Given the huge extremes that the stock market experienced during 2009, it's no wonder that investors are looking for stability in an uncertain investing environment. Yet as Wall Street financial advisors try to deliver exactly what investors think they need, they're once again addressing yesterday's issues -- and failing to deal with tomorrow's.
Risk is risque
Right now, it's clear that risk is a four-letter word in most people's minds. Even those who don't follow the investing world closely understand that the problems that brought companies from Fannie Mae
Like chameleons trying to adapt to a sudden shift in their surroundings, many advisors working for big financial companies are changing their tune to emphasize lower-risk strategies. Where hedge funds and commodities investing ran rampant in the risk-seeking environment of recent years, today's sales pitches are more likely to focus on less exciting topics, such as where to get the highest interest rates on your cash or which types of government bonds are most likely to provide the greatest returns.
Advice worth paying for
In one sense, the fact that some financial advisors are branching out to provide a greater range of investments is a positive sign. Whereas it's clear how advisors get compensated when they recommend mutual funds with sales loads or trading stocks with an expensive commission schedule, they don't really have a direct financial incentive to push clients toward bank CDs or Treasury bills. And although some conservative investments, such as fixed annuities, offer sales commissions to advisors who sell them to clients, you could still conclude that many advisors making these low-risk recommendations truly have their clients' best interests at heart.
Yet in a larger sense, this latest trend is just another way in which Wall Street continues to fail Main Street investors. Rather than providing the assertive, forceful advice that ordinary investors need from financial advisors, Wall Street is apparently content to cater to investors' own ideas of what they want -- even when those ideas recklessly endanger their future financial prospects.
There's risk everywhere
The main problem with this current strategic shift among investors is that it comes two years too late. Emphasizing investments that would have worked well to protect investors from a devastating bear market would have made a lot of sense when the market was hitting new highs back in 2007. But trying to fight the last war with those strategies is irresponsible. Although the possibility of a relapse in the stock market certainly exists, past experience shows that the best opportunities of tomorrow are likely to be much different.
Moreover, the suggestion that these "safe" investments are truly free of risk is just as misleading as the idea that leverage wasn't a threat to banks during the last bull market. Treasury bonds have fallen in value during 2009, and if economic recovery and high budget deficits spur further increases in interest rates, they could easily suffer even greater losses. Investors in gold see the precious metal heading to record heights, but the metal's nearly $100 drop in the past week shows how volatile such an investment can be. Even an FDIC-insured bank account will provide no protection if inflation returns in full force.
In contrast, even if investors think of stocks as risky, some provide more security against certain types of risk. Dividend-payers like Sysco
What investors need
If you're going to pay for financial advice, you need someone who'll tell you the whole story about your investments. Rather than accepting guidance from someone who simply parrots back your own concerns, demand thoughts that challenge your own and well-reasoned investment ideas that stretch your comfort level. If you can't get that from your advisor, then you'll be far better off doing the work to learn how to invest on your own.
Some investors are capitalizing on fear by investing in securities with big profit-making potential. Find out from Ollen Douglass which investments quadrupled his money.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger tries to close the barn door before the horse leaves. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Western Union is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Apollo Group, Sysco, and Western Union are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. PepsiCo and Sysco are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Sysco. Motley Fool Options formerly recommended writing puts on Western Union. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is red-hot -- no mistake.