Americans Anxious Over Specter of Default

Americans are bombarding their financial advisers with questions about what to do if the U.S. government defaults on its debt. Call volumes to major wealth managers have risen - and a lot of calls are about whether they will get badly hurt by the events in Washington.

Concerns seem to be escalating as the August 2 deadline looms for the U.S. government to extend its debt ceiling or face the prospect of being unable to pay its bills.

While people aren't yet heading for the hills - no talk in the mainstream at least of stocking up on weapons or sticking money in a suitcase - many are asking their financial advisers about converting to cash or selling bonds.

``Should we tell people to build a bunker and bury their money? Then you'd need the guns,'' said Lydia Sheckels, chief investment officer with Wescott Financial Advisory Group, which manages a portfolio worth $1.5 billion and has offices in Pennsylvania, Florida and Washington, D.C.

Instead she says, the best advice she can offer is that investors have to be broadly diversified. This is not the time for that risky bet on one emerging market or commodity.

Between water cooler conversations at the office and the pundits on TV, it's becoming impossible to ignore the noise and just sit and wait for the crisis to be over. For financial advisers, that means a lot of touching base this week.

Leslie Farnsworth, 36, was one of those content to sit out the frenzy, and hadn't opened up account statements in months. She wasn't even especially worried about the state of the financial markets - until her adviser showed up at her office with two colleagues to review her investment portfolio.

``Is it really dire?'' wondered Farnsworth, who is CEO of FrogDog, a consulting firm in Houston. Her adviser, who works at UBS, said: ``We don't need to sit tight. We need to change.''

Those changes included dropping American Funds' Growth Fund of America for Wells Fargo Growth Fund, due to the underperformance of the former.

Farnsworth's adviser also shifted money out of stocks into less risky investments, including a 15 percent allocation in Princeton Managed Futures, which is designed to reduce volatility by betting on futures, options and other securities. She now has a 50 percent allocation to equities, which is low for a person of her age.

The prevailing wisdom from most advisers, however, is to assess but sit tight. Matthew Tuttle, the chief investment officer at Tuttle Wealth Management which is based in Stamford, Connecticut, is among those who are optimistic a deal will be reached in the nick of time: ``The debt deal will eventually be worked out in some way, and we will react to it when it happens.''

For wealth managers at funds and brokers there has been a lot of contact with clients in the past few weeks, often by phone.

At Fidelity Investments [FIDIN.UL], phone volumes are slightly higher, although customers ``are not making any significant moves'' to cash or other conservative investments, according to Adam Banker, a Fidelity spokesman. Fidelity managed more than $3.6 trillion in assets as of June 30.

``I'd estimate that our call volume increased by a third last week, and is up 50 percent over that this week,'' added Jim Russell, regional investment manager for U.S. Bank, which manages $60 billion in client accounts. Surprisingly, one of the primary questions his clients are asking is whether this is an opportunity to get more exposure to capital markets.