Unsung Money Mentors: The Legacy Dan Wheeler Left Us

Are you familiar with the butterfly effect, or how small actions can have big, often unexpected ripple effects? The classic example (and its name source) is a butterfly flapping its wings in one locale altering the air pressure just enough to generate a tornado halfway around the world.

Next question: Have you ever heard of Dan Wheeler? Unless you are an independent, fee-only financial advisor, probably not. But despite his relative anonymity, Daniel Webster Wheeler, Jr. is acclaimed in our community as someone who changed the advisory profession for the better.

Sadly, Wheeler passed away recently, on February 15, 2023, at age 72. To honor his memory, we want to share with you the larger-than-life butterfly effect he had on our life and yours.

An Unlikely Champion for Individual Investors

Born in East St. Louis, serving as a Vietnam War Marine, bouncing among various accounting, philanthropic, and financial roles (including being comptroller for a Saudi Arabian arms dealer), landing as a broker at Merrill Lynch in the 1980s … Wheeler might seem like an unlikely hero for individual investors.

But perhaps it was his restless nature that made Wheeler perfect for the role.

Pre-Wheeler, the financial industry fed almost exclusively on commissions. From an investor’s perspective, any advice you received would seem free of charge. But behind the scenes, your “advisor” was earning their keep from commissions paid by third-party providers who stood to benefit from your transactions, including broker/dealers, bankers, insurance companies, and fund managers. Your advisor was also usually employed by one of these same providers, beholden to their sales quotas and other profit-generating priorities.

It’s easy to imagine how rife this model could be with conflicts of interest to trade, trade, trade, and to recommend investments that would enhance a firm’s bottom line, whether or not they made best sense for you. After all, earning commissions and chasing incentives was the only way a financial provider could earn their keep, or sometimes, even keep their jobs.

Reimagining Investment Advice

In the late 1980s, Wheeler characteristically called BS on the financial industry’s inherently flawed compensation model. He’d seen the sausage-making, grown disgusted by what it took to “succeed,” and envisioned a new, more meaningful way to deliver solid investment advice to investors who were otherwise too often being thrown to the wolves.

Even then, Wheeler was not alone in his beliefs. But he became among the first to act on them. At age 40, in a brash, virtually unheard-of move, Wheeler quit Merrill Lynch and opened a solo firm. In lieu of commissions, he charged a transparent fee, which clients paid directly to him for his independent advice. He refused to accept any forms of third-party compensation that might influence his recommendations.

The independent, fee-only advisory model was born. Wheeler blazed a new path, in which advisors were free to structure and manage clients’ portfolios, without being beholden to opaque sales incentives, and third-party conflicts of interest.

An Alliance with Evidence-Based Investing

Wheeler also turned to fellow thought leaders to help him implement his vision. As described in this homage by Financial Times Editor Robin Wigglesworth, Wheeler’s next epiphany arrived when “he discovered the works of … Gene Fama, the University of Chicago professor and father of the efficient markets hypothesis. It all suddenly makes sense, Wheeler thought.”

In another butterfly moment, Wheeler crossed paths with a nascent Dimensional Fund Advisors (with Fama sitting on Dimensional’s board). In its early days, Dimensional was providing no-load/no-commission funds that investors could use to efficiently and effectively capture available dimensions of market returns at lower costs compared to most retail fund equivalents. They grounded their strategies in evidence-based insights provided by Fama and other Nobel laureate financial economists. This approach was also virtually unheard of at the time. 

Together, they agreed it was high time for advisors, fund managers, and investors to all sit on the same side of the table—the investor’s side, that is. But there was a wrinkle. Dimensional was serving institutional investors only.

Once again, Wheeler led the charge. He convinced Dimensional they could—and should—create a legion of like-minded, independent advisors to bring evidence-based investing to the world. Dimensional’s co-CEO Dave Butler describes in his post, “Remembering Dan Wheeler”:

“Dan was convinced that there were other financial advisors who would share his enthusiasm for marrying independent and conflict-free financial advice with cost-effective investment strategies grounded in a scientific approach. He just didn’t know who they were, and they didn’t know about Dimensional. With a larger-than-life personality and enough zeal to overcome the odds, he made this vision a reality.”

In 1989, Wheeler joined Dimensional to build up its advisor channel. He retired in 2011 as its director of global financial advisor services. His business strategy had happened, just as he’d described it.

Advocating for a Fee-Only Future

Today, thanks to Wheeler and other early advocates like him, it’s much easier for investors like you to find an independent, fee-only advisor like us. From our perspective, it’s also much easier for us to provide the kind of fairly priced, fiduciary advice we are proud to provide.

Unfortunately, it also remains all too easy for consumers to end up being swayed by commission-based advice, which is still widely available as well.

We’ll continue to work on that. We’ll continue to beat Wheeler’s drum, insisting, as he did, that investors deserve far better than that. One thing is clear: Were it not for Wheeler’s early effect on investment advice as we know it, our voice would not reverberate nearly as loudly as it now does. Wherever he is now, the irascible Dan Wheeler has earned his wings.

The Right Time to Buy? How to Factor in Higher Mortgage Rates

Recent trends in the housing market have prompted many potential homebuyers to ask: Is now a good time? In the past year, mortgage rates have not only doubled, but they also did so at a time when housing prices had reached historical highs. This combination potentially impacts the home purchasing decisions of millions of Americans. Here’s what to consider when deciding if you are ready to become a homeowner this year.

A Decade of Favorable Rates May be Coming to an End

If you purchased a home over the past two decades, you likely locked in a favorable rate. This is especially true in the years following the 2008 financial crisis and accompanying housing market collapse:

  • In May 2013, the average 30-year fixed rate was 3.35%. For most years until 2019, rates fluctuated in the 3% to 4% range, rarely going above 4%. It was only in 2019 when they briefly spiked to over 5%.
  • Then, because of pandemic-driven interest rate declines, mortgage rates fell even lower, to an average of 2.68% in December 2020.
  • In 2022, however, things changed. Mostly because of factors tied to the pandemic, rates shot up between January and October. In that short 10 months, the average 30-year fixed rate went from 3.22% to 7.08%. It took less than a year for rates to fluctuate more than we’ve seen in decades.

Historical context puts today’s rates in perspective

Think mortgage rates seem high now? When looking at the last decade, or even the early 2000s when they averaged 5% to 6%, sure, they’ve increased. But when viewed from a broader historical perspective, a 7% mortgage rate begins to look much better.

Consider that mortgage rates in the early 1990s were nearly 10%. Or, how about this? In 1981, you may have been signing your name to a contract where you agreed to pay back a mortgage loan with a whopping 18% interest rate.

How rates move from here, and how quickly they do so, is still a matter of debate. But inflation appears to be stabilizing, which has allowed the Federal Reserve to slow the speed at which it increases rates. Still, for new buyers, higher interest rates will have an impact on their budgets and monthly loan payments.

Impact of Mortgage Rates on Payments

When planning for a home purchase, one of the biggest factors buyers tend to consider is “the amount of house” they can get for the money. While the total cost of a house is an important factor, often buyers are more concerned with what they can afford on a monthly basis.

When budgeting using a specific monthly payment, a higher interest rate eats away at the price you can spend on a home because you’ll need to allocate more money each month toward interest, rather than the principal loan payment. The chart below illustrates the impact.

Clearly, higher rates mean potential homebuyers might not be able to afford the same house they could have a year ago. However, for those in this situation, there may still be some options to secure a lower rate.

Opportunities for a Lower Mortgage Rate

  • Shorter Duration Loans: Mortgage loans with shorter durations, such as 15 or 20 years, generally offer lower rates than the more traditional 30-year mortgage. This might be a good option for a buyer who has a larger budget and wants to pay off their mortgage quicker. However, they aren’t usually a great option for those looking to get the most house they can for a certain monthly payment. That’s because even though the rate is reduced, the monthly loan payment will generally increase significantly because the principal portion of the mortgage is compressed into fewer payments.
  • Adjustable-Rate Mortgages (ARMs): ARMs also generally offer lower initial interest rates for a specified period. But, in an uncertain rate environment, ARMs can be risky. When the initial rate period expires, the new rate following the adjustment could be much higher.
  • Compare: Not all lenders offer the same rates. Shop around. An independent financial advisor can also help you compare lenders, rates, terms and other factors to help you find the right loan option for you and your family.
  • Mortgage Discount Points: Sometimes, you’re able to pay a fee upfront to lower your mortgage rate over the life of your loan. This type of fee is known as a “mortgage point.” If you’re planning to live in your new home for a long time, purchasing mortgage points could reduce your interest rate and long-term costs. Since you have to pay an upfront fee, though, there is a breakeven point to make the cost worthwhile. You’ll need to stay in the home long enough so that the amount you save in interest outweighs the cost of the points.
  • Credit Score: If you will be in the market to buy a home in the future and do not have a favorable credit score, it is in your interest to look at ways to improve it. Small changes in your score could have cost-saving benefits when shopping for an interest rate.
  • Down Payment: The amount you put toward your down payment may reduce your interest rate. Also, a higher down payment will lower the principal loan to be paid as well as the associated overall interest.

Mortgage rates aren’t the end of the story, however. There’s another side to the equation: home prices.

Predicting Housing Prices is a Tough Task

Typically, when interest rates rise, housing prices are expected to go down because the housing stock rises and the market becomes less competitive. This means that your dream home could still be in reach, even with higher mortgage rates. Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus about where things are headed.

Although housing prices have leveled off, or even declined in parts of the country, the recent increase in mortgage rates has not affected prices as much as many expected. Easing inflation and lack of inventory may mean that prices don’t decline as much as they have in past high interest rate environments. The good news is prices have at least stabilized, which could offer some comfort to homebuyers.

So, is now a good time to buy a house?

There are plenty of factors to consider beyond those in this article when deciding whether now is the right time for you to buy a house, such as where you are in your family life cycle. Current mortgage rates aren’t necessarily something that should outweigh all those other considerations.

Rates are higher, but not outside of historical norms. If they were to decline significantly, there would be opportunities to refinance at more favorable rates. And although home prices have increased since the pandemic, they have been stabilizing recently. If you are planning to live in your new home for 10 years or more, you likely won’t be affected by near-term price fluctuations.

In the end, buying a home is often as much of an emotional decision as it is a financial decision. Even if the current market isn’t considered optimal for buyers, it may still be the right time for you. If you’re thinking about buying a new home, consider consulting with your advisor who can help you evaluate your options.

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