Some might assume a devout socialist would find little joy in the uber-capitalistic world of financial planning, where the focus is often around participating in the financial markets to amass wealth and secure independence.
But that’s not how Zach Teutsch sees it — and he doesn’t hold back when explaining why.
The founder of Values Added Financial who describes himself as a “socialist financial adviser,” Teutsch said the success of his niche advisory practice is proof socialists aren’t always averse to accumulating some wealth as long as they can still fight the good fight against capitalism in general toward a more fair and equitable society.
In a conversation that started on Twitter, where Teutsch prides himself in not shying away from his beliefs, he explained: “As it happens, there are a lot more socialists who need a financial adviser than there are socialist financial advisers.”
“Indeed, most of our clients share our views but some don’t,” he said. “As long as they’re comfortable with us being us, we’re comfortable with them being them.”
Teutsch, who manages $100 million for 50 clients, founded his Washington, DC-based firm in 2017 after leaving the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he worked as an impact specialist. Before that, he ran the national financial skills and investment education programs for the AFL-CIO.
Teutsch obviously didn’t find financial planning through the most direct channels, but he did study economics, sociology, and organizational behavior at Brown University, where he says he “learned a lot about the structure of race and class and happiness.”
Unlike a lot of financial advisers who start out as generalists before finding their own niche, Teutsch knew from day one that he was going to target people just like himself, and he figured the best way to do that was to be his truest and fullest self all the time.
“I’ve always been really clear about who I am and what I believe, and a lot of my clients share those values and are happy there’s someone they can trust,” he said. “People say not to talk about politics and religion, and I’ve found the opposite works. It turns some people off, but for the right clients being candid about your values has built trust and depth of connection that only comes from having deeply held beliefs.”
In terms of marketing his niche, Teutsch doesn’t use the word ‘socialist’ on his website homepage, but he does speak the language with a pitch that states: “We help progressives build thoughtful, prosperous, impactful financial lives. By making smart financial decisions based on their values, clients can attain financial security, live lives they feel good about, and make the world better.”
As far as making the world better, Teutsch tends to skip over the specifics and drifts toward a general state of mind around a loosely defined notion of collectivism administered by the government.
“Many of our clients are socialists or otherwise capitalism-skeptical,” he said. “It makes for a fascinating practice. Some of our clients just hire us for our evidence-based, client-centered planning.”
While he claims his clients, and socialists in general, “give more money to charity than most Americans,” he admits a strong connection with his clients through beliefs that “there’s too much wealth inequality and too much racial inequality.”
“It would be great if the government had the capacity to build a more equitable society,” he added. “Key for me is that we know who we are.”
That last point succinctly captures the theme of most niche advisory practices because the niche is often less about the services provided than it is about the culture and connection between adviser and client.
“If somebody was a golfing, Republican, country club type, they would have probably chosen a financial adviser at their club,” he said.
Teutsch draws parallels between the development of niche practices like his and the evolution of television programming.
“In the ‘50s, when there were only a few channels on TV, most of the content was aimed at the middle; it was bland and didn’t offend anyone,” he said. “Then we got cable and there were hundreds of channels and billions of websites, and suddenly, the goal wasn’t to not offend, it was to build deeper connections. Sometimes I feel like financial planning today is TV in the 1950s.”
Teutsch points to the growing popularity of socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and liberal Senators Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as proof that there are people with far-left political and anti-capitalism views who still need financial advice.
“There are huge populations of people are very poorly served, because most advisers are more like Mitt Romney [R-UT] than AOC,” he said.
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On the matter of balancing the pursuit of wealth and financial independence against a vocal campaign to increase taxes on the wealthy, Teutsch again retreats to the moral high ground of believing that the world is not yet fair.
“We stand for something and we’re proud of it,” he said. “We make a lot of money for our clients, do sophisticated tax planning, charitable planning, and smart evidence-based planning. We’re proud of our fundamental work as financial planners and investment managers, but I’m really concerned about the rise in wealth inequality and a system that concentrates enormous wealth into a small number of hands.”
On helping his own clients invest through and around a U.S. tax code that could mean finding ways to legally avoid paying some taxes, Teutsch feels that is part of his fiduciary duty.
“My view is, we should follow the law and act in good faith and people shouldn’t feel obligated to pay more than they owe, but we should also work to change the laws to make it a fairer and more equitable society,” he said. “Ultimately, our job as advisers is to give the best advice we can and keep our clients centered on their beliefs.”