies tell us differently in times of stress or sadness. The next time you are feeling down, let your brain drive your decision-making; your body will thank you later.

Fake Out – Have you ever heard the old saying, “fake it ‘till you make it?” Well, it turns out that science substantiates this pithy phrase. In the past, the conventional psychological wisdom was that we felt a certain way, and then exhibited behaviors that conveyed that emotion. Put simply, “I’m happy, therefore I smile.” What more research has found, is that the opposite is also true – “I smile, therefore I’m happy.” Research subjects who were instructed to smile, regardless of whether or not they were actually happy, saw an increase in mood. This recent evidence suggests that being proactive, maintaining a schedule, and acting happy can start to improve a negative mood. It turns out that, some of the times you feel least like acting upbeat are the times it could benefit you most.

The market is extremely volatile right now, but that doesn’t mean that your life needs to be. 2 to 3% of outperformance achieved by those who work with advisors, is predicated on your being an effective behavioral coach during times of uncertainty. It is only as you take steps to manage stress in your own life that you can effectively model the kind of behavior that most benefits your clients.

Views expressed are for illustrative purposes only. The information was created and supplied by Dr. Daniel Crosby of Nocturne Capital, an unaffiliated third party. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor

Finally…A Fiscal Cliff Deal

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

It went down to the wire, but the House passed the Biden-McConnell compromise late last night. Investors are cheering today, happy to have avoided the worst case scenario. While this deal reduces the scheduled fiscal drag for 2013 and eliminates a tax-rate cliff in the future, it contains no structural reforms needed to address the country’s longer-term fiscal health. In addition, it sets us up for more fiscal policy uncertainty in the first quarter.

The previously scheduled fiscal drag, estimated at 3.5% of GDP, has now been reduced to around 1.5% of GDP. A majority of the fiscal drag ($120 billion) comes from the expiration of the 2% payroll tax cut that impacts all workers, with the remainder from the tax increases on the wealthy. However, in an economy growing at a 2.6% rate, this impact of this smaller fiscal drag is not negligible.

The tax side seems to be settled for now, reducing a sharp fiscal cliff in future years. Income tax rates have been permanently extended, with tax rates increasing only on those with incomes above $400,000 ($450,000 for families). Taxes on dividends and capital gains have been increased only for taxpayers in the highest bracket, and even still rates were increased from 15% to 20% (23.8% including the tax on investment income included in the Affordable Care Act). The AMT was also patched permanently.

However, they continue to kick the can down the road on the spending side. The sequester, or the mandatory spending cuts put in place after a deal on the debt ceiling failed to materialize in 2011, has been delayed for two months. No other meaningful spending cuts were put into place. As a result, the deal adds to the deficit.

1.2.13_Magnotta_FiscalCliff_Resolution_Chart1

Source: FactSet, BEA

This deal sets up more fiscal policy uncertainty and likely more drama in the first quarter as the sequester needs to be addressed and the debt ceiling increased. The President has vowed not to negotiate over the debt ceiling. The Treasury reported that we reached the statutory debt limit on Monday, but they can continue with extraordinary measures to keep under the limit until the end of February.

With the way the fiscal cliff deal played out over the last few weeks, Washington has done little to inspire confidence that a grand bargain to address our unsustainable fiscal path can be implemented. It is clear that we need to address both the spending and revenue sides of the equation. There has been bipartisan support in the past for a tax and entitlement reform package, like the Bowles-Simpson proposal offered by the President’s own debt commission. This type of plan would increase revenues by lowering tax rates and broadening the base, and reform entitlements, setting us on a path to getting our deficits under control and bring down our debt to GDP ratio.

Without improvement in our deficit and a plan to stabilize our debt to GDP ratio, we risk another downgrade of our sovereign debt. So far, Washington has alleviated some of the near-term headwinds to economic growth, but has done very little to address our longer term problems. We can continue to hope for a less toxic political environment, but in reality, fiscal policy uncertainty will continue in 2013 and will lead to periods of increased market volatility.

1.2.13_Magnotta_FiscalCliff_Resolution_Chart2

Source: FactSet, CBO