Ask the Ethicist

TV show paints bleak picture of financial planners

The lead character in the series 'Ozark' is reinforcing Americans' negative view of advisers

May 29, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

By Dan Candura

It is not often that a financial planner is portrayed on television or films doing what real financial planners do. Most TV series and movies feature over-the-top portrayals of bombastic brokers, crooked hedge fund managers and greedy investment pros living lavish lifestyles with fancy cars, palatial homes and dysfunctional families. The truth, of course, is far from that.

Several years ago a former CEO of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards floated the idea of pitching Hollywood on a TV series about a CFP professional and how he or she helped clients accomplish their goals. Picture our hero helping a struggling family to send a brilliant daughter to college, or an episode where a family recovers from a tragic accident because their financial planner made sure they had enough disability coverage.

With America so infatuated with lotteries, would a series about a financial planner with a niche practice focusing on mega-winners produce enough drama while also teaching the public about diversification and risk? Think about it as a restyled reboot of the 1950s series "The Millionaire," where instead of giving away money each week the financial planner helps the suddenly wealthy to navigate the turbulent seas of affluence.

The idea didn't make the cut, although current CFP Board CEO Kevin Keller has succeeded in gaining broad support for a public awareness campaign to educate consumers about the importance of credentialed advice.

But NetFlix did create an original series where the lead character is a financial planner.

The first scene of "Ozark" opens with a mundane meeting between financial planner Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman) and a young professional couple as they describe their financial goals: a bigger house, college for the kids, retirement. Marty appears distracted, as if he has heard all of this too many times before. As the camera pans over Marty's shoulder we catch a glimpse of his computer screen and learn the reason for his lack of attentiveness. On screen is a graphic sex video and — spoiler alert — we learn later that one of the participants is Marty's wife.

The scene is interrupted when Marty's partner in the firm barges into the office to challenge Marty; not on the video he is clandestinely viewing, but on why he is meeting with the couple when they had agreed that they were just too busy to take on any new clients. Then using a classic Bernie Madoff ploy, he reels them in by telling them that the firm could make an exception — just this once — if they sign on right away.

Marty knows his partner is lying but he doesn't flinch, although he does switch off the video. He plays along with the story, brilliantly dealing with the unexpected intrusion. Of course, the clients jump at the opportunity fearing they will be left out. This is the first of many lies Marty Byrde tells over the course of the first season and he tells a lot of them — to everyone. You'll have to watch Season 1 to count them all.

To our dismay, the takeaway for viewers of "Ozark" is that financial planners lie. They obfuscate. They exaggerate. They make complicated stuff up to fool people about returns and performance. They will do anything and everything to come out ahead. They cannot be trusted. They lie and they are good at it. Sometimes the lies are small and sometimes they are whoppers. The lies are intended to benefit the adviser and boost his or her compensation. People believed this about advisers before Marty Byrde and it will be harder to change their minds after Marty Byrde.

In America today, we have come to expect, and accept, falsehoods regularly — whether it be from financial advisers or our political leaders. Our culture has become accustomed to fakery whether it is the lip sync of a song at an event or the birthplace of a president. We believe so much in the prevalence of untruth that we fail to recognize conspiracy theories or even propaganda of outlandish proportions. We live in a world where journalism is equated with fake news and intelligence analysts are deep state operatives.

To right this ship is going to demand that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of integrity. There is honor in telling the truth and there should be disgrace in lies. We must hold ourselves accountable for providing advice that is in the best interests of each and every client we serve. We must place our client's interests first — ahead of our own and ahead of our firm's. We cannot tolerate alternate facts or less than objective analysis. To do less is to risk becoming Marty Byrde and while it may be entertaining to watch, the consequences of unethical behavior are not. Can't wait for Season 2.

(More: Ask the Ethicist: CFP professional wonders about possible part-time gig)

Dan Candura is founder of the education and consulting firm Candura Group. Write to him to submit a question. All submissions will be treated confidentially.

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