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I went undercover: the truth about “free” financial seminars for doctors

I’m not one to pick a fight, but when good people are being taken advantage of, I’m also not one to sit around and let it happen.

I’m quite comfortable managing our family’s investments and have been doing so successfully for years. But a lot of doctors aren’t and they’re looking for help. When a professional-looking email arrives in your inbox offering a FREE seminar to discuss the very topics that you’re concerned about, it’s totally understandable that a lot of doctors would want to sign up.

In this case, the email was titled, “The Physician’s Roadmap to Retirement”. We would learn how to achieve our retirement goals faster, how to live our dreams without running out of money, and how to use our various investment accounts effectively – sounds great, right?

I’ve created a course about money for doctors called moneySmartMD, so, naturally, I’m very interested in knowing what information physicians are getting elsewhere. But there might also be some good content ideas that I could adapt to better serve my colleagues. So I signed up.

Boy, was I ever disappointed.

The presentation was by a portfolio manager named JS who has been in the business for “30+ years”. Perhaps that should have been the first warning sign – if you’ve been at something that long, why are you aggressively looking for new clients? Red flag number one.

A few minutes into the talk came the disclaimer: He would be showing us numbers and charts, but “the lawyers in the audience” needed to understand that those numbers and charts may not be completely accurate. Hmm. Red flag number two.

Then he really got rolling with a litany of financial disasters just waiting to decimate our financial futures: inflation, underfunded government programs, longevity risk, unplanned expenses in retirement . . . the list went on and on and on. Playing on an audience’s fears is the oldest sales tactic there is. Red flag number three.

Perhaps the second oldest sales tactic is to undermine the competition. Rather than differentiate himself respectfully, JS repeatedly put down other managers. In terms of strategy, he knew exactly what he was up against – the dreaded “Cookie-cutter portfolio” (gasp). What are cookie-cutter portfolios? Well, they are broad-based, low-cost, well-diversified portfolios. They are what “everyone else uses”, but they aren’t good enough for JS. Why? Mediocre returns. JS is going to beat the market. The problem is that all the evidence says no one can beat the market over the long term. Red flag number four.

Over and over again, JS insinuated that he was the one who could obtain superior returns. He appeared uber-confident that his unique “Portfolio Boost” strategy would handily outperform those silly cookie-cutter portfolios. “No one else uses these strategies” . . . Wait. If they’re so good, why is no one else using them? Red flag number five.

Then came the charts. Beautiful lines curving ever-upward, leaving the competition in the dust. I could practically hear the dopamine vesicles bursting with excitement and anticipation. Was I the only one who remembered the disclaimer that these charts “might not” be accurate? Was I the only one who saw the word “hypothetical” right on a slide?? Red flag number six.

When it comes to money, attention to detail matters. At one point JS asked if we knew what the largest company in Canada was. He answered his own question: Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ATD-B.TO), and proceeded to make some point about investing. But I don’t remember that point because I was busy wondering if ATD, a convenience store company, had somehow managed to grow bigger than the banks, telecoms and oil companies without me noticing. Nope. ATD is NOT the biggest Canadian company – it is 56th. Red flag number seven.

Perhaps the biggest red flags of all, however, were what was NOT mentioned.

Do you know what’s more important than what you choose to invest in? Financial planning. Even though the title of the talk was “Roadmap to Retirement”, I can’t remember any content about planning, which makes me wonder if JS does it at all. Or, if he does, is it done well? Red flag number eight.

There was no mention of how the manager-client relationship works with his firm. Would physicians have access to JS himself, or one of his staff? How often does he meet with his clients? What does the onboarding look like? The only thing JS mentioned was how easy they would make it to get our money into his hands. Shocker. Red flag number nine.

Perhaps most conspicuous of all was the complete absence of disclosure around fees. The importance of fees cannot be over-stated; they are the single greatest factor in wealth accumulation that we have control over. But JS didn’t mention them. Not once. Even worse, no one in the audience asked about them either.

Not wanting to cause a scene (I was a little riled up at this point), I decided to email JS to inquire about fees a few weeks later.

Me: I was at your webinar a few weeks ago and was wondering if you would send me some documentation around your fee/compensation structure.

JS: My fee structure starts at about 1.95% [of assets under management] and goes down according to account size in a tiered manner.

Me: Thank you. I’m just doing some research at this point.  I think fees are really important, so I’d be interested in seeing those tiers, if possible.

JS: Fees only count in the cookie-cutter portfolio solutions offered by the investment industry where they are the only real differentiator. My portfolios are uniquely constructed and I could charge 4% (I won’t) and still have better returns. I am not prepared to send any additional details at this point.

That’s a big red flag for number ten.

Portfolio managers like JS exist in a different world than we do as physicians. They are running a business. They don’t have training in evidence-based anything. And they know that, when it come to money, most physicians are easy to scare and too busy to care. We are the big fish and they know what lures we like.

It’s time to change this dynamic and empower physicians to ask the right questions, demand transparency, and insist upon an evidence-based approach to managing the money we work so hard for. That’s my mission with the moneySmartMD course.

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