Passive Investing, Like Buying Used Cars, Is a Wise Strategy

More on Passive Investing

By Rick Kahler MS CFP®


Need a car? Buy used. It’s what I always do. My sweet spot is a low-mileage vehicle two or three years old, which I routinely can find for 25% to 35% less than the original cost. I recommend this strategy to my clients, staff, and friends.

If everyone followed this advice, you’d think the approach would eventually fail dismally. After all, someone has to buy new cars. No worries, though; there are millions of people who will continue to buy new cars. Financial planners have recommended this strategy for decades, and nothing has changed in the supply of great deals on low-mileage cars.

The same applies to investors who invest “passively” in index mutual funds. Passive investors embrace a philosophy that extremely few investors can beat the average return of the stock market. Research by Dalbar, Inc. shows that over a 20-year-period, 97% of fund managers who tried to beat the market actually ended up doing worse than the market average. They suggest that, instead of paying a manager to try and beat the market, you pocket that money yourself and beat them by investing in low cost index mutual funds that simply earn average market returns.

As you might guess, those pushing the high-fee mutual funds that are actively trying to beat the market returns are the big Wall Street firms that need your money to keep their companies thriving. Not surprisingly, these firms regularly attempt to dissuade investors from passive investing.


active mamt


An article at by Larry Swedroe, the director of research for The BAM Alliance, lists a few of these attempts. Representatives for two large brokerage firms call passive investing “worse than Marxism” and those that do it “parasites.” Another, however, gives a more reasoned warning that is worth exploring. Tim O’Neill, global co-head of Goldman Sach’s investment management division, says “if passive investing gets too big, the market won’t function.”

Up to a point, this idea has some validity. Swedroe says, “Active managers play an important societal role. Specifically, their actions determine security prices, which in turn determine how capital is allocated. And it is the competition for information that keeps markets highly efficient, both in terms of information and capital allocation.”

Passive investors get a free ride at the expense of active investors. As Swedroe notes, they receive all the benefits from the role that active managers play without having to pay their costs. Passive investors need active investors to continue to believe they can beat the markets, just as used car buyers need new car buyers to supply them with used cars.

Just how likely is it that all the people who invest with active investors will figure out that paying active managers is not in their best interests and will shift to passive investing? About the same chance everyone will stop buying new cars.

Consider this. A study by Vanguard, one of the largest passive fund managers, found that $10 trillion, or 20% of the global market equity, is invested in index funds. More importantly, this 20% accounted for only 5% of all the trading. It’s the trading that drives market prices and makes markets efficient and liquid. Swedroe says “we are nowhere near” the chance that passive investing will become so dominant that the efficiency of the markets would be threatened.

Just as there is no immediate threat of the used car supply drying up because no one is buying new cars, there is also little chance that the majority of investors will give up the delusional dream of beating the market. That means wise used-car buyers and wise passive investors can keep on following their wise wealth-building strategies.



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SURVEY: Surgical Cost Spending




EHIR was started nearly a decade ago out of a need for objective support in identifying and assessing emerging solutions to sift through the noise and stay ahead of the curve amid a rapidly changing competitive landscape. EHIR provides a streamlined and efficient innovation intake and evaluation process along with valuable insights to the world’s leading employers.


Employer Health Innovation Roundtable, LLC

4 KEY Findings

 •  The survey found that 59% indicated lowering costs was a very high, or high, priority – up from 52% prior to the pandemic.
 •  Over half of the employers surveyed indicated that surgical costs were a significant issue, with surgery accounting for 34% of their total healthcare spend. About 75% noted that by controlling surgery costs, they can largely reduce their total spend.


*  Even though 69% of employers have a COE (Center of Excellence), the majority of them have been implemented within the past two years, and not with an eye to specifically reducing surgical costs.
 *  Only 9% of respondents rely on carrier-sponsored COEs, which suggests that they are seeking out third-party vendors for this benefit, as either the sole COE provider or as a partner with the employer’s health plan carrier.

Source: EHIR and Carrum Health via PRNewswire, May 4, 2022



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COVID, Inflation and Value Investing

Millennial Investing


By Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA



COVID, Inflation, and Value Investing: Millennial Investing
I was recently interviewed by Millennial Investors podcast. They sent me questions ahead of time that they wanted to ask me “on the air”. I found some of the questions very interesting and wanted to explore deeper. Thus, I ended up writing answers to them (I think through writing). You can listen to the podcast here

By the way, I often get asked how I find time to write. Do I even do investment research? Considering how much content I’ve been spewing out lately, I can understand these questions. In short – I write two hours a day, early in the morning (usually from 5–7am), every single day. I don’t have time-draining hobbies like golf. I rarely watch sports. I have a great team at IMA, and I delegate a lot. I spend the bulk of my day on research because I love doing it. 

This is not the first time I was asked these questions. If you’d like to adapt some of my daily hacks in your life, read this essay.

How has Covid-19 changed the game of value investing?

Value investing has not changed. Its fundamental principles, which I describe in “The Six Commandments of Value Investing,” (one-click sign up here to receive it in your inbox) have not changed one iota. The principles are alive and well. What has changed is the environment – the economy. 

I learned this from my father and Stoic philosophers: You want to break up complex problems into smaller parts and study each part individually. That way you can engage in more-nuanced thinking. 

Let’s start with what has not changed. Our desire for in-person human interaction has not changed. At the beginning of the pandemic, we (including yours truly) were concerned about that. We were questioning whether we were going to ever be able to shake hands and hug again. However, the pandemic has not changed millions of years of human evolution – we still crave human warmth and personal interaction. We need to keep this in mind as we think about the post-pandemic world. 

What we learned in 2021 is that coronavirus mutations make predicting the end of the pandemic an impossible exercise. From today’s perch it is safe to assume that Covid-19 will become endemic, and we’ll learn how to live with it. I am optimistic on science. 

Let’s take travel, for example. Our leisure travel is not going to change much – we are explorers at heart, and as we discovered during the pandemic, we crave a change in scenery. However, I can see business travel resetting to a lower base post-pandemic, as some business trips get resolved by simple Zoom calls. Business travel is about 12% of total airline tickets, but those revenues come with much higher profit margins for airlines. 

Work from home. I am still struggling with this one. The norms of the 20th-century workplace have been shaken up by the pandemic. Add the availability of new digital tools and I don’t need to be a Nostradamus to see that the office environment will be different. 

By how much? 

The work from home genie is out of the bottle. It will be difficult to squeeze it back in. My theory right now is that customer support, on-the-phone types of jobs may disproportionately get decentralized. The whole idea of a call center is idiotic – you push a lot of people into a large warehouse-like office space, where they sit six feet apart from each other and spend eight hours a day on the phone talking to customers without really interacting with each other. Current technology allows all this work to be done remotely.

On another hand, I can see that if you have a company where creative ideas are sparked by people bumping into each other in hallways, then work from home is less ideal. But again, I don’t think about it in binary terms, but more like it’s a spectrum. Even for my company. Before the pandemic, half of our folks worked outside of the IMA main office in Denver. Most of our future hires will be local, as I believe it is important for our culture. However, we provide a certain number of days a year of remote work as a benefit to our in-office employees. 

From an investment perspective, we are making nuanced bets on global travel normalizing. We don’t own airlines – never liked those businesses, never will. Most of their profitability comes from travel miles – they became mostly flying banks. 

Office buildings I also put into a too-difficult-to-call pile. There was already plenty overcapacity in office real estate before the pandemic, and office buildings were priced for perfection. The pandemic did not make them more valuable. Maybe some of that overcapacity will get resolved through conversion of office buildings into apartments. By the way, this is the beauty of having a portfolio of 20–30 stocks: I don’t need to own anything I am not absolutely head over heels in love with.

What is the importance of developing a process to challenge your own beliefs?

My favorite quote from Seneca is “Time discovers truth.” My goal is to discover the truth before time does. I try to divorce our stock ownership from our feelings. 

Let me give you this example. If you watch chess grandmasters study their past games, they look for mistakes they have made, moves they should have made, so in the future they won’t make the same mistake twice. I have also noticed they say “white” and “black,” not “I” and “the opponent.” This little trick removes them from the game so that they can look for the best move for each side. They say “This is the best move for white”; “This is the best move for black.”

You hear over and over again from people like Warren Buffett and other value investors that we should buy great companies at reasonable prices, and I’d like to dig deeper on that idea and its two key parts, great companies and reasonable prices. Could you tell us what it takes for a company to qualify as a “great” company?

This question touches on Buffett’s transformation away from Ben Graham’s “statistical” approach, i.e., buying crappy companies that look numerically cheap at a significant discount to their fair value, to buying companies that have a significant competitive advantage, a high return on capital, and a growth runway for their earnings. 

The first type of companies often will not be high-quality businesses and will most likely not be growing earnings much. Let’s say the company is earning $1. Its earnings power will not change much in the future – it is a $5 stock trading at 5 times earnings. If its fair value is $10, trading at 10 times earnings, And if this reversion to fair value happens in one year, you’ll make 100%. If it takes 5 years then your return will be 20% a year (I am ignoring compounding here). So time is not on your side. If it takes 10 years to close the fair value gap, your return halves. Therefore you need a bigger discount to compensate for that. Maybe, instead of buying that stock at a 50% discount, you need to buy a company that is not growing at a 70% discount, at $3 instead of $5. This was pre-Charlie Munger, “Ben Graham Buffett.” 

Then Charlie showed him there was value in growth. If you find a company that has a moat around its business, has a high return on capital, and can grow earnings for a long time, its statistical value may not stare you in the face. But time is on your side, and there is a lot of value in this growth. If a company earns $1 today and you are highly confident it will earn $2 in five years, then over five years, if it trades at 10 times earnings, a no-growth company may be a superior investment if the valuation gap closes in less than 5 years, while one with growing earnings is a superior investment past year 5. 

Both stocks fall into the value investing framework of buying businesses at a discount to their fair value, looking for a margin of safety. With the second one, though, you have to look into the future and discount it back. With the first one, because the lack of growth in the future is not much different from the present, you don’t have to look far.

There is a place for both types of stocks in the portfolio – there are quality companies that can still grow and there are companies whose growth days are behind them. In our process we equalize them by always looking four to five years out. 

What qualifies as a “reasonable price”? 

We are looking for a discount to fair value where fair value always lies four to five years out. In our discounted cash flow models, we look a decade out. Our required rate of return and discount to fair value will vary by a company’s quality. There are more things that can go wrong with lower-quality companies than with the better ones. High-quality companies are more future-proof and thus require lower discount rates. We are incredibly process-driven. We have a matrix by which we rate all companies on their quality and guestimate their fair value five years out, and this is how we arrive at the price we want to pay today. 

Why do you believe that buying great companies sometimes isn’t a great investing strategy?

Because that is first-level thinking, which only looks at what stares you in the face – things that are obvious even to untrained eyes and thus to everyone. First-level thinking ignores second-order effects. If everyone knows a company is great, then its stock price gets bid up and the great company stops being a great investment. With second-level thinking you need to ask an additional question, which in this case is, what is the expected return? Being a great company is not enough; it has to be undervalued to be a good stock. 

We are looking for great companies that are temporarily (key word) misunderstood and thus the market has fallen out of love with them. Over the last decade, when interest rates only declined, first-level thinking was rewarded. It almost did not matter how much you paid for a stock. If it was a great company, its valuations got more and more inflated. 

You’re a big advocate of having a balanced investment approach that is able to weather all storms. What investments have you found that you expect will be able to hold their buying power if inflation persists through 2022 and 2023?

There are many different ways to answer this question. In fact, every time I give an answer to this question I arrive at a new answer. You want to own companies that have fixed costs. You want assets that have a very long life. I am thinking about pipeline companies, for instance. They require little upkeep expense, and their contracts allow for CPI increases (no decreases); thus higher inflation will add to their revenue while their costs will mostly remain the same. 

We own tobacco companies, too. I lived in Russia in the early ’90s when inflation was raging. I smoked. I was young and had little money. I remember one day I discovered that cigarette prices had doubled. I had sticker shock for about a day. I gave up going to movies but somehow scraped up the money for cigarettes. 

Whatever answer I give you here will be incomplete. It’s a complex problem, and so each stock requires individual analysis. In all honesty, you have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. 

With higher inflation, you’d expect bond yields to rise, since bond investors will demand a higher return to keep pace with inflation. However, CPI inflation is currently over 6%, and the 10-year Treasury is sitting at 1.5%. Why haven’t we seen Treasury yields rise more, and what does it mean for investors if a spread this wide persists?

I am guessing here. My best guess is that so far investors have bought into the Fed’s rhetoric that inflation is transitory due to the economy’s rough reopening and supply chain problems. I wrote a long article on this topic. To sum up, part of the inflation is transitory but not all of it. 

I am somewhat puzzled by the labor market today. I’ve read a few dozen very logical explanations for the labor shortage, from early retirement of baby boomers to the pandemic triggering a search for the meaning of life and thus people quitting dead jobs and all becoming Uber drivers or starting their own businesses. Labor is the largest expense on the corporate income statement, and if it continues to be scarce then inflation will persist. 

I read that employees are now demanding to work from home because they don’t want to commute. The labor shortages are shifting the balance of power to employees for the first time in decades. This will backfire in the long run, as employers will be looking at how to replace employees with capital, in other words, with automation. If you run a fast-food restaurant and your labor costs are up 20–30% or you simply cannot hire anyone, you’ll be looking for a burger flipping machine. 

If we continue to run enormous fiscal deficits, then the US dollar will crack. The pandemic has accelerated a lot of trends that were in place. We were on our way to losing our reserve currency status. Let me clarify: That is going to be a very slow, very incremental process. It will be slow because currency pricing is not an absolute but a relative endeavor, and the alternatives out there are not great. But two decades ago the US dollar was a no-brainer decision and today it is not. So we’ll see countries slowly diversifying away from it. A weaker US dollar means higher, non transitory inflation. 

You wrote The Little Book of Sideways Markets, in which you point out that history shows that a sideways market typically occurs after a secular bull market. With the role that the Federal Reserve plays in the financial markets, do you still anticipate that valuations will normalize in the coming years?

I say yes, in part because declining interest rates have pushed all assets into stratospheric valuations. Rising bond yields and valuations pushed heavenward are incompatible. Yes, I expect valuations to do what they’ve done every time in history: to mean revert. In big part this will depend on interest rates, but if rates stay low because the economy stutters, then valuations will decline – this is what happened in Japan following their early-1990s bubble. Interest rates went to zero or negative, but valuations declined. 

The stock market today is very much driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. Is there a point at which they are able to take the gas off the pedal and allow markets to normalize?

I am really puzzled by this. We simply cannot afford higher interest rates. Going into the pandemic our debt-to-GDP was increasing steadily despite the growing economy. In fact, you could argue that most of our growth has come from the accumulation of debt (the wonders of being the world’s reserve currency). Our debt has roughly equaled our GDP, and all of our economic growth in some years equaled the growth in government debt.

During the pandemic we added 40% to our debt in less than two years. We have higher debt-to-GDP than we had during WWII. After the war we reduced our debt. Also, we were a different economy then – we were rebuilding both the US and Europe. As a society we had a high tolerance for pain. 

Just like debt increases stimulate growth, deleveraging reduces growth. Also, I don’t think politicians or the public care about high debt levels. So far debt has only brought prosperity. However, higher interest rates would blow a huge hole in government budgets. If the 10-year Treasury rises a few percentage points, interest rates will increase by the amount we spend on national defense. One thing I am certain about is that our defense spending will not decline, so higher interest rates will lead to money printing and thus inflation. 

I am also puzzled by the impact of higher interest rates on the housing market. Housing will simply become unaffordable if interest rates go up a few percentage points. Loan-to-income requirements will price a huge number of people out of the market, and housing prices will have to decline. This Higher rates will also reduce the number of transactions in the real estate market, because people will be locked into their 2.5% mortgages, and if they sell they’d have to get 4-5-6% mortgages. There are a lot of second-order effects that we are not seeing today that will be obvious in hindsight. Housing prices drive demand in adjacent sectors such as home improvement. And think of the impact of higher rates on any large purchase, for example a car. 

We’re seeing the continuing rise of China has a big player in the global economy, and I know you like to invest internationally. As a value investor, how do you think about China’s rise as a global powerhouse and how it might affect the financial markets?

During the Cold War there were two gravitational centers, and as a country you had to choose one – you were either with the Soviets or with the West. Something similar will likely transpire here, too. I have to be careful using the Cold War analogy, because the Cold War was driven by ideology – it was communism vs. capitalism. Now the tension is driven by economic competition and our unwillingness to pass the mantle of global leader to another country. 

We are drawing red lines in technology. Data is becoming the new oil. China is using data to control people, and we want to make sure they don’t have control over our data. Therefore, the West wants to make sure that our technology is China-free. The US, Europe, and India will likely be pursuing a path where Chinese technology and Chinese intellectual property are largely disallowed. We have already seen this happening with Huawei being banned from the US and Western Europe. Other countries, including Russia, will have to make a choice. Russia will go with China.

Also, we are concerned that most chip production is centered in Taiwan, which at some point may be grabbed by China. The technological ecosystem would then have to undergo a significant transformation. This has already started to happen as we begin to bring chip production back to the US and Europe. 

The pandemic made us realize that globalization had made us reliant on the kindness of strangers, and we found we could not even get facemasks or ventilators. 

Globalization was deflationary; deglobalization will be inflationary.

This increased tension between countries has led to your investing in the defense industry. Could you tell us how you think about this industry? 

Despite the rise of international tensions, the global defense industry has been one of sectors that still had reasonable (sometimes unreasonably good) valuations. We have invested in half a dozen US and European defense companies. The US defense budget is unlikely to decline in the near future. There is a common misperception that Republicans love defense and Democrats hate it. Those may be party taglines, but history shows that defense spending has been driven by macro factors – it did not matter who was the occupant of the White House. 

There are a lot of things to like about defense businesses. They are an extension of the US or European governments. Most of them are friendly monopolies or duopolies. They have strong balance sheets, good returns on capital, and predictable and growing (maybe even accelerating) demand. They are noncyclical. They have inflation escalators built into their contracts. I don’t have to worry about technological disruptions. They are also a good macro hedge.

We added to our European defense stocks recently for several reasons. Europe has underinvested in defense, relying on the US Yet we have shown time and again that we may not be as dependable as we once were. 



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Why Your Financial Planner May be Replaced?

 By a Computer [FIN-TECH]

[By Rick Kahkler CFP®]

If Ken Fisher is right, in the future you will be talking to a computer about your asset allocation and loving every minute of it.

Fisher has built Fisher Asset Management into the largest fee-only investment advisory firm in the US, with over $100 billion under management. Speaking at the Investment News Innovation Summit in New York City on April 17, 2019, he said, “We need to get machines talking to people in a way that is more human than human.”

If you view “talking to machines” mostly in terms of using four-letter words when your computer locks up, you might be skeptical.

Fisher explained there are six personality profiles that fit almost every investor. “When you (or a machine) knows what they are, then you deal with them according to their profile.” In Ken’s thinking, machines will be able to spot the profile and then, using an algorithm free of human error, interact with the customer in a manner superior to a human advisor. He sees this happening within the next ten years.

I asked him, “What happens to the human advisors when machines talk to your customers better than a human?” Ken replied, “I don’t know the answer to that question,” suggesting that people will need to gain new skills and move on to the next thing. “You can’t keep doing the same thing you were before or you will be out of luck.”

As shocking as this idea is to investment advisors, it’s not at all far-fetched. In an “Axios AM Deep Dive” article on April 6, 2019, Mike Allen quoted Axios Future Editor Steve LeVine as saying that Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) will be the first generation to fully face the new age of automation, which could wipe out jobs faster than the economy creates new ones.

Like most before them, many Millennials have taken entry level, minimum wage jobs. Allen suggests that, unlike prior generations, they may not find much of a ladder up from there. Part of that is because of the aftermath of the great recession and part is because technology and globalization have reduced middle-wage jobs.

The median income of younger Millennials is $21,000, according to the AXIOS article. Contrast that to the median wage of $84,000 for statisticians and financial analysts, both of which have high concentrations of older Millennials.

It’s those $84,000 a year jobs that Fisher thinks will be done better by machines. If this happens, it will disrupt the financial services industry in spectacular fashion.

Danielle Fava of TD Ameritrade didn’t agree that human investment advisors will become obsolete in ten years. She does see voice digital assistants making email obsolete. She also believes that artificial intelligence will “enhance the conversations advisors are having with their clients,” rather than replace the human advisor.




While staring my professional demise in the face in ten years, I drew solace from knowing I am nearing the end of my career. Another fact that should comfort some financial professionals is the difference between investment advisors and analysts (like those who work for Ken Fisher) and financial planners. Investment advising is relatively easy; that’s why a machine may be able to do it all in ten years. Also, investment advice comprises only a small fraction of what financial planners do. It will take a really, really smart machine to integrate all the complex aspects of someone’s financial picture into a sensible plan.


So maybe ten years from now a machine will flawlessly figure out your asset allocation. But it may be another ten years before your financial planner is a machine, and maybe another 50 before a machine can do financial therapy.


Your thoughts are appreciated.


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On Death Talk, Risk Management and Financial Planning

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A financial planning challenge

Rick Kahler MS CFP

By Rick Kahler MS CFP®

One of the challenges in financial planning is the strong taboo in our society against talking about money. Another powerful taboo is talking about death when someone has a serious illness.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, for example, the focus is almost always on treatment and recovery. Rarely is there any discussion of what happens if the treatment doesn’t work. There seems to be an unspoken belief that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen.

Not talking about death isn’t limited to family and friends, according to Dr. Carol McClanahan, MD, CFP®

For example, in a recent presentation to financial advisors at the Insiders Forum in Phoenix, she pointed out that many doctors shy away from talking about dying until the very end.

Given this strong reluctance to talk about both money and dying, how can you work with a financial advisor to deal with the financial and emotional issues that go along with a family member’s serious illness?

Here are some suggestions based on Dr. McClanahan’s talk:

Don’t expect someone facing a serious illness to give you an accurate prognosis of their disease, as they are often in denial. McClanahan suggests turning to “Dr. Google” for accurate information. Specifically, she recommends the National Institutes of Health (, which has statistics on every disease imaginable.

  1. Learn to interpret what doctors say. For example, when a cancer patient is told chemotherapy has a 25% chance of working, the average patient hears “working” as “being cured.” “Working” actually means there is a 25% chance of the tumor shrinking. Often the chances of being cured are far less than 25%, and the physical effects of chemotherapy can be devastating to one’s remaining quality of life. McClanahan says, “Most of what we do to people at the end of life is unnecessary torture.”
  2. Find out early about options for palliative care. This is multidisciplinary care focused on treating the symptoms of treatment, relieving suffering, and improving the quality of life. Because of denial and unwillingness to talk about what happens if they don’t get better, many patients never get into palliative care or get into it way too late. Similarly, most patients wait too long to get into hospice care. The average time in hospice care, according to McClanahan, is just 19 days.
  3. Share your money concerns with the advisor. McClanahan says that anxiety over having enough money to pay for their care and the resulting effect on the family finances are two of the top concerns patients have. Interestingly, most financial advisors focus instead on whether advance directives, estate documents, and funeral plans are in place.
  4. Call the advisor’s attention to signs that a person’s illness is advancing. These can include a shortened attention span, not remembering details of conversations, word-finding difficulties, inability to multitask, mental fuzziness, and depression. Ask advisors to deal with these symptoms: meet early in the day, address the most important issues first, keep meetings short, include family members as appropriate, and put action items in writing.
  5. Realize that sharing your emotions is part of financial planning. Serious illness affects people in many different ways, but the underlying concerns are always emotional. Discuss those concerns with the advisor, and work together to create a comprehensive plan addressing both death and recovery. Remember that, as McClanahan put it, “preparation for a negative outcome does not reduce the risk of cure.”




The role of the financial planner

The role of a financial planner is to help clients prepare for the future, including the end of life. When that future becomes “now,” don’t hesitate to ask for the planner’s emotional support as well as financial advice. 


Your thoughts and comments on this ME-P are appreciated. Feel free to review our top-left column, and top-right sidebar materials, links, URLs and related websites, too. Then, subscribe to the ME-P. It is fast, free and secure.

Speaker: If you need a moderator or speaker for an upcoming event, Dr. David E. Marcinko; MBA – Publisher-in-Chief of the Medical Executive-Post – is available for seminar or speaking engagements. Contact:




 Risk Management, Liability Insurance, and Asset Protection Strategies for Doctors and Advisors: Best Practices from Leading Consultants and Certified Medical Planners™  Comprehensive Financial Planning Strategies for Doctors and Advisors: Best Practices from Leading Consultants and Certified Medical Planners™


PODCAST: In-Patient Psychiatric Care

By Eric Bricker MD






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