On this week’s episode of the Financial Planning Podcast, Chris McMahon walks the line between two topics that are deeply personal for most people.
What’s in your wallet, and what’s in your soul.
McMahon, the CEO and founder of Aquinas Wealth Advisors, has been helping clients with financial planning, asset allocation, retirement planning and estate tax management for more than 30 years. But as time passed and his relationships with clients deepened, he perceived a greater call for one’s investments to sync up with one’s beliefs.
While tools to help investors go green were gaining steam, McMahon said folks interested in putting their faith front and center were lacking options. So in the middle of the pandemic he launched Aquinas, a hybrid robo-advisor backed by technology that gives investors what he calls a “faith and finance score.” To oversimplify, portfolios that align with the Catholic faith score well, while those that don’t see their scores tumble.
McMahon, a father of five, is excited about the power of technology to do something unimaginable when he started his career more than three decades ago: give advisors and investors tools to truly understand where their money is going.
During his conversation with FP Podcast host and lead editorial producer Justin L. Mack, McMahon talks about launching the service in a highly polarized environment; what separates an “A” grade from an “F” grade in the eyes of the Catholic Church; and why advisors need to get specific with clients who are seeking greater transparency in their portfolios.
Listen to the new episode — as well as to all future and past episodes — by subscribing to the FP Podcast on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get podcasts.
Justin L. Mack (00:02):
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening. Welcome to the Financial Planning Podcast. I’m your host Justin L. Mack, wealthtech editor with Financial Planning. And it is my pleasure to introduce this week’s guest, Chris McMahon, president and CEO of Aquinas Wealth Advisors. Chris, thanks so much for joining us this week.
Chris McMahon (00:18):
Glad to be with you Justin. I’m excited to be with you. So thanks.
Justin L. Mack (00:21):
Absolutely. Now Chris brings to this week’s episode more than 30 years of experience in financial planning, asset allocation, retirement planning and estate tax management. Before founding Aquinas, a faith and values-based wealth management firm, in 2020, he established MFA Wealth, a personal wealth management firm based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And in more recent accolades, Chris was recently awarded the 2022 Catholic Finance Professional of the Year award by the Catholic Finance Association. And on this week’s show, we’re going to talk about two topics that are sure to perk up ears at the dinner table, especially when paired together. Faith and finance. And really what it means to embed your values into your portfolio. The bottom line, people want to know what companies are doing with their social investments and if they can make sure their portfolio is firmly aligned with their principles. Chris says Aquinas has the tech to do just that and goes beyond some other ESG screening tools. But before we get into all that, Chris, let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about how Aquinas Wealth Advisors came to be and your motivations to found that in 2020 during a really difficult year after so many decades of experience in financial services.
Chris McMahon (01:25):
Yeah, it’s interesting Justin. For years we’ve been a traditional registered investment advisory firm providing financial services to professionals, business owners, et cetera. Comprehensive wealth management, asset allocation, education, retirement planning, just like you mentioned. And that was fine. But what I found was more and more of my clients became closer to me. Those relationships are deep and it’s, as you know, one of the great benefits of our careers. But what happened was people started asking me more and more questions, (saying) ‘boy, I feel like sometimes my particular values aren’t being articulated in my financial planning.’ Some of these companies I’m investing in seem to be tone deaf to what I’m thinking about, what I’m concerned about and seem to be. There seemed to be alternatives for folks that wanted to embrace the environment in a very deep way or wanted to embrace more kind of contemporary, or if you call them, progressive concepts in the marketplaces.
So what happened was, Justin, as I got older, my practice matured and my organization got larger. We saw people saying we aren’t really being satisfied with what is available to us to ensure that our voice, my investments are in alignment with my deepest held beliefs. Initially, we just started offering some portfolios at our existing company, MFA Wealth, that were faith based. I’m a faith guy, so they were faith based and we used some screening tools that were available in the marketplace. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to hear from a few of these vendors that less than 2% of all financial advisors even use these screening tools. I guess they’re expensive and there are compliance issues if you’re not in your own firm, et cetera. That was satisfactory for some time. But what we realized was there was a bigger need. There were people that were just kind of saying, hey, with all the information that’s available to the marketplace, we found that investors came to believe that efficiencies in the marketplace were always there.
So Justin, people looked less to MFA wealth for performance relative to another firm or relative to the market. There’s a certain belief of competence from clients, and those clients are saying, I believe whether I’m with XYZ firm or ABC firm, if there are competent advisors offering good services, I’m not seeing a significant value add in terms of performance (between) one of those two alternatives. But what I do want to have is stuff that is keeping me up at night. And I think you throw into that mix, Justin, with all the craziness on the news on the left and the right … it’s become kind of entertainment and everyone’s being worked into a frenzy. What we try to do is kind of deescalate that conversation a little bit and say, hey, if this is important to you, we are able to do it at MFA. Then we said, why don’t we develop a tool? And we developed a tool that allows people on their own to evaluate their alignment of their investments, particularly with their Christian and Catholic values.
Justin L. Mack (04:12):
Well, what you mentioned was pretty important for a lot of folks, especially around that time. It’s that when I’m looking at my options for financial planning or financial advice, and we know that in the years where you’re starting this company and doing this founding, the increase in requests for financial advice are through the roof. We have the year-to-year statistics. The number and the demand for financial advice, financial planning and financial planners is skyrocketing. And like you said, for the outside investor who doesn’t know the business and is maybe a first time person working with a wealth manager or someone looking to make a change, the pros are the pros. They’re all professionals. My returns are gonna be good because they’re the pros. So what’s going to make someone stand out? For you, it sounds like that deeper connection and a really personal connection, faith being the driving motivator, is what allowed you guys to stand out. Any risk in doing that? Because it sounds like you’re a faith-based guy. When you mix that with business, is there any time where you’re hesitant or worried that it might be misunderstood, misconstrued or taken the wrong way?
Chris McMahon (05:11):
Yeah, that’s interesting. I found that not to be the case because some of my dearest friends have completely different values, and their portfolios are not reflective of my personal values. I think there’s a risk, right? Because we’re so polarized now. I think it’s our responsibility as advisors to bring people together to be less divisive. But you’re right. In this world of kind of right or wrong, or everyone who disagrees with me is not only wrong, but I wanna scream at them, right? <laugh>. Yeah. I think that’s where we have to de-escalate. De-escalate the tension. We live in the greatest country in the world with varying viewpoints and we could articulate those. So what I found is the people that cared dramatically, the people that aligned with those values and the people that had different values simply didn’t care. They said, okay, that’s something I’m not interested in. It’s very unusual for someone to say, boy, I disagree with those values, therefore I’m not gonna use your firm as a whole. Because I would say our parent company probably only has about 12% of its folks that are in any kind of morals-based investing of any kind.
Justin L. Mack (06:20):
Something else I want to talk about is that tech that aims to provide this service for clients, because it’s a difficult thing to do, especially if you’re, say, an individual investor or a client or even someone working with an advisor and you start doing your own personal research. Which we know a lot of people are doing now. What’s this company all about? Are they truly doing the things that they say they’re doing? Does this fit with my alignment or what I believe in? And that can be tough because it’s hard to get that information or that access as an individual, an investor or a client. You might get so far, but you might hit a wall where, well, I really don’t know what this company’s all about. Are they being truthful? All of that. So tell me how the tech that you guys have developed helps figure that out for clients. Make it simple … a tool for advisors to help folks do exactly what they’re looking to do, which is have a portfolio that aligns with who they are, what they believe in and what they want do with their money at the end of the day.
Chris McMahon (07:09):
It’s fascinating, Justin. Clients that said, I want my portfolio to be green. I don’t want to have big oil in my portfolio. I don’t want to have guns in my portfolio. I don’t want to have these types of things. There have been some funds that have been available to them. Or they say, I’m a faith- based person. I don’t wanna have any pornography in my portfolio. There is a fund or two out there that is available. But generally if somebody said, I want to have a deeper connection not only on a couple of mutual funds or ETFs I own, but across my entire portfolio, they had (to put it) completely upon their advisors and say, please make sure that this is an alignment with my deepest held beliefs. And many of those advisors didn’t even have the tools available to them to really thoroughly vet that out. So it was interesting, Justin. Advisors were talking people out of it for years.
They would say things like, oh, it’s impossible to really tell. With companies that have charitable foundations or companies that have multiple subsidiaries, it’s very difficult to really tell definitively who’s in or outside of my well (or) who’s doing what with your social activism. They’d also say, and even if you could figure it out, it would just devastate your returns. So therefore, let’s not do it. So as the advisors are talking the clients out of it, they are not listening. That’s the rule. They told me that was rule number one of investment guy school 35 years ago. Listen to what people say. Listen to what they say. And people are saying to me, this is important to me. This is a value to me and this is assuming I can have similar returns with A and B, which people now believe you can. If I can layer in my morality, I’m gonna do it.
And something I think is very interesting too, Justin, many of my clients for years, 20 or 15 years ago were saying, I want to be neutral. I don’t wanna have anything. I don’t want to put any political- or moral-based parameters in my investment account. And what happened, which is fascinating, is that while those people were asleep, all the big money management firms — State Street, Vanguard, BlackRock — that control almost 30% of the S&P 500 have been instilling an ideology at the S&P. I think that’s what it is. 35% of the S&P 500 is controlled by those companies and those ideologues, which are very progressive. For a person of religious values, hiring practices, quotas and these types of things. Energy policies. (Things that) might be contrary to a person of faith have taken deep hold in the boardroom of these companies just simply because these large, enormous juggernauts with their ETFs and funds have. So while these people were asleep, I think a lot of times many of these investors, affluent people said, oh, this isn’t that big a deal. Or they would say some of this ideology has kind of been cooked in the faculty lounges of some very liberal college. It’s nowhere near the boardroom or my portfolio. I realized while they slept, if you will, they’re at the gates and people are kind of jumping into action. I apologize. I dunno if I answered your question there, Justin.
Justin L. Mack (10:13):
Oh, no, you definitely did. And it kind of leads me to my next one about what’s continuing to drive the change in how vocal folks are about what they want their money to do for them, and what they want to invest in. Because you mentioned the neutrality that was a priority or prioritized by clients years ago. That has gone away. We’re seeing, or at least it seems that we’re seeing, such a huge cry for, “I want to know exactly what it’s all about so I can make sure that I’m consistent in my pocket and in my soul.” We’re seeing that being said more and more, but like you said, 15 years ago, keep me neutral. I’m just focused on my returns. What’s driving that change in mindset?
Chris McMahon (10:50):
Fortunately, I think it’s prosperity as people have become more … even in spite of what’s happened the last year or two, the historic run ups in the stock market have been wonderful and given people an opportunity to really evaluate. The first panic is, am I gonna have enough? Am I gonna have enough to retire? Am I gonna send my kids to college? And once people realize I’m going to have enough, then the question becomes, am I being responsible? Am I being prudent? Am I being, as people get one step closer to the last day … they’re saying as I get closer to that last day and this enormous wealth transfer that’s gonna take place, what kind of legacy am I gonna leave? Not only financially, what kind of legacy am I creating? What does it say to the people I love and the people I brought into the world, or people that know me. What is it gonna say about me? How’s this gonna reflect upon me? Am I doing the best with the gifts I’ve been given by God, frankly?
Justin L. Mack (11:42):
And what are you seeing among that next generation of investors? The folks who are first timers and the younger generation. Where do you believe they stand as far as having their values aligned with their investments?
Chris McMahon (11:53):
Great question. I see about 30% of the people are probably always very passionate about it and want to make sure that that’s the first thing that they do. We have people that call our offices and say, I don’t care about the return or I’m willing to have a lower return. That’s unusual, but it’s probably, I’d say, up to 30% of the folks that are out there, even the younger ones. And I’d say there’s 60% of the people who are just saying, I need to start my 401(k). Or, really, I’m not in a position yet to think that through that thoroughly. So oftentimes I see them deferring that decision. But I am encouraged when people will say, to talk about the technology specifically, it’s really geared towards younger people. The tool we develop, which I think is interesting. So as I was mentioning earlier, people have to rely upon their advisors to say, did you vet my portfolio for me?
Make sure it’s in alignment with my deepest held beliefs. And the advisors will say, well yeah. That’s another thing. As advisors, we need to really be diligent because if we’re representing, as you said earlier, Justin, if we’re representing something that we’re really not delivering on, our friends the regulators rightfully would take great exception to that. But what’s happening, the technology we develop puts the tools in the hands of, especially the young people. So they’re able to have, whether they have $20,000 here and $10,000 here, they’re able through this faith and finance technology, the tool itself, the app … they’re able to aggregate all their holdings wherever they are, multiple accounts like any aggregation portal. And once they aggregate those holdings, they can run the testing and what happens is our tool will go out and grab all the various accounts, aggregate them, and then score them for performance relative to the comparable market index. And also to alignment to these Christian and Catholic values. And then give them not only a performance score, but secondly an alignment score and then great detail around what they’re supporting and then an overall score of the portfolio. And most folks are hoping for a B or obviously they’re hoping for an A. But oftentimes, Justin, people are horrified when they realize what they are supporting and were really never before empowered to make decisions based on that information.
Justin L. Mack (14:04):
Absolutely. And with that, we are actually gonna take a quick break and enjoy a word from our sponsors. But when we return, we’ll have a whole lot more with Chris McMahon, president and CEO of Aquinas Wealth Advisors. Talking about their tech that pairs faith in finance and some Financial Planning Podcast good vibes. Stick around. We’ll be right back.
And welcome back to the Financial Planning podcast. I’m your host Justin Mack, and we’re diving right back into our conversation this week with Chris McMahon, president and CEO of Aquinas Wealth Advisors. Now Chris, before the break we had a chance to talk about your motivations and founding your new firm, the tech that goes to the next step and beyond to pair faith and finance in a way that is pretty unique. Give me a quick play-by-play. If I am an investor or an advisor who’s curious and I want to check out what you guys have to offer, how does it work? So say the scenario of I’m an investor that already has a portfolio, I have no idea if it actually aligns with Catholic or Christian values and I wanna check out what Aquinas has, how’s it work?
Chris McMahon (15:02):
As I said, in the old days people had no … we can’t really compare it to anything. Because people never had this ability before. There are a couple screeners online. If you said, hey, I’m gonna buy XYZ stock, you can put XYZ stock into the screening tool. It’ll say XYZ stock meets or doesn’t meet your portfolio needs. But what about all the individual equities held inside the ETFs, all the individual equities held inside the mutual funds, et cetera. It gets very, very difficult. What this does is kind of puts it all in one place, makes it kind of very seamless for the client. Someone who has these concerns simply goes into the tool and aggregates their portfolio. They have a password and user ID. They wherever they held money, wherever those accounts are aggregated together, in an industry standard aggregation tool.
And then they literally hit the button, get my score, and it’s right in front of their eyes. The little wheels start spinning in about 50 seconds. This detailed report sometimes reports up to 40 pages long telling them everything that they’re involved in. And it’s been more than once, Justin, we’ve been able to talk with folks that are deeply rooted in their religious beliefs or their moral beliefs. It’s not all just religious folks. There’s other people very, very much against pornography. Very, very much against life issues, et cetera. But what’s fascinating is that one of the large religious institutions actually asked us to look at some of their holdings. We found about 40, excuse me, they found about 47% of all their assets were invested in pornography or pornography-related enterprises. And that’s horrifying to an organization that is trying to make the world a better place. And that’s something I think universally, most people would be horrified by that. But it gives them this tool, Justin, they have all the details. They can do what they want. They can do nothing If they choose to, or they can use our firm. They can go one step further and say, yes, please, let’s move these assets here because I can’t have this happen again. But that’s how it works.
Justin L. Mack (17:00):
Definitely. And again, is this score based? A to F? Is it a standard school-type score that folks can easily interpret, understand and gain something from quickly?
Chris McMahon (17:09):
Yeah, it’s funny, because the people, the developers we use, we’re trying to come up with this complicated matrix and I’m a pretty straightforward guy. I said we’re gonna give him an A, B, C, D, E or F. Everybody understands that right? <laugh>. So you get a grade for your performance, you get a grade for your alignment with your deepest held beliefs and you get an overall grade, which is the biggest thing about faith and finance score. And hopefully we’re shooting for a B or better. That’s what we said to all of our kids when we sent ’em off to college. Get Bs or better <laugh>. And that’s what we’re hoping for here. And the idea is that these folks will have the information, be empowered, go back to existing advisors possibly and say, can you clean this up for me in some way? It’s still difficult because sometimes the existing advisors just don’t have the horsepower to make these changes. Or, frankly sometimes, Justin, some of the firms that they’re with are violators themselves of these policies. They’re investing in or doing social activism with organizations that folks that are faith-based might really find questionable for sure.
Justin L. Mack (18:09):
Tell me about what’s next, I guess for Aquinas, but maybe what you see next for this kind of tech and this kind of approach. Because I don’t know if there’s any thought to expand your options for other faiths or for a wider set of beliefs, or if you believe that there might be an opportunity for folks of, again, completely different faiths that develop something similar. Just what are your thoughts on what’s next for you and what do you see for this kind of support?
Chris McMahon (18:31):
I’m excited about it, right? I’m 30, goodness gracious, 33 years into my career. And I’ve never been more excited because not only is ours a mature registered investment advisory firm that we have, our parent company has done well and continues to. Thankfully. But what I found is people are … I’ve seen people excited like never before. Empowered like never before. And I think I’d like to share that. This tool can be modified to screen for several different things. Even for our friends that are hyper worried about the environment, for example. Realistically, you could certainly buy a fund that’s consistent with the environment. But it’s very, very difficult, I would say nearly impossible for an individual investor to determine if all of their investments are aligned with their values of preserving the earth. Which I think all of us should have that value, for sure.
So I see the next step is one more. Aquinas, you might know, is more specifically a Catholic father of the Catholic church. Even though the Catholic and the Christian values are identical, there’s separate silos. Trinity Wealth Advisors that’s rolling out will speak specifically for nondenominational Christians. And then I think after that, I think that represents about 35% of the country. I think after that, the next step would be to have some folks around this kind of just general protecting the environment, because you could do the same thing. Of course it wouldn’t be a faith and finance score. Then it might be a green and growth score. But it’s the same technology applied to various moral, deeply held moral beliefs.
Justin L. Mack (20:04):
Definitely. And something else about the tech that Aquinas is using. What determines an A to F score? Cause we talk kind of generally, and I won’t put you on the spot to give me a full breakdown of company by company, but what is something that would get you an A on the score and what’s something that’s gonna end up with something closer to an F? If there is a way, just to show that dynamic, at least based on the Catholic faith and what you guys have available now
Chris McMahon (20:27):
Catholic faith is easy, right? Because the church tells you. <laugh>
Justin L. Mack (20:33):
Yeah, not as much wiggle room.
Chris McMahon (20:34):
Not as much wiggle room. It’s pretty darn straightforward. And the great thing about these screening tools, it’s fascinating for any of your listeners in the business, I would suggest to them strongly that they spend the money and subscribe to at least one of them. Because they’re amazing. The depth of what they’ll provide for you. You probably wouldn’t go develop a tool like ours that creates this output because it’s extraordinarily complex. But we use an algorithm that uses that scoring and uses those violations, if you will, and ranks those violations based on strength. For example … well you might say, alcohol has destroyed many lives and shouldn’t be involved in any portfolios. But the reality is many, many, many religious organizations for thousands of years funded their entire existence based on the alcohol they produced. And many people use it in a relatively healthy way.
So what we found is rating those things based on severity as well. So there’s the detail in the reporting that clients get. It’s amazing. Because it not only says, are you violated because I stayed at a hotel? Well, the hotel on its pay-per-view may have had pornography. So that you’d say, well then you can’t own any hotels. Well, that’s not realistic, I don’t think. So what we found is from our scoring system, the way we developed the tool, we rate these things based on severity. Alcohol is an example of that. If a manufacturer produces alcohol or a hotel chain serves alcohol … I’ll give you a great example of that Justin, some of the major hotels I think receive receive a couple infractions, but are still in what would you call the mild infraction range serving alcohol or even having pornography, which is reprehensible in my opinion because it leads to human trafficking and the deterioration of our society frankly.
But the normalization of it has not been a good thing, in my opinion, for society. But still that hotel chain might only receive a ding, if you will. It’s still scored in. It shows on the report, but it receives a ding. However, there are specifically some hospitality organizations referred to as hospitality that are large holdings in big ETFs. And you’ll think, boy, I’ve been in the financial services business a long time, I’m not familiar with this hospitality group. It must be a holding company for Hilton or Marriott or something. And you look into it and this particular group, this particular group has two businesses. Gentlemen’s clubs and the manufacturing of pornography. So even though it broadly be in the hospitality sector, it would score much, much worse in terms of the output. So it’s incredible. So my point is we can get very, very micro on this stuff and our scoring allows for those nuances.
Justin L. Mack (23:18):
And then the very last thing I’d love to have you touch on is just the idea of this kind of technology based on whatever your beliefs might be. Because, again, having a chance to speak to you about what Aquinas is doing, and I can think of all the different kinds of ways folks might want to be able to quickly view a portfolio. Or more easily or more transparently, have a portfolio that shows them what it’s all about, aligns with their values, even if their values are different. Because we mentioned polarity and how some people could take to what is being done (at Aquinas) and saying, hey, we don’t agree. We want values that are completely skewed differently. For example, on my podcast I had a chance to speak with a woman who does independent financial advising for folks in the sex industry because she knows it’s hard for them to get help.
So two very different viewpoints that we’ve had a chance to share on the show, but I’m sure there’d be some folks who would maybe want some tech that would provide a portfolio that even allows them to support something like that. So not having you get into the weeds about what you think about this or that, but more so the idea that we’re in a place where we can even develop technology that can do that. The fact that that’s even an option. I mean, you’ve been doing this 30 years. Your thoughts on just the ability to even approach something like this. Because I don’t imagine this was even a possibility when you started.
Chris McMahon (24:29):
Well yeah, a couple things I think are interesting. One, even folks, for example, you mentioned there were workers in the sex industry, and frankly I pray for those people. But many of those people that are in those industries, they may have similar values. It’s not necessarily the people that are different. They might be in a different circumstance, but they have similar values. They still have religious values, what have you. People that are end users of this, whatever their values are, would in the old days … they sought out an advisor that seemed to share the same values. I still do martial arts and I can’t tell you how many guys that are martial artists and Brazilian jiu jitsu guys come to me because we do Brazilian jiu jitsu together. That’s why they come to our firm.
It’s funny, right? So there’s an assumption that if you have some shared commonality, they share your values. I would challenge all the listeners and advisors to say, that’s not enough any longer. We need to get in the weeds with our advisors and say, help me understand how you’re aligning my guys. What specific tools are you using? I must tell you one (story) of when this religious organization came back and said, my goodness, 42% of our money is sponsoring pornography. They were shocked because their guys are good guys and faithful guys, but the guys just didn’t have the tools. And over time just kind of said, oh, we’re doing it. They were rounding out those corners a little bit too much. So I would encourage us to no longer just rely upon a relationship or some shared commonality. Rather, let’s get specific. How are you vetting this out for me? How are you vetting this out for me so that I can make sure that I’m delivering on the promise to these people. Because now people aren’t just taking our words for it anymore, Justin. They’re starting to say, wait a second, I’m gonna double check this because this is important.
Justin L. Mack (26:22):
Definitely. I think that’s powerful for so many things. People have access to information. People are more motivated and used to doing independent research. If it’s about something, even if it’s something small, favorite brand of new shampoo to something as vital as your finances. People are willing to put in the work to figure out what’s real and what’s fake. And like you said, getting specific, a lot of power in that. And I want to thank you again for coming by and joining us on the Financial Planning Podcast. Chris.
And I want to thank everyone for listening to the Financial Planning Podcast. This episode was produced by Arizent with audio production by Kevin Parise. Special thanks again to our guest, Chris McMahon, President and CEO of Aquinas Wealth Advisors. Rate us, review us and subscribe to all of our content at www.financial-planning.com/subscribe. From Financial Planning. I’m Justin Mack. Thanks for listening.