One Blessed Encounter with a NYC Squeegee Man

Squeegee Man & Car
It cannot be, but this man resembles one who treated me honorably more than two decades ago in NYC and inspired me to share this piece. The New York Post declared, “Squeegee men are back terrorizing NYC streets.” I, too, recall the quickening of my pulse, checking the door locks, and looking back and forth between the ever approaching men spraying car windshields and the traffic light that just will not turn GREEN! While many of these men are rightly termed notorious and infamous for intimidating behavior, I can attest that even the targeted squeegee men are capable of a generous spirit.

It was the summer of 1990, and this west side story began as the night sky quickly darkened and the breeze accelerated, cooling the air and prompting an ominous swirl of clouds. My heartbeat accelerated and my pace quickened as I passed through Hell’s Kitchen on my way to Pier 76 in Manhattan. Empty handed and nervous, every shadow seemed to reach out. Suddenly and despite my lack of a vehicle, an aged and rugged street window washer approached me for spare change. Within seconds of my shaken response, the generous man handed this young college student two quarters for phone calls, pointed me in the right direction, and wished me many blessings.

As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.”

Despite my education, family, and resources, prior to that moment of receiving, I was destitute. By contrast, a man who struggled every day to find a meal, prior to that moment of giving, saw me as an opportunity to add money to his own pocket. Nearly 25 years later, I faithfully believe that wealth can never define a man’s true character. Still, this investment professional finds great personal purpose in enabling families and institutions to relieve three primary wealth burdens: Is their financial advisor trustworthy and rich in integrity? Can they comfortably sleep at night with a fully transparent and understandable portfolio of assets? Are these assets coordinated in order to meet their unique objectives? Wow! Those fifty-cents helped to shape a lifetime career for me.

(Read to the end to access bonus websites for empowerment)

Millions of Americans will soon celebrate a 65th birthday at a
rate of approximately 8,000 per day. The most pressing financial concern of these current or future retirees: Will they outlive their money? This great generation is facing more than just pen to paper analysis on their own spending, saving, budgeting, and views of risk. They must consider the challenge to agree on a financial plan that may include support for children and elderly parents. Extremely low interest-rates and looming entitlement and pension deficits threaten incomes while the costs of living, educating, and staying healthy are escalating. Although making assumptions about the future is complicated, greater threats reside in dark and unpleasant clouds elsewhere. This pending storm troubles me greatly, and I feel compelled to share my two cents.

It is painful to write this; however, when it comes to your financial matters, do not completely trust anyone and verify everything you read, see, or hear. This advice pertains to every corner of Wall Street and Main Street where wolves often lurk. It also reins true to be careful of every magazine cover, news report, website, government statistic, and yes, even your well-intentioned friends and family. No, a Ponzi-schemer or high-frequency trader does not lurk beyond every corner ready to separate you from your hard-earned savings. Instead, quality information, fair dealing, and truly customized guidance are difficult to discern and consistently secure. You probably spent 40 years or more building your nest egg, so spend more than 40 minutes protecting it. Your loved-ones’ futures depends on it!

“What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way?
Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.”
— Mark Twain-1871

Too often, the motivations of the financial services industry, not unlike most industries, is unbalanced in favor of business goals versus client advocacy. For example, merger headlines frequently highlight the need for more distribution of product to more customers. How often do you read, “We executed this merger to ensure our success in providing outstanding advice, personal service, and the very best strategies on behalf of our cherished clients.” I am curious, did your Financial Advisor reveal all the reasons they left one major firm for another? It is possible they received as much as a seven-figure incentive to move while all you received was the inconvenience of new paperwork, passwords, and quarterly statements. Are you paying high fees for standardized portfolio models or index funds while your Financial Advisor’s golf handicap gets lower? The Securities and Exchange Commission has targeted so-called “reverse churning” where investors are placed in accounts that pay a fixed fee but generate little or no activity or services to justify that fee.

It upsets me to read so many stories of improper behavior that are sometimes criminal and every so often just morally wrong. It will take some work on your part to look past clever marketing, impressive technology, and the veil of fiduciary standards claims to find those professionals who will truly be your family’s trusted financial advocate. Face-to-face interviews and introductions from your other trusted advisors, such as tax and legal consultants, will move you in the right direction; unfortunately, this is not enough. Family members must gain a sufficient understanding of financial services and capital markets in order to be savvy consumers of advisory services. I encourage you to take your time and ask tough and pointed questions. The best Advisors will listen, proceed at your desired pace, and encourage detailed inquiries.

Getting fleeced by an auto repair shop or swindled by some other domestic service
is bad enough. The mistrust of mainstream finance has actually increased
fraudulent pitches across smaller communities with an estimated negative impact
measured in multiples of tens of billions of dollars.

It is rare that a gang of unruly villains dressed in business suits is the only powerful threat to retirement success and financial peace of mind. Look no further than the trustworthy person you see in the mirror. Studies show that eligible plan participants do not save enough, and they make unnecessary asset allocation mistakes. Many investors do not heed the simple yet sound advice of saving more and spending less. Human nature gets in the way too, as we are often our own worst enemy when greed, fear, and other behavioral mistakes blur our vision: An abrupt and emotional change to well-reasoned financial plans lowers your odds of retirement success. Some people say it takes money to make money, look no further than the sad bankruptcy statistics for professional athletes and lottery winners. As is true concerning your physical health, you are your own best advocate when it comes to your financial well-being. My advice is for you to stay comfortably engaged with the processes and critical inputs necessary to create and adjust your family’s unique financial plan and investments–DO NOT delegate 100% responsibility and authority.

The National Endowment for Financial Education cites research estimating
that 70 percent of people who suddenly receive a large sum of money
will lose it within a few years.

It has been more than two decades since my journey through Hell’s Kitchen. I remember as if it were yesterday when a man with so little, who struggled to survive the streets of New York City, helped me not only at that moment in Manhattan, but more importantly, often reminds me that no amount of wealth can define our character. I, too, recall the chilling of my heart, checking a friend’s portfolio and fee schedule, and looking back and forth between the faces of the iWolf & Sheepnnocent couple and the ever approaching wolves on their street. We all have an opportunity to be generous stewards of our moral fiber, and I believe it is a mistake to measure our success in financial terms. Yet, issues of money always top the worry list for families. New Stock Market highs and IPO media blitzes may cause two problems: disguise bad advisor behavior and promote investors’ vulnerability to chase the promises of riches. Despite signs of economic recovery and exciting prospects for growth, the global population faces great uncertainty, financial imbalances, and challenges.

Dedicate time to the below checklist, and you will find more trust in your own ability to make sound financial decisions, be better suited to select trusted advisors, sleep more soundly, and improve the odds of your asset’s ability to meet your unique objectives!

Action Checklist:

Read The Millionaire Next Door to explore the impacts of spending and saving (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996)

I know this will be overwhelming; however, please visit the below websites to explore basic and advanced investing topics:
CFA Institute http://www.cfainstitute.org/learning/investor/Pages/index.aspx
Employee Benefit Research Institute http://ebri.org/
National Endowment for Financial Education http://www.smartaboutmoney.org/
American Institute of CPAs http://www.aicpa.org/Pages/default.aspx
Council for Economic Education http://www.councilforeconed.org/
Investopedia (great for quick definitions of financial terms and jargon) http://www.investopedia.com/
Research individual brokers, firms ,and investment advisers at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) website under the “Education” heading http://www.sec.gov/investor#.VC19WfldXOM

Squeegee Man Photo by Rich Docherty:  Wolf & Sheep Illustration: The Economist, 2012;
Clouds Over Manhattan Photo: Andrew Dallos

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I welcome your comments.

About Michael Hakerem, CFA:

Michael embodies client-stewardship in all his work and happens to be a passionate expert in securities analysis, asset allocation, economic analysis, and wealth management solutions.

Email Michael at mdhakerem@gmail.com
Follow Michael on his Blog and Twitter

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