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Archive for March, 2009

If you’ve never met with a financial planner before or if it’s been years since you’ve visited one, you need to find a planner and then prepare for your visit.

 

Generally, you should research individual financial advisers or firms, and you should look to trusted friends and family for advice.  But don’t stop there.  Your due diligence should include checking the background of the advisor, understanding the services offered and how they are compensated. You can use industry trade groups like the CFP Board of Standards (www.cfp.com) or investor education websites like those offered by the industry regulator FINRA (www.finra.org/Investors/) or independent advisor rating services like the Paladin Registry (www.paladinregistry.com/external/general/). You should interview two or three advisers by phone before you sit down and commit to a planning engagement. 

 

It’s also important to discuss your overall goals with the planner you’re interviewing so you can gauge their ability to help you meet those targets. It’s imperative that you and your financial advisor have clear and open communication.  And it’s equally important to understand each other’s roles and expectations from the relationship to avoid any future misunderstandings. 

 

Here are some questions you should ask a prospective financial planner:

 

What training do you have?  Find out how long the planner has been in practice and what kind of certifications they hold. A CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional is someone with a minimum experience of three years who has completed a comprehensive course of study through a degree or certificate program offering a financial planning curriculum approved by The CFP Board of Standards, Inc. CFP® practitioners must pass a comprehensive two-day, 10-hour Certification Examination that tests their ability to apply financial planning knowledge in an integrated format. Based on regular research of what planners do, the exam covers the financial planning process, tax planning, employee benefits, retirement planning, estate planning, investment management and insurance.  In addition, CFP ® practitioners must complete a minimum of 30 hours every two years of continuing education in these topics to keep abreast of changes that may impact clients. 

 

What services do you offer? What a financial planner offers is based on credentials, licenses and areas of expertise. Generally, financial planners cannot sell insurance or securities products such as mutual funds or stocks without the proper licenses, or give investment advice unless they are registered with state or Federal authorities. Some planners offer financial planning advice on a range of topics but do not sell financial products. Others may provide advice only in specific areas such as estate planning or taxes.

 

How do you charge for your services? Professional planners will provide you with a financial planning agreement that spells out the services they provide and how they’ll be compensated. Payment can happen in one of several ways:

  • Salaried planners are actually employees of a firm, and you help pay their salaries through fees or commissions you agree to pay.
  • Direct fees to the planner through an hourly rate, a flat rate, or on a percentage of your assets and/or income.
  • Commissions paid by a third party from the products sold to you based on the planner’s recommendations. Commissions are typically a percentage of the amount you invest based on those recommendations.
  • A hybrid of fees and commissions based on services. A planner may charge a fee for designing a comprehensive financial plan and occasional visits and calls to review it, while commissions might come from products they sell that you invest in.

 

Do you have any potential conflicts of interest? It may seem like a rude question, but the best planners expect this one and are prepared to make disclosure. Obviously, if a planner profits from the sale of investment products to you, she must spell that out. Some may receive indirect fees from the mutual funds selected (called 12-b-1 fees).  Others may receive a commission for placing certain business with a provider of a financial product as in the case of insurance or alternate investments like limited partnerships.  The method of compensation may be an inherent conflict of interest since a financial salesperson may be motivated to steer you toward a product purchase that pays the highest compensation for the sale.  Fee-only financial professionals do not receive any compensation from investment product sales which may result in more objective advice not tied to a particular product.

 

How do you feel about teaching and training? One of the primary benefits of having a financial planner is education about the moves you are making or may potentially make. Don’t view a planning relationship as tossing someone your finances so you won’t have to deal with them anymore. You will still need to be involved in this relationship and a good planner will help educate you.  While you’re not expected to be an expert in all financial matters, you will at least be able to make informed decisions with a base of knowledge. As long as you’re paying for their services, make sure you get a long-term education out of it.

 

(For a more detailed list, there is a useful brochure located at the investor education portion of the CFP Board’s website with ten questions you should consider asking any prospective planner).

 

When you select a planner, they’ll give you a list of documents and information to bring in for your first meeting, and generally, it will be detailed on a checklist that may include:

 

An income and expenditure checklist: This is a summary of current and projected income.  You’ll need to bring or detail:

 

Income

  • A current pay slip
  • Profit and loss statements for business income
  • Pension income statements
  • Statements of non-investment income
  • Family trust distribution documents
  • Tax returns
  • Annuity, maintenance agreement statements

         

Expenses

  • Home: Mortgage, rent statements, utilities, household repairs, insurance, appliance purchases, landscaping or house cleaning
  • Transportation: Gasoline, car loan, public transit expenses and parking
  • Food: Grocery and restaurants
  • Medical: Doctor, dentist and prescription bills
  • Education: Tuition, school fees
  • Child care: In-home our outside-the-home care
  • Personal grooming: Clothing, shoes and accessories, hair, makeup
  • Pet care: veterinarian, food and grooming bills
  • Insurance: Health, life, auto, disability

 

An asset and liability checklist: This is a summary of what you own and what you currently owe. You’ll need to bring or detail:

 

Assets:

  • Principal residence
  • Vacation home
  • Investment property
  • Bank accounts
  • Investments
  • Collectibles and personal property
  • Automobiles, other vehicles

 

Liabilities:

  • Mortgages
  • Credit card debt
  • Auto loans
  • College loans
  • Business loans

 

You should also be prepared to engage in a detailed and wide-ranging conversation that covers matters related to your attitude and experiences with money and financial decision-making.  Questions like how you choose investments or what kinds of information resources you consult or what risk means to you will be important to provide the planner with insight into your decision-making process and behavior type.  Armed with this information, a good planner will then be better able to make appropriate recommendations for your situation.

 

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Here are some suggestions for saving money.  While “cash is king” now with the high level of consumer anxiety, these tips can and should be used any time.

 

1.) Pay Yourself First:  This is the best advice that any consumer can take to heart. It works through any and all environments.  Set aside a certain dollar amount each pay period to savings and investment.  When you receive a pay raise, increase the amount going to savings, investment or your 401k to include a good portion of the raise.  Money is like water.  It fills up the space provided and the more available cash someone has, then the more likely it will be spent.  By directing it to savings (or an auto investment like a 401k) the less temptation there is for someone to use it on “wants” versus “needs.”

 

2.) Start an auto-investment savings and investment plan:  This is related to the first step.  Direct a portion of your savings into a separate savings account for your emergency fund.  Direct a portion into your company-sponsored retirement plan. 

 

3.) Bring Your Own:  Whether it’s bagging your own lunch or brewing your own cup of java, this will add up.  Eliminating just one cup of special mocha grande latte (or whatever they call it), you can save nearly $5 per cup.  Add that up:  Over the course of a year, eliminating just one cup per day on your way to work can save at least $1,200.  Over the course of five years, that money put in a FDIC-insured account might be worth $5,000 to $6,000 – a tidy sum for some other more worthwhile endeavor (maybe a vacation, maybe a home improvement, maybe college savings).

 

4.) Use Cash:  When buying gifts or even a night on the town, use cash instead of credit cards.  Cash seems more real.  It is more immediate.  When the amount in your wallet drops by the cost of four movie tickets and jumbo drinks, it stings a little more than putting it on plastic. 

 

5.) Avoid Unneeded Insurance:  Don’t skip needed coverage on your auto, home, income or life.  And review these types of policies at least annually (or when there is a life-changing event like a birth) to make sure that adequate coverage is in place.  But skip the extended warranty coverages on small ticket items.  For instance, a cordless phone that costs $20 at Radio Shack may offer a 2-year extended warranty for replacement at $5 but that’s just increased your cost now by 25%. And it is more than likely that if and when the phone gets fried, you’ll be able to simply replace it at the same current cost with even more fancy features anyway.

For big ticket items, it may make sense to have some type of insurance in place:  a computer used for work, an expensive plasma TV.

 

Speaking of insurance.  Deal with a reputable Property & Casualty insurance agent who has access to many carriers.  Be sure to call and review your coverage.  Going for the lowest premium is not a way to save money.  Example:  Owning a home with a replacement cost of $400,000 and having outdated coverage up to only $300,000 exposes you to all sorts of risks and out of pocket costs if there is a damage claim since you’ll only get a proportion of the loss covered by the insurance.  Why?  Because you did not have full replacement cost coverage.

And it’s a good idea to insure only that portion of the risk that you are not willing or able to bear.  So consider increasing your deductibles on things like your auto and home insurance policies.  A policy with a $1,000 deductible will cost less per year overall than one with a $250 deductible.  And with the savings you’ve established from Step 1 above, you’ll have the deductible covered.

 

Example of being penny wise (i.e. annual premium) but pound foolish (i.e. larger out-of-pocket outlay).

 

6.) Save the Planet – Reduce, Reuse, Recyle: There is a bumber sticker out there that says “Think Globally, Act Locally.”  Here you can do your part to make the world a little more green while putting some green in your pocket as well.   There are a host of ways that one can cut back without too much impact on lifestyle.  Your mom’s advice here works: Shut off the lights when not in a room, don’t keep the refrigerator door open so long that you could paint a picture, wash your clothes in cold water instead of hot, unplug battery charges when not in use.   To reduce water consumption consider shorter showers (a challenge with teenagers, I’m sure) and don’t let the water run constantly while shaving or brushing teeth. And consider reusing plastic packages for other storage instead of simply tossing them.  And if your community has a recycling program, use it.  The more your community recycles, the lower the garbage collection tipping fees.  And that may mean one less excuse to raise your property taxes.

 

Hope that this helps.

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When your salary stops at retirement, will you have enough to pay your bills, travel and live the lifestyle that you want in your Golden Years?

 

Sure, you may be one of the lucky ones with a pension.  Social Security may even still be around. But if you want to live your vision of retirement, then saving and investing properly is important.

 

And how you pay for college for your kids will impact your own retirement.

Think about this:  College tuitions, books, fees and housing continue to increase at a rate faster than inflation in general.  Based on current trends, the cost of sending just two kids to a private or elite college for a total of eight years will cost more than $360,000 if paid after taxes.  This means that those in the 28 percent tax bracket need to earn more than $500,000 in order to meet the costs from cash flow.

 

Regardless of where you send your kids to school, the bottom-line fact is this:  How you pay for college impacts how much you save for retirement.  For every dollar that you save on college costs means more for your personal retirement down the road.

 

There are a number of strategies you can use to improve your chances at a better retirement and a solid education at a lower personal cost.

 

There are more than thirteen strategies for increasing needs-based aid.  There are at least a dozen cost-cutting ways that any family can use to improve their bottom line.

 

Ultimately, it depends on how well you know how to use the IRS code for your advantage to lower your own Expected Family Contribution (or EFC in financial aid parlance).

 

Regardless of whether you expect to qualify for needs-based aid or not, here are some examples of cost-cutting strategies available to you.

 

Strategy 1:  Get College Credit Through Exams

By taking Advanced Placement exams or even a “challenge” exam for basic college courses, a student can get through school quicker potentially saving thousands in tuition and fees.  Opportunities are available for Advanced Placement (AP), College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) or DSST exams for 37 different courses.  For more information on these, check out www.collegeboard.com or www.getcollegecredit.com.

 

 

Strategy 2: Stay Local

In-state tuition and fees at a public higher education institution is a bargain compared to the elites and even crossing the border to go to another state’s public college.  If you are considering going across the border or away, consider having your child establish residency in that state.  Find out what the residency requirement are ahead of time by contacting the admissions office.

 

Strategy 3:  Get the Credit You Deserve from the IRS

Use the Hope Education Credit, renamed the “American Opportunity Tax Credit.” This was recently increased to $2,500 (from $1,200) and now applies to all four years of college, not just the first two.  In addition, forty-percent of the credit is now refundable. Another helping-hand comes in the form of the Lifetime Learning Credit which is available for one family member and allows you to take up to 40% credit on educational expenses up to $10,000.  Income limits apply so be sure to consult a qualified tax professional or visit www.irs.gov.

 

Strategy 4: Employ Your Child

If you own a business, work as an independent contractor or own rental real estate, consider hiring your child to work for you. Maybe your child can provide administrative support or help with marketing or real estate related chores. By hiring a child and paying him or her, you will lower your own personal taxable income through a business expense deduction and provide income for your child.  In addition, the child can use the earnings to open a Roth IRA, a tax-favored retirement account which is not assessed as an asset for financial aid purposes.  And if needed, a child can withdraw a portion of the proceeds to pay for qualified educational expenses.  There are certain limits and time restrictions that apply.  

 

Strategy 5: Establish a Section 127 Educational Assistance Plan

As a business owner you can establish a Section 127 employer-paid tuition benefits program for your employees. This plan allows the business owner to pay up to $5,250 per year to employees (including employed children) as a qualified tax deductible expense.  This can be used for both undergraduate and graduate programs of study.  Assuming that Junior was going to work in the family business during the summer and throughout the year, Junior can earn a wage (deductible expense for the business) which he can use for his own support and Roth IRA contribution (which may be eligible for paying educational expenses) and earn a tuition benefit (another deductible business expense).  If you were going to give the child the money anyway, you may as well structure it to be tax deductible.

 

Consider this: There are more than 110 different other strategies for you to consider. All the more reason to have a coordinated plan in place by speaking with a professional advisor who can help evaluate these options with you.

 

Food for thought: 

 

  • Encourage your pre-teen to open a Roth IRA with earnings from their paper route or other jobs.
  • Consider hiring your child to work in your business or help with chores related to your investment property.
  • Use a CollegeSure CD issued by an FDIC-insured bank to accumulate savings
  • Think about using a fixed income annuity to hold a portion of money for college to avoid the potential loss in principal that can happen with a 529 plan invested in mutual funds.
  • Pursue private and merit-based scholarships  (For more information on some of these options, check out www.fastweb.com, the CollegBoard and www.scholarshipexperts.com

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On Wednesday, March 11, I launched the inaugural event of my Financial Road Map Series teleconferences.

I want to thank each of you who stopped by to listen in to my brief discussion on taking control of your financial future by controlling what you can.

To recap the important points we discussed:

1.) Control What You Can:  No sense in worrying about things that are beyond our individual control.  There’s plenty enough for us to handle and impact directly.  Things that you can control can include:  Your saving and spending habits, your health and exercise programs, your asset allocation, your investing costs, and most importantly, YOUR ATTITUDE.

2.) Have SMART Goals:  Begin with the end in mind.  Be Specific with Measurable goals that are Attainable and Realistic and tied to a specific Timeframe.  It’s one thing to say “someday I want to be rich” or “someday I want to own a boat.”  But if you can put a number to that vision, your mind’s eye can picture it as reality and it becomes a real target to shoot for.

3.) Understand Your Risk:  These past seventeen months have tested what it means to be an investor.  It has highlighted the reality that most individuals do not have a handle on their own risk appetite.  Understanding risk is more than simply answering a few questions on a form.  It involves an open and honest conversation with yourself, your spouse (significant other) and your advisor. Go beyond the standard form and consider what does money mean to you, how your family treated money, what has been your best and worst financial decision and how you came to those decisions.  Ask yourself (or your advisor should ask) how you feel about these risk attitudes.  You may even want to consider using an impartial tool located at www.riskprofiling.com to provide additional insight into your risk tolerance.

  • NOTE: In my practice I utilize multiple risk profile formats to get a handle on how a client thinks and what motivates a decision.  This is helpful to be able to better communicate with a client. 

But having an honest conversation is also integral to proper investment planning.  For instance, I can use the standard risk profile tools, my questions and the website tool listed above and determine a Risk Capacity Measure for a client.

A person who has verifiable emergency reserves (3 to 12 months depending on their particular circumstances), has a positive cash flow and net worth, low debt ratio and adequate life insurance in place has a capacity for higher risk than someone not demonstrating these attributes.  For someone lacking these attributes, the financial plan will likely focus on improving these measures before investing in something risky.

4.) Have an Investment Road Map: Most people would not go on a trip without a map or GPS.  The same should be true about investing.  Having a road map (called an Investment Policy Statement) is something that professional investors like pension funds, insurance companies and endowments use all the time.  It outlines the end result desired (for instance, growth of capital with the investment generating $X in income per year), the types of investments that will be considered (i.e. no investment in nuclear power or tobacco), and the criteria for determining when to buy, when to sell and what to replace it with.  This helps take the emotion out of investing and avoids having a long-term plan sabotaged by the chatter of “talking heads” either in the media or at the office water cooler.

5.) Risk Allocation:  You don’t need a graduate degree in finance to understand that some things just make sense.  More than ever the old adage makes sense: Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.  While it is true that all asset classes have lost value from their peak nearly 18-months ago, that is no reason to give up on the wisdom of diversification. Just because someone doesn’t win a race the first time doesn’t mean you give up running ever again, does it?

But let’s be sensible about this.  Having a target risk allocation (based on investor age, timeframe until goal, risk capacity and risk tolerance) does not mean simply that you “buy and hold” or “set and forget.”  While academic literatute indicates that a buy and hold strategy will win out over time, in reality most investors do not have the stomach for the occasional and frightening roller coaster rides that happen like they have recently.  In which case in makes sense to buy, regularly and tactically rebalance while exploiting short-term trends and hold cash.  (Most investors do a poor job at following trends, implementing a disciplined trading strategy without emotion and sometimes having to go against the grain and do what seems uncomfortable like buying when everyone else is selling).

6.) Control Your Costs and Your Investment Vehicle: Invesment costs can weigh you down like an anchor.  And choosing the right investment vehicle helps you ride in comfort to your destination. 

Consider this:  Not all mutual funds are created equal.  Actively managed mutual funds have costs that detract from performance.  And typically more than 50% of active mutual funds do not match much less beat their benchmark index.  Does this mean that you give up on investing?  Heck, no. It just means you find another ride.  When a star football player gets hurt, does the team forfeit the remaining games?  No, they have a back up ready for replacement.  With a solid investment policy and using ETFs, you can make a quick switch, too.

This is why you should consider a strong core of index mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) as part of your investment stratetgy (see “Top 8 Reasons to Use ETFs in Your Portfolio,” March 10 blog post).

7.) Estate Planning is for Everyone: Be prepared.  That’s the motto that every Boy Scout knows.  It’s good advice here as well.  Having the best investment strategy and record-breaking performance on investments will mean absolutely nothing if you’re not on a strong foundation.  This is what an estate plan will help do by laying the groundwork on how you want to control disposition of your assets and control your affairs.  Regardless of age or portfolio size, an estate plan is important throughout the various stages of life.  This goes for seniors and newly married couples.  If you have something or someone to protect, you need to talk with an attorney to draft a plan that includes at the very least: a Last Will, a durable Power of Attorney, a health care directive.  And if you have minor children it is imperative to have your guardianship issues addressed.

8.) Insurance: In uncertain times, it is even more important to make sure that you protect yourself from contingencies that can blow up your plans and get you off track.

Please review these items annually.  Consider putting it on your calendar to coincide with the seasonal change for clocks.

  • Make sure you have full replacement coverage on your property
  • Add an “umbrella liability” policy to your home and auto.  In a litigious world you don’t need to lose everything because of a lawsuit.
  • Make sure you have filed a “homestead declaration” recorded at the Registry of Deeds on your primary residence.  This will protect you from creditors placing a lien on your property that could force you to sell to settle a suit.
  • Review your employer-sponsored benefits and consider group Long-term Care Insurance, Short and Long-term Disability and Supplemental Accident coverages in addition to standard health/vision coverage.
  • You really need to consider coordinating these coverages with individually owned policies because when you leave your employer you will lose these coverages. 
  • Life Insurance:  Do speak with a financial planner who will do a detailed expense analysis to determine the appropriate level of insurance.  This approach is more likely to result in an appropriate level of insurance at a lower cost than rules of thumb based on income.  As with employer-benefits, consider having policies separate from your work.  A level-term policy is relatively inexpensive and offers cost-effective coverage during the peak years when you may have considerable debts and family responsibilities.

For specific advice on any of these matters, please consider speaking with an independent board-certified planner.

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PAYING FOR COLLEGE.

 

 

Do you own a business (full time or part-time)?  Do you own investment real estate or a farm?

 

Would you be interested in learning how to use IRS rules to help you pay for college?

 

If you want to find ways to pay for college without ruining your personal retirement, there is hope (and it’s not just the renames tax credit mentioned below).

 

In this series, we’ll go over the various strategies available to help parents explore the various possibilities to reduce taxes and improve the odds for receiving financial aid, grants or scholarships.  (Consider this: There are more than 110 different strategies.)

 

Food for thought: 

 

  • Encourage your pre-teen to open a Roth IRA with earnings from their paper route or other jobs.
  • Consider hiring your child to work in your business or help with chores related to your investment property.
  • Use a CollegeSure CD issued by an FDIC-insured bank to accumulate savings
  • Think about using a fixed income annuity to hold a portion of money for college to avoid the potential loss in principal that can happen with a 529 plan invested in mutual funds.

Tax Tips:

 

The Hope education credit is renamed the “American Opportunity Tax Credit,” is increased to $2,500, and applies to four years of

college, not just the first two. In addition, 40% of the credit is now refundable. Income limits apply.

 

Another break for those paying higher education expenses: In 2009 and 2010, funds in Section 529 college plans can be used tax-free to pay for

students’ computers, computer technology, and Internet fees.

 

For more information on this topic, continue to check out this blog as well as the weekly Wedesnday night conference call series.

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While the market for open-end mutual funds is huge, the market for ETFs is large and poised for growth.  As of 2006 there was approximately $600 billion invested and Morgan Stanley predicts that more than$2 trillion will be invested through ETFs by 2011.

Why are these investment vehicles becoming so popular? How can an individual investor use these to implement a cost-efficient diversified investment portfolio?

 

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) were first introduced to institutional investors in 1993.  Since then they have become increasingly acceptable to advisors and investors alike because of their ability to allow greater control over the portfolio construction and diversification process at a lower cost. You should consider making them a core building block to the foundation of your personal investment portfolio.

1. Better Diversification: Most individuals do not have the time or skill to follow every stock or asset class.  Inevitably, this means that an individual will gravitate to the area he or she is most comfortable in which may result in investing in a limited number of stocks or bonds in the same business or industry sector.  Think of the telecom engineer working at Lucent who bought stocks like AT&T, Global Crossing or Worldcom. Using an ETF to buy a core position in the market as a whole or in a specific sector provides instant diversification which reduces portfolio risk.

2. Improved Performance: Research and experience has shown that most actively managed mutual funds typically underperform their benchmark index.  With fewer tools, limited access to institutional research and lack of a disciplined buy/sell strategy, most individual investors fare even worse.  Without having to worry about picking individual winners or losers in a sector, an investor can invest in a basket of broad-based ETFs for core holdings and may be able to improve the overall performance of a portfolio.  For example, the Consumer Staples Select Sector SPDR was down 15% through October 23, 2008 while the S&P 500 was down more than 38%.

3. More Transparency: More than 60% of Americans invest through mutual funds.  Yet most investors don’t really know what they own. Except for a quarterly report showing the holdings as of the close of business on the last day of the quarter, mutual fund investors do not really know what is in their portfolio.  An ETF is completely transparent. An investor knows exactly what it is comprised of throughout the trading day.  And pricing for an ETF is available throughout the day compared to a mutual fund which trades at the closing price of the business day before.

4. No Style Drift: While mutual funds claim to have a certain tilt such as Large Cap or Small Cap stocks or Growth versus Value, it is common for a portfolio manager to drift away from the core strategy noted in a prospectus in an effort to boost returns.  An active fund manager may add other stocks or bonds that may add to return or lower risk but are not in the sector, market cap or style of the core portfolio.  Inevitably, this may result in an investor holding multiple mutual funds with overlap exposure to a specific company or sector.    

5. Easier Rebalancing: The financial media frequently extols the virtues of rebalancing a portfolio.   Yet, this is sometimes easier said than done. Because most mutual funds contain a combination of cash and securities and may include a mix of large cap, small cap or even value and growth type stocks, it is difficult to get an accurate breakdown of the mix to properly rebalance to the targeted asset allocation.   Since each ETF typically represents an index of a specific asset class, industry sector or market capitalization, it is much easier to implement an asset allocation strategy.  Let’s say you wanted a 50/50 portfolio between cash and the total US stock market index.  If the value of the S&P 500 (represented by the SPDR S&P 500 ETF ‘SPY’) fell by 10%, you could move 10% from cash to get back to the target allocation.

6. More Tax Efficient: Unlike a mutual fund which has embedded capital gains created by previous trading activity, an ETF has no such gains forcing an investor to recognize income.  When an ETF is purchased, it establishes the cost basis for the investment on that particular trade for the investor.  And given the fact that most ETFs follow a low-turnover, buy-and-hold approach, many ETFs will be highly tax efficient with individual shareholders realizing a gain or loss only when they actually sell their own ETFs.

7. Lower Transaction Costs: Operating an ETF is much cheaper than a mutual fund.  In a mutual fund, there are shareholder service expenses which are not needed for an ETF.  In addition, ETFs eliminate the need for research and portfolio management because most ETFs follow a passive index approach.  The ETF mirrors the benchmark index and there is no need for the added expense of portfolio analysts.  This is why the average ETF has internal expenses ranging from 0.18% to 0.58% while the average actively managed mutual fund incurs about 1.5% in annual expenses plus trading costs. 

To compare the total cost of owning an ETF with any mutual fund, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) makes available a Fund & ETF Analyzer tool on its website.  The calculator automatically provides fee and expense data for all fund share classes and ETFs.  The calculator can be found at:  http://apps.finra.org/fundanalyzer/1/fa.aspx .

8. Trading Flexibility and Implementing Sophisticated Investment Strategies:

ETFs trade like other stocks and bonds.  So this means that an investor has the flexibility to use them to employ a range of risk management and trading strategies including hedging techniques like “stop losses” and “shorting,” options not available by “long-only” mutual funds.

Another advantage is the ability to use “inverse ETFs” which may provide some protection against a drop in value of the market or sector.  (An inverse ETF responds opposite the return of the underlying benchmark.  So if one wants to minimize the impact of a decline in the S&P 500 index, for example, then one can invest a portion of the portfolio in an “inverse” which will go up when the index value goes down.)

Or an investor can tilt their portfolio to “overweight” a particular industry or sector by buying more of an ETF index for that area.  By buying an index, an investor can be positioned to take advantage of the expected changes in this industry or area without the inherent risks involved with an individual stock.

Some investors become wedded to their individual stocks or mutual funds and do not want to sell and incur a loss and miss out on the opportunity for an expected rebound. Another tax-efficient option for an investor to consider is to sell the security that is at a loss while buying the ETF representing the industry or sector of the sold security.  This way the investor can book the loss, take the tax deduction for it and still be positioned in the area but with a more broadly diversified index.

Investors, academics and financial advisors sometimes question the strategy of “buy and hold.”  Some investors seek a more active management tactical approach which can be done with ETFs.  Even though ETFs represent passively-created indexes, an investor can actively trade them.  There are a variety of trading strategies available to “manage the trends.”  When an index moves above or below its 50-day moving average or 200-day moving average, this may be a signal to trade in or out of the ETF.  To minimize the trading costs that would be incurred by trading an ETF, an investor can use an ETF wrap program that covers all trading costs.  Typically, such arrangements are still less costly than buying or selling multiple individual stocks in a separately managed account or using an actively managed mutual fund.

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