Navigating investor apathy: A candid look at the challenges faced by today’s advisors

Executive summary:

  • Many advisors are finding their clients show little interest these days in how the markets are doing
  • Associate Divisional Director Andrew St John thinks many investors have succumbed to either Gullibility, Irritability, or Complacency
  • He provides some suggestions on how advisors can re-engage clients

In my time as an advisor, I was no stranger to seeing investors shy away from markets. And recently I’ve been hearing a lot about investor apathy from my team. It’s quite surprising given the significant events of the past three years. We’ve had to deal with the challenges brought on by Covid, followed by the recovery phase, and we’ve also navigated through market selloffs and surges. It’s been quite a rollercoaster ride, yet it appears that many investors aren’t as concerned as one might expect.  

If you have clients who were upset about the markets last year and have no real concerns this year, welcome to the club.

I think a lot of investors are currently displaying behaviors characterized by what I call the “GIC mode.” To be clear: I’m not referring to Guaranteed Investment Certificates (GICs), even though there is currently a substantial amount of money invested in these cash-like instruments or money market funds. That’s a separate topic altogether. When I refer to the “GIC mode” I’m actually talking about the mindset characterized by Gullibility, Irritability, and Complacency. From what I have seen, many investors currently demonstrate one of these characteristics. Allow me to elaborate:


My team continues to encounter advisors who say their investors are naïve about how much money they will need in retirement. Many of these investors are parking their funds in cash holdings. I guess they’ve become gullible to the lure of those high yields.

Yes, 5% yields are great, but if you do the math, earning 5% pretax might not be enough to build a healthy nest egg – especially considering the impact of inflation. Take my generation, for example. I’m a Millennial. On average, single individuals under 35 have saved a mere $40,100 for retirement.1 That is not a misprint… $40,100. This amount is unlikely to suffice, especially considering the average life expectancy for men my age is 81. It’s clear that many of us are naïve about our retirement needs and gullible to the appeal of higher interest rates offered by short-term cash instruments. We all have our moments of gullibility about various aspects of life: I, for one, still hold hope that I can get a six-pack, despite my friends humorously referring to my physique as a “dad bod”. It is what it is.

Sometimes advisors and other financial professionals need to have tough conversations and now may be one of those times. Once effective way to prompt clients to contemplate their future is by using a “future face” app. Surprisingly, seeing a potential future self can be quite eye-opening for some clients, leading them to consider the lifestyle they’d like to maintain and its associated costs.

Furthermore, offering more personalized financial products for clients may be beneficial. Clients appreciate customization, much like the extensive drink options available at Starbucks. Did you know there are around 87,000 drink combinations? That’s right, 87,000! That means nearly every person can have their caffeinated beverage EXACTLY the way they want it. This is something that Starbucks has introduced to coffee culture and this trend has come to financial services. I’ve observed that the more tailored solutions you can provide for to clients, the more likely they are to engage in thoughtful discussions about their investment journey. At Russell Investments we can help guide that conversation.


I think the last few years have really taken a toll on people’s emotions. All clients ever hear or read is bad news. Their stress over those issues not only makes them irritable, it does not allow them to make the best decisions. I get it. I get quite stressed when the Leafs lose to the Habs, and I'm pretty cranky the next day, but I can't allow that to affect my investing decisions.

What concerns me most is that some clients seem to be disregarding how much their stress can affect their returns. Our 2023 Value of an Advisor study revealed that the value advisors provided to their clients has never been higher, with the advisor's role as a behavioral coach being the most significant contributor to this value. We all know that when people are irritable, they lash out. And sometimes they make rash decisions.

I think people are growing weary of the considerable uncertainty in the markets, and when you're fatigued: you don’t want to think about taking any action. Advisors, how many times have you heard clients say something like this, “I don’t want to invest because_____”?

Look at all of the reasons not to invest over the past century or so…

(Click image to enlarge)

Growth over time

Source: St. Louis Fred & Morningstar Direct. S&P 500 index as of 12/31/2022. Log: Lognormal scale. Total Return: Includes dividend. Indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested in directly. Returns represent past performance, are not a guarantee of future performance, and are not indicative of any specific investment.

I've come across a term that describes how most successful investors approach their investments: "Worried but fully invested." That is how I would describe my own investing style. Are there things to be worried about? Sure, but since 1920, the U.S. market has ended the year higher 73% of the time.2 It's the same story for Canada's key benchmark index, the S&P/TSX Composite Index, Since 1924, it has also ended the year higher 73% of the time.3 Anytime I need a pick-me-up about the future I just talk to my friends' kids. That being said, many clients are consuming a lot of social media and news and I am not sure that is a good thing.

Our top advisors have a strategy that works wonders: they avoid getting entangled in political discussions and instead remain focused on their investment plans. A crucial motto to remember is "don't confuse your politics with your plan." If you need help with creating that plan, please ask about our Discovery Cards.

I always suggest investors should watch home hunters or a decorating show rather than anything political. I reiterate to them that we – the financial services professionals – get paid to worry, so they don't have to.

Who thought the market bottom during the Great Financial Crisis would be March 9th of 2009, or the market bottom of the Covid pandemic would be March 13, 2020? My guess is that very few of us anticipated those dates. Those were scary times to be sure. But as the chart above shows, markets are resilient, and their long-term trend is up.

Currently, many investors seem hesitant to take any action. Their investments are performing well, and their checking accounts may be reflecting positive balances, leading them to feel content with the status quo. Additionally, a significant number of people have been on vacation recently, diverting attention away from their financial matters. If you have travelled this summer, you likely noticed how many people were on the move. Personally, I managed to cross something off my bucket list and it seems like many others had similar plans. The one crucial lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is the reminder that tomorrow is uncertain so enjoy today.

The most concerning thing for me is not the lack of contact from our clients – I understand that we’re all busy and still enjoying what’s left of the warmer weather. My worry lies in the fact that many investors may have become accustomed to the market continuously going up – or quickly recovering from any downturn. They might have forgotten that the market consists of more than just a few key sectors, and their confidence may be bolstered by the healthy three-year returns displayed on their statements. Our quarterly Economic and Market Review for the end of June 2023 shows the returns of various indexes, but also shows how those returns have been driven by just a handful of names. Historically, such a concentration hasn't been sustainable: high flying stocks don't maintain their momentum indefinitely.

Additionally, some investors may be banking on a "soft landing" for the U.S. economy based on expectations the U.S. Federal Reserve is getting monetary policy right. Similar to many other asset manager firms, we are forecasting the possibility of a recession – maybe mild, maybe not – in the next 12 to 18 months for both the U.S. and Canada. Just like preparing for a flood is best done in sunny weather, it may be wise to discuss rebalancing with clients now or, at the very least, ensure their risk tolerance aligns with their portfolios. I know of an advisor who recently sent risk questionnaires to all of his clients to ensure they are still positioned in the right portfolio for their financial goals and comfort levels.

The bottom line

Nick Murray – the author of Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth – says: “the biggest detriment to a client’s return is not their investments, it is their own behavior.” The markets have been wobbly so far in 2023 and if that continues, some investors may decide to move out of equities and begin asking for more GICs. Before you buy that GIC for a client take a second to think about what their motivation really is.

At Russell Investments, we have a lot of material that can help you deal with investor behavior. Many clients may not inquire about your fees if they sense your genuine concern and see that you maintain regular communication with them. By preparing your clients for what lies ahead, not only can you retain their trust, but you may also gain some referrals.

We at Russell Investments are here to help you with the conversations you have with your clients today, and tomorrow. Advisors do not always need more products, but they could always use a good partner. Please reach out.

1 Source: Statistics Canada. Table 11-10-0016-01 Assets and debts held by economic family type, by age group, Canada, provinces and selected census metropolitan areas, Survey of Financial Security

2 Source: Russell Investments. Represented by the S&P 500 Index from 1926-2022.

3 Source: Confluence