‘Uncharted territory for us all’: Wealth managers explain how they’re calming client freakouts as stocks tank — and in-person hand-holding isn’t an option

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  • Business Insider spoke with more than a half-dozen industry insiders, including executives and wirehouse advisers, about recent client conversations and working remotely as the coronavirus spreads.
  • Wealth advisers and the wider wealth management industry around the US are trying to calm clients’ nerves, from home, as asset classes of all stripes crash and economists come out with recession calls. 
  • The market’s recent volatility is unprecedented. Many advisers are echoing mantras they also make when stocks are charging higher: we have a plan in place. 
  • On Wednesday, the finance chief of UBS told a remote industry conference the firm had created “an online viewing room” for clients interested in purchasing art.
  • Visit BI Prime for more wealth management stories.

Earlier this month, before the novel coronavirus outbreak started upending life across the US, Michael Bapis was looking forward to a few business trips he had coming up this spring. 

Bapis, a private wealth adviser and managing director with Vios Advisors at Rockefeller Capital Management in New York City, planned to visit Washington, D.C. He was going to fly to Greece, and to Las Vegas in time for a golf outing.

“Now everything is on hold,” he told Business Insider this week by phone from his at-home office on Long Island, where he started working on Monday instead of heading into the office.

Bapis, whose nine-person team based in New York and Salt Lake City oversees some $1.2 billion in client assets, said he’s been fielding a flood of calls from clients about equity markets’ wild swings.

The S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average, and Nasdaq Composite have all plunged into bear markets in record time as analysts and economists expect the coronavirus to wreak havoc on the global economy. The Federal Reserve executed another emergency interest-rate cut earlier this week to try and cushion the blow. 

As stocks plunged on Wednesday morning, some clients were buying, Bapis said, “not jumping in with two feet, but some people were buying. Then there were some panic-sellers.” 

“We just try to tell them that there’s a plan in place,” he said of jittery clients, adding many portfolios are comprised of a mix of alternative investments, equities, and fixed-income assets. 

New York Stock Exchange Floor Governor Brendan Connolly, left, works with traders Peter Tuchman, John Panin and Sal Suarino, second left to right, on the floor of the NYSE, March 9, 2020.

Richard Drew/AP Photo


Bapis thinks his clients can weather the storm. Though the situation feels dire, he doesn’t think financial conditions mirror the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2009. 

When it comes to calming anxious clients through markets’ plunges and unprecedented volatility, his peers at wealth management firms from large wirehouses and independent firms to small shops are in similar positions. And unlike past crises, they can’t always see clients face-to-face to help talk through their financial future. 

For a window into how the industry is grappling with the fallout, Business Insider spoke with more than a half-dozen industry insiders, including executives and wirehouse advisers, about recent client conversations and working remotely as the coronavirus spreads. 

Advisers — many paid to map out plans for clients, oversee all aspects of their financial well-being, and, yes, hand-hold — have their work cut out for them. Most insiders we spoke with said they were confident in how they have positioned their clients’ portfolios and are aiming to assure them that stocks will recover. But they say the estimated economic toll the novel coronavirus could have, particularly to vulnerable smaller businesses, remains unknown. 

“I don’t think any of us expected something of this nature to take hold,” Citigroup chief financial officer Mark Mason said on March 11 at a financial institutions conference that was switched from in-person to a remote event.

The pandemic has infected at least 222,643 people and killed at least 9,115 worldwide as of Thursday, as Business Insider is tracking. More than 84,000 people known to be infected have since recovered, mostly in China.

‘They know it’s been a bloodbath’

Financial advisers and executives are adjusting in different ways around the US, though can claim some similarities: they’re working remotely, practicing “social distancing,” and having lots of video and phone calls with clients. 

Morgan Stanley, UBS, Wells Fargo, and Merrill Lynch, the four US wirehouse wealth managers with some 52,000 combined US-based financial advisers and thousands of other wealth associates and support staff, have been guiding their financial advisers with different policies in recent weeks.

For many advisers, that’s meant working from home, or going into the office in shifts to prevent forming clusters of people in close quarters. One Texas-based wirehouse adviser wanted to speak with Business Insider for this article, but could not find the time because the market was too volatile and he had to tend to clients. 

Business Insider previously reported on March 10 that Wells Fargo had confirmed an employee working in one of its San Francisco buildings tested positive. That prompted the three competing wirehouses, which all also have offices in that building, to provide guidance on what measures they were taking in response. 

Merrill Lynch

Keith Bedford/Reuters


One Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based financial adviser at Merrill Lynch said he’s been fielding nervous calls from clients about where their portfolios stand as the markets go haywire. 

“It is exhausting to talk them down from their high level of anxiety,” he said, adding many are looking to him to be “the voice of reason and calm.” 

Other firms catering to the ultra-rich are adjusting in their own ways. On Wednesday, the finance chief of UBS, among the largest wealth managers in the world with some $2.6 trillion in client assets, said at a remote industry conference the firm had created “an online viewing room” for clients interested in purchasing art.

“Now, of course, we’ve seen extreme spikes in volumes. We’ve seen drawdowns in credit facilities. We’ve seen extensive margin calls across the industry,” Kirt Gardner said, adding he is seeing that both within the firm’s institutional and wealth management client base. 

A Florida-based adviser with UBS said the firm is not providing viable “official” video options for external communications with clients, which need to be monitored and reviewed for compliance purposes, as is often the case with banks.

While advisers and people in team associate roles (formerly known as “client service associates”) can work from home if they’d like, some support staff are not granted the same flexibility, the adviser said. Other firms, including Charles Schwab, have also said critical on-site staffers like those in network operations and trading would still work in branch locations through the outbreak. 

We’ve seen drawdowns in credit facilities. We’ve seen extensive margin calls across the industry.

A person familiar with the Swiss bank’s policy said the firm has been encouraging employees, including team associates, in its wealth management offices to work remotely. The firm is also granting remote capabilities to all employees, another person familiar with the firm’s policy said.

UBS has also temporarily closed its downtown Miami office after an employee showed coronavirus-like symptoms, according to the first person familiar with the situation.

Over at Darrow Wealth Management, a firm in Concord, Massachusetts managing some $188 million in assets, most of Kristin McKenna’s clients are simply trying not to look at their accounts. 

“They know it’s been a bloodbath, and there’s no sense in stressing themselves out by checking their accounts, because they don’t need the money anytime soon,” McKenna, a wealth adviser and managing director at the firm, told Business Insider. “That makes me so proud, because it’s the right attitude and the best thing to do.”

Her clients want to know, for the most part, the same things: Is this the bottom? When will this end? Should I be doing anything? Should I invest more? Should I go to cash? 

McKenna’s clients who are retired, or nearing retirement, have other concerns, she said, “and rightfully so, this is uncharted territory for us all.” She’s moved all client meetings to screen-sharing, or video conferences. 

‘People are freaking out’ 

In a leafy suburb just outside of New Orleans, a financial adviser at a national wealth management firm said she started working from home on Monday.

“This hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” she said by phone, adding her remote capabilities made it easy for her to communicate with clients. 

“We have a plan in place,” the adviser, who primarily works with clients in the LGBTQ community, said. “We’re not just throwing money in the market when it’s down.”

Clients are expressing more interest in buying up insurance products during the outbreak, she said, as some grow nervous about their own medical situations. Other clients on edge are looking to open accounts they may have wanted to hold off on initially, she said, like a Roth IRA. 

“People are freaking out, so if you don’t have a plan in place, that’s a problem,” she added. 



Reuters


Some firms with presences in areas where the coronavirus outbreak has been most severe are taking special precautions. D.A. Davidson, the financial services firm with a wealth management division overseeing some $50 billion in client assets, has about a fifth of its national offices in Washington state. 

The firm moved Seattle-area employees to remote work on March 9 as the number of coronavirus cases in the area climbed quickly. The state reported 175 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the state total to 1,187 cases and 66 deaths, the Seattle Times reported. A bulk of those cases are in King County, which includes Seattle, the outlet reported.

When Business Insider earlier this month first checked in with Los Angeles-based Andrew Crowell, the vice chairman of wealth management at the firm, he was still working in the office. He’s now working from home. 

D.A. Davidson had to cancel its annual gathering of financial advisers and other wealth management staffers initially scheduled for late March, Crowell said, an event that usually draws between 600 and 700 employees.

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