TAMPA — The Financial Planning Association of Tampa Bay's annual symposium couldn't have come at a more fitting time.
Stock markets around the world are fluctuating wildly. The Dow, for the first time ever, has closed up or down 400 points for four straight days. Oil has plummeted, and gold, buoyed by the "flight to safety," hit another record high.
Amid this sea of confusion, about 150 certified financial planners from throughout the area gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in International Plaza on Thursday to nosh on croissants, sip Starbucks coffee and speculate about the future. The theme of the conference seemed particularly apropos: "Planning in a World of Uncertainty: What's Real and What's Not."
The planners predictably were unified in the value of leaning on an expert financial adviser in turbulent times like this.
"This is when an active manager really earns his spurs," said Dale Van Scoyk of FBR Fund Advisors.
Any consensus on what investors should do next? Not so much.
Stay the course. Actively re-allocate your portfolio. Pull out of index funds likely to fall or run sideways for a long time. Avoid small cap financial stocks. Avoid large cap financial stocks. Embrace opportunities in health care or real estate. Go to cash.
As for David McAlvany, whose Colorado-based McAlvany Financial Group specializes in precious metals, the continued upside for gold and silver far outweighs the likelihood that stocks will improve.
McAlvany thinks the stock market rally since 2009 was just a temporary blip in a secular bear market that's persisted the last 10 years and likely to last until at least 2014.
"The idea of a double-dip recession is, in our opinion, a foregone conclusion," he said. "Technically, we're on life support now."
Local association members have been in the certified financial planning business 17-plus years on average. Suffice it to say, most of them have been through a twist or turn in the markets before, said Christine Brown, chapter executive for the FPA of Tampa Bay.
They urged investors not to panic and, especially, not to make the classic mistake of pulling out after the market has had a couple of rough days.
"It can derail a lot of people. They get out at the worst time and miss the best time," said Bobby Shanahan, regional vice president of Horizon Investments LLC in Charlotte, N.C.
It's not evident all their clients are listening.
On Monday alone, more than $1.6 billion was reportedly transferred out of the 4.7 million 401(k) accounts monitored by consultant Aon Hewitt.
Symposium chairman Fred Orr told attendees he believed the country's leaders will do what's necessary "to get our country on the right track. That's the message we need to take back to our clients."
But keynote speaker Barry Asmus of the National Center for Policy Analysis had less faith in Washington, blaming government intervention for causing the 2008 housing crisis. After all, Asmus said to applause, break down the word politics and it comes from poly, meaning many, and tics, meaning "a blood-sucking insect."
Rather, Asmus said, trust in free markets and enterprise to eventually prevail despite the country's massive debt problems. "Is this the tipping point that we're ready to fall off the cliff? No."
Twenty booths were peppered with brochures promising "A guide to market recoveries," "The Road to Income," and "Silver is Savings."
Yet, for all the preaching to investors to remain calm and rational, many financial experts were clearly captivated by the market's daily gyrations.
"Dow is up 130," Tadas Misiunas said as he clicked away on his mobile phone checking Bloomberg Business News.
How many times had he checked out the numbers while manning a booth for U.S. Global Investors that morning? "A lot," he said, adding, "Dow's up about 190 now."
Steve Athanassie, president of Trademark Capital Management in Dunedin, was likewise tethered to the markets, even though he had three people back in the home office keeping track.
He didn't want to be caught off guard like the day last year when he was out of the office during the infamous "flash crash" in which the Dow fell 900 points and then recovered most of the drop in a matter of minutes.
"What if there's another September 11?," Athanassie said. "We all want to know what's going on. Not that we can do anything about it."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]