Amid uncertainty, financial planning clients stick with long-term plans

By Anita Dennis

The majority of CPA financial planners’ clients remained confident in their financial plans despite the economic and market uncertainty of recent months, according to the latest AICPA Personal Financial Planning Trends survey.

The vast majority (97%) of CPA financial planners said they had made changes to clients’ financial plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they reported that a relatively low percentage of their clients were making such changes. The CPA financial planners who made changes reported that, on average, only 30% of their clients had altered their financial plans in response to the pandemic.

More than three-quarters (77%) of the respondents whose clients’ plans had changed said that the changes made were minor. Twenty-three percent said the changes were substantial.

A total of 870 CPA financial planners responded to the survey, which was fielded May 5–26.

Changes in investment allocations was the change CPA financial planners most often saw clients make to their financial plans in response to the pandemic. Sixty-two percent of CPA financial planners said clients had updated their investment allocations. Fifty-nine percent said they saw clients alter their spending decisions, and 43% said they saw changes to clients’ tax strategies.

Other ways CPA financial planners saw clients’ plans change included changes to:

  • Retirement accounts (Roth IRAs, IRAs, and qualified plans) (41% of planners saw this change)
  • Retirement income drawdown (33%)
  • Debt management (32%)
  • Estate planning (20%)
  • Health care decisions (12%) 

The changes that CPA financial planners said they or their clients were most likely to make to their investment portfolios during the pandemic included rebalancing their portfolios (57%); buying or increasing their stake in equities (40%); and selling or reducing their stake in equities (31%). Thirty-nine percent of CPA financial planners said they or their clients performed tax loss harvesting, and 35% made Roth conversions. Four in 10 (41%) said they and their clients had made no changes to investments.

With financial plans built for the long term, major adjustments shouldn’t be necessary, said Paula McMillan, CPA/PFS, CGMA, a member of the AICPA Personal Financial Specialist Credential Committee. “Advisers who know their clients well and had already been doing the appropriate level of planning have been able to focus on identifying strategic opportunities” rather than significant changes, she said. “After all, part of the reason we plan is because you do not want to be trying to fix the airplane as you are flying through the air.”

Speaking with CPA financial planners reduces clients’ anxiety

CPAs have been a calming influence during the COVID-19 crisis and have helped clients spot opportunities and make sense of the impact of new legislation.

Most CPA financial planners (80%) said that, due to the pandemic, clients were more anxious or stressed than usual about their financial plans prior to their first conversation with them. However, 62% of the CPA financial planners who said their clients experienced increased stress and anxiety during the pandemic said those clients felt more confident about their financial situation after speaking with them.

CPA financial planners report their communication with clients has increased since the pandemic started. Three-quarters (75%) of respondents said they have spoken with clients more often since the pandemic took hold. Nearly half of all respondents (45%) said they have had significantly more contact with clients than normal.

McMillan advocated reaching out to clients early and often. “When you’re proactive, they know you’re looking out for them,” she said. Each week, she said, her firm each posts one video featuring advisers discussing investments and a second video on more general topics related to the pandemic. The firm also published a recipe book for clients sheltering at home.

Navigating new legislation

CPAs were also actively involved in helping clients understand the provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, P.L. 116-136. The vast majority (90%) of CPA financial planners said they had been called on for advice on Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, while 66% provided guidance on other small business loans made available through the act. Seventy-nine percent gave advice on economic impact payments — or “stimulus checks” — while the same percentage (79%) advised on opportunities created by the postponement of tax filing and payment deadlines. Half (50%) advised clients on filing for unemployment compensation.

The results demonstrate that recent events have given CPAs the opportunity to underscore their commitment and value to clients. “This has been a time to show clients that you’re a thought leader,” McMillan said.

Anita Dennis is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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